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2018 Olympic men’s hockey groups set; U.S. opponents same as 2014

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The U.S. men’s hockey team is grouped with Russia, Slovakia and Slovenia for a second straight Olympics.

Norway, Slovenia and Germany claimed the last spots in the 2018 Olympic men’s hockey field of 12 nations Sunday, while France heartbreakingly failed in its bid to qualify for the first time since 2002 with a goalie who played under Herb Brooks at the 1998 Olympics.

Norway came from behind to beat France 2-1 in their final qualifying game Sunday at an Oslo arena that hosted 1952 Olympic hockey games. France would have qualified for Pyeongchang over Norway with a win. Instead, Norway scored the decider with 2:29 left.

In other winner-take-all games, Slovenia ousted Belarus 3-2 in a shootout in Minsk. Germany edged Latvia 3-2 in Riga.

Two nations from Sochi failed to qualify for Pyeongchang — Austria and Latvia.

Latvia inspired at the 2014 Olympics, where it was tied with Canada in the third period of the quarterfinals but ultimately fell 2-1, a close affair despite a 57-16 shots-on-goal advantage for Canada.

Austria and Latvia are replaced in the 2018 Olympic field by host South Korea, in its first Olympics, and Germany, which had made every Olympics since the fall of the Berlin Wall before being upset by Austria in 2014 Olympic qualifying.

In Sochi, the U.S. crushed Slovakia 7-1, edged Russia 3-2 in the T.J. Oshie shootout and beat Slovenia 5-1. The Americans would lose 1-0 to Canada in the semifinals and 5-0 to Finland in the bronze-medal game.

The 2018 Olympic format will be the same as 2014, with all 12 nations advancing to a playoff bracket, but only group winners and the best second-place team receiving byes into the quarterfinals.

The 2018 Olympic men’s hockey groups (world ranking in parentheses):

Group A Group B Group C
Canada (1) Russia (2) Finland (3)
Czech Republic (6) USA (4) Sweden (5)
Switzerland (7) Slovakia (8) Germany (10)
South Korea (23 — host) Slovenia (15) Norway (11)

France’s elimination Sunday quashed what could have been one of the great stories of the Pyeongchang Winter Games.

Cristobal Huet, 41, was France’s goalie in all three qualification games this weekend.

Huet, best known for playing in the NHL from 2003 through 2010 and winning a Stanley Cup that last year, was in line to become the oldest playing goalie at the Olympics in 90 years, according to Olympic historians.

Huet played for France in its last two Olympic appearances, in 1998 and 2002. In the former, his coach was Herb Brooks, best known as the man who guided the U.S. team in the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Lake Placid Games.

In November 1997, Brooks took the French Olympic coaching job as a favor to a friend who happened to be the French team’s general manager, according to reports back then. It was his first Olympic coaching job since Lake Placid, and Brooks reportedly spoke little French.

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before the Nagano 1998 Olympics:

Earlier this week, a French reporter asked Brooks if France could pull off a Lake Placid-style miracle.

Brooks gave the man an icy stare.

“You are way off base,” Brooks said. “I mean no disrespect to you, but you have to understand that there will never be another Lake Placid. Never.”

The 1998 Olympic hockey tournament included a preliminary round for lower-ranked nations that first weekend.

France went 1-2, beating Japan but losing to Belarus and Germany, and failed to advance to face medal-contending nations such as the U.S. or Canada. Huet played in two of those preliminary-round games.

Brooks would lead France to an upset of the U.S. at the world championship three months after the Olympics. The American team at those worlds included few NHL players.

The 1998 Winter Games were the first Olympics with NHL participation, which continued for the next four editions. Whether the NHL will send its players to Pyeongchang is to be decided.

Here’s what Brooks said about NHL participation in the 1998 Olympics, according to the Post-Dispatch:

“It will be a tremendous tournament with the NHL players here,” Brooks said. “And this will be great marketing for the NHL. But I’m more of a traditionalist. I’m not a big fan of professionals in the Olympic Games. Maybe I’m sort of a dinosaur along those lines. I still hold out hope that the young players in the United States do not have to be an NHL All-Star to play in the Olympics. I think we’re taking a lot of the hopes and dreams and aspirations out of our young people.”

MORE: NHL decision on 2018 Olympic hockey not expected until after Rio

Russian skeleton stars banned from World Cups

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The two Russians who had their medals from the Sochi Games stripped because of doping have been barred from competing in World Cup races, at least temporarily.

It’s the latest sanction against Aleksandr Tretiakov and Elena Nikitina, who had their medals — gold for Tretiakov, bronze for Nikitina — taken away Wednesday after it was determined they were part of Russia’s state-sponsored doping program at the 2014 Olympics. They have already been banned from future Olympics, and now may have no place to slide.

The International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation handed down the suspensions Thursday, effective immediately. Tretiakov and Nikitina were both planning to compete in World Cup races at Whistler, British Columbia, this weekend.

