Despite ‘sour feeling,’ Sochi not complete bust for U.S men’s hockey

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SOCHI, Russia — It’s hard to look at the positives. Really hard, right now.

So soon after such an embarrassing defeat for the United States men’s hockey team, it’s easier to focus on, say, the comments of Jonathan Quick and agree there was “no reason” for the Americans to “show up and not piss a drop” against Finland.

Except, of course, for the fact there totally was a reason. That being last night’s devastating 1-0 loss to Canada in the semifinals — a loss that meant there would be no revenge for 2010 and no match-up with Sweden for gold. For a team that came halfway around the world expressly for just that — a shot at gold — can anyone be surprised that, when mere bronze was on the line, the effort wasn’t there?

“Losing that game (to Canada), it took a lot out of us,” said coach Dan Bylsma, admitting what was so obvious to anyone watching today’s contest at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.

No, Quick’s not wrong that the professionals on the U.S. team “play back-to-backs all year long” in the NHL. However, we’re not talking about a loss in New Jersey, with a chance to regroup the next night on Long Island. This is the Olympics, and these guys are only human. They wanted gold so badly, and they felt they had the team to get it.

Maybe nobody wants to hear it right now, but despite the way the Games ended, there were positives for the Americans to take out of them.

Take Cam Fowler. Just 22 years old, he got his first taste of Olympic experience, on a blue line that also featured youngsters Kevin Shattenkirk, 25, John Carlson, 24, Ryan McDonagh, 24, and Justin Faulk, 21.

“Personally, as a player it can only help for me,” said Fowler. “I proved to myself that I can play and I can compete with the best hockey players in the world, and that’s good for me going on in my career.”

And that wasn’t all he picked up.

“I think I’ve learned a lot too about disappointment, and just the overall feeling you have when you let a lot of people down,” he said. “That’s a tough thing to take.”

Veteran Finnish defenseman Sami Salo was asked how his team was able to get motivated for the bronze-medal game after losing in the semis to a fierce rival, just like the Americans did.

Salo said it was all about what had happened in previous Olympics, and the wisdom gained.

“We had a similar situation in Vancouver,” he said. “Losing to the U.S. in the semifinal by big numbers (6-1), then coming back strong against the Slovaks in the bronze game. We were really looking forward to giving something back after losing to the U.S. in Vancouver.”

He added: “It’s just the experience of this group. We had a brief meeting after [losing to Sweden) that you can’t worry about that. Our goal coming to this competition was to get a medal. We still had one game left, one chance to get that medal, and we just regrouped and…unbelievable.”

There is still hope for U.S. hockey at the world’s highest level. Great hope, in fact. If the NHL commits to South Korea in 2018, just think of the blue-liners the Americans could roll out. Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba are only 19. If all goes to plan, both should be ready for the big time by then, joining Ryan Suter and some or all of the guys mentioned above, plus other strong candidates.

At the moment, Canada and Sweden have the best collection of defensemen on the planet. It’s no coincidence those two countries will be meeting Sunday for gold. The blue line matters. A lot.

For now, though, what happened the past two nights is tough to accept.

“If we’re honest about this, these last two games, we’ve had better performances in the tank and it didn’t come to the forefront,” said forward David Backes.

“That’s the disappointing thing. If we played our butts off and were ousted, or had better teams best us, I think you can live with that. But when it’s less than stellar performances, especially in a tournament like this, it is going to be a sour, sour feeling.”

Javier Fernandez rebounds to lead Grand Prix France

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Spain’s Javier Fernandez was back at his best, landing two quadruple jumps to top the Grand Prix France short program on Friday.

Fernandez, who was sixth at his opening Grand Prix two weeks ago with a reported stomach bug, tallied 107.86 points in Grenoble. It’s the second-best score of his career.

The 2015 and 2016 World champion goes into Saturday’s free skate with a 13.94-point lead over Shoma Uno of Japan. Uno fell on his opening quad flip attempt.

Uno went into France as the clear favorite, the only man to break 300 total points this season. He did it at both of his competitions this fall.

Earlier Friday, Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond led a group of favorites who topped the short programs for the women, pairs and ice dance. All of the free skates are Saturday.

GP FRANCE: Full Results | TV Schedule

Both U.S. men fell Friday, not helping their cases for the three-man Olympic team.

