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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

Ashley Wagner details dropping ‘La La Land’ free skate

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Ashley Wagner, the pre-eminent U.S. female figure skater of the last decade, changed her mind on one of the most significant decisions a skater can make going into the Olympic season.

Wagner, the 2016 World silver medalist and three-time U.S. champion, tossed out the new free skate she had been working on last month.

It was set to music from “La La Land,” which earned a record-tying 14 Academy Award nominations earlier this year and won six Oscars (and, briefly, infamously, a seventh for Best Picture).

Now, she’s back to music from “Moulin Rouge.” It accompanied her free skate in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.

Those years, Wagner posted the highest free skate scores in U.S. Championships history and for an American in international competition history.

“I really did love the [‘La La Land’] program,” Wagner said Wednesday, while promoting the Dick’s Sporting Goods Contenders program, which assists 41 Winter Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls with their preparation for the PyeongChang Winter Games.

“I was very passionate about what I was doing,” she continued. “I started training it day to day, and the music is beautiful. But just something wasn’t quite clicking, and the character didn’t really feel as complicated as I wanted her to be. There really didn’t feel like there was much of an emotional range. And I love drama. I love having those moments.”

The return to “Moulin Rouge” came abruptly as Wagner described it. One day at practice in early August, she consulted her steely coach, Armenian Rafael Arutyunyan.

“Is this program good?” Wagner asked.

“Yeah, it’s a really good program,” Arutyunyan responded.

“Is it good enough? Is this going to get me through the Olympics?” she pressed.

Arutyunyan told Wagner to put “Moulin Rouge” music on and skate.

“I made it to the first double Axel in the program,” Wagner said. “He turns off the program, and he goes, this is the program I want you to do.”

Wagner agreed.

“It’s my Olympic moment,” she said Wednesday, “and this is the person I want to be at the Olympics.”

Wagner, who lives and trains in Southern California, said publicly as far back as February that she wanted to skate to “La La Land” at the Olympics. Skaters usually wait until after the preceding season ends in early spring to announce program music for the following season.

But Wagner was so enamored that she texted her choreographer from a movie theater to say she had chosen “La La Land” for her Olympic free skate.

Wagner’s 11-year senior international career is marked by ups and downs, tears and several concussions. She identified with the film’s theme of hope.

“I love the music. I still do,” she said. “I just think that it was very much like an inspirational kind of a setup. I loved that. I loved the choreography. I can’t speak highly enough of the music. But I just know myself, and I know that after a couple of months of just one emotion, I get bored.”

Two weeks after the switch, Wagner performed to “Moulin Rouge” at last month’s U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp. At Champs Camp, skaters receive preseason feedback from officials on programs before debuting them in competition.

“I gave them the opportunity to see ‘La La Land’ if they wanted to, but everyone at U.S. Figure Skating was very supportive of my decision,” Wagner said.

Wagner said she will make her Olympic season debut at a small, local event. She won’t say where or when it will be. Her international season debut is at Skate Canada the last weekend of October.

She’s gearing up for the U.S. Championships in January, after which three women will be named to the Olympic team. That team will be chosen by a committee based on results not only at nationals but also previous top-level competitions.

Wagner is familiar with the selection process.

She was the top U.S. woman in fall 2009 but finished third at the 2010 U.S. Championships and was left off the two-woman Olympic team.

Wagner was fourth at the 2014 U.S. Championships and placed on the three-woman Olympic team over third-place finisher Mirai Nagasu. Wagner earned that spot based on performing the best of all U.S. women nationally and internationally the previous year.

Now 26 years old, Wagner can become the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s singles skater since 1928.

Wagner wants to separate from her own past this season, even as she performs to music associated with some of the biggest triumphs of her career.

Skating to “Moulin Rouge” again last month, “made me feel like the athlete that I was at 2016 Worlds, so that definitely made me feel nostalgic,” she said, referencing moving from fourth to second in the free skate in Boston to become the first U.S. world medalist in a decade. “Maybe that’s why I like this program so much.”

But judges may want to see something new.

So Wagner added professional dancer Benji Schwimmer to her choreography team. Schwimmer has worked with Wagner’s best friend and training partner Adam Rippon.

“This is a new season,” Wagner said, “and hopefully somewhat of a new version of Moulin Rouge.”

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Officer body checks fan at world road cycling championships (video)

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A man dressed as a police officer leveled a fan at the world road cycling championships men’s time trial in Bergen, Norway, on Wednesday.

Spectators often run up close enough to touch riders on mountain stages at the Tour de France.

However, this man in a red hooded sweatshirt was decked while chasing German Tony Martin from two or three strides behind near the summit finish of a 19-mile time trial.

Martin, eyeing his record fifth world title in the time trial, was ninth on a course not suited to his strengths.

A full recap of the race is here.

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MORE: World Road Cycling Championships broadcast schedule