In all, four Russians have been suspended by the IBSF. Along with Tretiakov and Nikitina, Mariia Orlova and Olga Potylitsyna — who have been racing on the lesser-tier Intercontinental Cup Circuit this season — were also banned, just as they were by the IOC. All four are expected to appeal, and the IBSF said they will be entitled to a hearing if that happens.

“Sport is all about who’s the best on that day and if anything compromises that, like the situations in Sochi, it taints everything and kind of undermines the fundamental belief in the system and the competition itself,” said USA Bobsled and Skeleton CEO Darrin Steele, also is a vice president with the IBSF. “This is kind of righting the ship.”

The IBSF’s decision is a strong one and is in stark contrast to one made by the International Ski Federation, which is allowing Russian cross-country skiers who were found guilty of doping at the Sochi Olympics to compete in World Cup events this weekend. The FIS wants to see detailed reasons why the IOC disciplinary panel reached its decisions about the Russian athletes.

The IBSF isn’t waiting.

“I understand that it was a difference of culture and that the Russians don’t believe they did anything wrong,” U.S. women’s skeleton veteran Katie Uhlaender said after the IOC decision to strip the medals and issue the Olympic bans was announced Wednesday. “But this was the only way to fix it.”

Uhlaender will be promoted to the bronze medal spot once Nikitina, as the IOC has ordered, surrenders what had been her bronze from Sochi and the IBSF updates the results. Tretiakov was the men’s gold-medalist; the revised order of finish for that event will now have Latvia’s Martins Dukurs getting gold, Matt Antoine of the U.S. bumped up to silver and Latvia’s Tomass Dukurs, Martins’ brother, will become the bronze medalist.

Uhlaender, who was fourth, will soon officially be third behind gold medalist Lizzy Yarnold of Britain and silver medalist Noelle Pikus-Pace of the U.S.

Sliders have lauded the IOC for doing the right thing, though noted that racers like Uhlaender and Tomass Dukurs — even once they have medals in hand — will never be able to replicate the moment on a podium that they should have had in Sochi.

“Having the physical medal’s cool, but most of it in my opinion is the experience of everything that happens,” Antoine said. “That’s what you cherish the most.”

Not having the top Russians on the World Cup circuit figures to have a major impact on the points standings.

Nikitina was the World Cup women’s points leader after the first two races of the season, and was coming off a victory last weekend in Park City, Utah. Tretiakov was fourth so far in the men’s standings, including a bronze at the season-opening race in Lake Placid, New York.

Russian skiers banned from Olympics allowed to race World Cup opener

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GENEVA (AP) — Russian cross-country skiers found guilty of doping at the Sochi Olympics can compete in World Cup races this weekend because the International Ski Federation (FIS) has been unable to prosecute its own cases in time.

Six Russians, including two Sochi medalists, were retroactively disqualified from the Winter Games this month and banned from the Olympics for life by the IOC.

FIS previously blocked all six from competing with interim suspensions, but those expired on Oct. 31. The International Olympic Committee judging panel then reached its verdicts this month.

However, FIS said Thursday that its own judicial body lacks key IOC documents to process cases.

“Consequently, the FIS Doping Panel is obliged to wait until the IOC Disciplinary Commission reasoned decisions are submitted with details of the evidence relied on,” said the governing body, which is responsible for imposing competition bans.

“As a consequence the active athletes are eligible to compete in FIS including World Cup competitions for the time being,” FIS said.

The World Cup season for men and women begins Friday in Ruka, Finland, with sprint and long-distance racing.

Organizers had not published starting lists Thursday for the three-day meeting and it was unclear which of the six intend to start.

Alexander Legkov and Maxim Vylegzhanin both won multiple medals in Sochi but were stripped by the IOC. The others suspended by the IOC were Evgeny Belov, Alexei Petukhov, Yulia Ivanova and Evgenia Shapovalova.

FIS said rules governed by the World Anti-Doping Agency meant it could not re-impose interim bans without “a specific allegation” plus evidence.

Attempting to assure cross-country skiers they will not be competing against doped rivals, FIS said an additional and independent testing program for Russians has been in operation since June and has taken about 250 blood and urine samples.

The three-man IOC disciplinary panel — chaired by Denis Oswald, a Swiss lawyer and member of the Olympic body’s executive board — has not issued detailed reasons for judgments in 10 cases from Sochi so far completed in cross-country skiing and skeleton.

Without positive doping tests, the panel used evidence of state-backed cover-ups and tampering of sample bottles in the Sochi laboratory first gathered last year by WADA investigator Richard McLaren.

At least 18 more Russian athletes are having their cases prosecuted in an ongoing series of hearings in Lausanne, Switzerland.

On Wednesday, the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation said it would update “within the next days” action against four Russians, including the Sochi gold medalist Alexander Tretiyakov and bronze medalist Elena Nikitina.

Nikitina won a skeleton World Cup race last weekend in Park City, Utah — a result which may soon be overturned by the IBSF.

All the Russian athletes disqualified by the IOC can appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

On Dec. 5, IOC President Thomas Bach will announce after a board meeting if the Russian team will be banned from the Olympics, which open Feb. 9 in PyeongChang.

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