Max Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion, fell on his opening jump combination. He failed to build on his personal-best free skate from his last competition, where he landed three quads to claim bronze at Cup of China.

U.S. silver medalist Vincent Zhou crashed on both quadruple jump attempts, two weeks after falling three times between two programs at his Grand Prix debut.

Zhou, 17 and the world junior champion, has the jumps to easily make the three-man U.S. Olympic team. But those big mistakes allow the likes of Jason Brown and Adam Rippon to pass him.

“To say the least, my performance was dismal,” was posted on Zhou’s Instagram. “It was not a representation of how I train or who I am. Smiling and waving while my heart is breaking is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I have been following my Olympic dream for as long as I can remember, fighting, being set back, conquering obstacles, and experiencing the ups and downs of striving to better myself every single day. I am capable of so much more. I am a fighter. I fully believe that I can and will draw on my spirit, inner strength, and faith to my words to perform much better in the future.”

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Internationaux de France
Men’s Short Program
1. Javier Fernandez (ESP) — 107.86
2. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 93.92
3. Alexander Samarin (RUS) — 91.51
8. Max Aaron (USA) — 78.64
10. Vincent Zhou (USA) — 66.12

Erin Hamlin nears end of historic U.S. luge career

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Erin Hamlin is looking forward to normalcy. She is getting married next summer in her hometown. She is thinking about career moves. She is trying to figure out the rest of her life.

It is probably her last luge season. It is definitely her last Olympic season.

As such, it would be easy to fall into the trap of saying that winning a gold medal at PyeongChang in February would be the only thing that makes this season a success.

It’s important, sure, but Hamlin is entering her 13th year of World Cup racing with a much broader view and insisting that she’s going to enjoy whatever time she has left on her sled.

“I’m not going to hyperfocus myself on one result or bust,” Hamlin said. “Very likely, it’s going to be my last time in a lot of places, sliding on a lot of tracks. So I think more so, it’s going to be a lot of soaking it all in.”

That process starts Saturday, when the World Cup season opens in Igls, Austria.

Hamlin, who turns 31 on Sunday, is coming off the finest year of her career — she won a gold medal and two silvers at the world championships for the biggest haul ever by an American luger, got two World Cup wins and finished fourth in world rankings.

She might be going out, and there’s a chance she can go out on top.

“We’re working hard to convince her to stay,” longtime U.S. teammate Emily Sweeney said.

Sweeney knows that’s probably futile.

Sliders always tend to cycle out after an Olympics, no matter if it’s bobsled, skeleton or luge, and the Americans will see plenty of veterans take their last rides this winter.

A few U.S. sliders already retired this fall, in part because they weren’t going to have a shot at an Olympic berth.

For her part, Hamlin hasn’t officially said this is the end.

“There’s never really as concrete of a plan as you hope there would be, because you never know what can happen,” Hamlin said. “But at the moment, what I’m excited to do is see what other opportunities are there and what other adventures await.”

Hamlin has been in the world’s top 10 in each of the past 11 seasons — the second-longest current streak of any woman in luge, one year behind German legend Tatjana Huefner.

She won a World Cup each of the past three years, took the world title in sprint last winter and became the first U.S. Olympic singles luge medalist in 2014 with a bronze.

A lesson learned that season: Not expecting much can work wonders. That’s one of the reasons why PyeongChang isn’t taking up all the bandwidth in her brain.

“That’s the nature of winter sports in a Winter Olympic year, there being so much focus on the Games,” Hamlin said. “How I went into the last Olympics taught me a lot. I had no expectation of walking away from the last Olympics with a medal. At this point, goal No. 1 is to make the team and beyond that, I know if I slide as I’m capable of I can be pretty fast and I can do well.”

The schedule this season is hectic.

This weekend’s stop in Austria starts a run of five races in five weekends, with the next two in Germany followed by another in Calgary, Alberta, and then on home ice in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 15-16.

When that Lake Placid World Cup is over, the U.S. Olympic team will be named.

So when Hamlin needs an escape from all that, the wedding is there to bring her back to reality.

It will be at her parents’ home in July. It will, without question, be the social event of the season in Remsen, N.Y., where the one-time high school soccer player has annually left her tiny hometown brimming with pride.

“Pretty exciting,” Hamlin said. “It’s definitely adding a whole new aspect to an Olympic year, planning a wedding, but it’s cool. It gives me a good distraction when I need to think about something other than sliding.”

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