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Rio Paralympic attendance surpasses some Olympic crowd sizes

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Three weeks ago, organizers and event fans were worried that the 2016 Paralympics would not be well-attended. But when Sao Paulo resident Marco Fumis arrived at a lively Olympic Park on Saturday, he was blown away with what he saw.

“I’m positively surprised by this,” said Fumis. “We are really emotional people, and I think we realized how important it is for not only the Olympics but the Paralympics. A lot of us are here to better understand how these athletes do what they do, so we’re here to support.”

The fan support is significant. The 170,000 tickets sold for events at Olympic Park on Saturday, surpassed the one-day total for some days at recent Olympics.

“It was a really, really cool environment because usually we have like five people in the stands and now we have an entire gym,” U.S women’s sitting volleyball player Heather Erickson said after her team swept Iran 3-0.

On Sunday, 46,000 tickets were sold at Olympic Stadium, the track and field venue separate from Olympic Park, according to the International Paralympic Committee.

“Everybody wanted to talk about `What about London?”‘ IPC spokesman Craig Spence said, referring to the 2012 London Paralympics, for which a record 2.7 million tickets were sold. “But (Saturday) surpassed it for me.”

A last-minute campaign that originated in Great Britain, called #FillTheSeats and supported by donors such as Coldplay, Prince Harry and U.S. Paralympian Tatyana McFadden, boosted sales for tickets given to Brazilian children.

Brazilians can buy tickets for as low as 10 reais (about $3) and pay for them on a four-month plan (2.5 reais per month), Rio 2016 spokesman Mario Andrada said.

“We have a lot of things that are hard for us, the sports brings us feelings of hope,” said Sofia Borges, a Rio 2016 volunteer and Sao Paulo native. “It brings hope to families and kids, and it’s also nice to see other sports than soccer.”

Total ticket sales now sit at 1,863,000, the second-highest Paralympic Games total ever, behind London. Spence admitted that the expectations were low but he said he’s overjoyed at how well the games have come together.

“We’ve got full venues, the athletes are loving it and the performance levels are what we expected,” Spence said. “We said coming in this would be the best Paralympic Games in terms of athletic performance and they’re clearly proving so.”

Indeed, coming into Sunday, 89 world records had been broken.

While Brazilians cheer hardest for Brazilian athletes, others have noticed the emotion that the fans have brought to the games.

“I think that we gain energy off of the crowd,” U.S. women’s sitting volleyball coach Bill Hamiter said. “It doesn’t matter how many people, we were just gaining energy off of them.”

Andrada described a scene that he felt embodied the spirit of the fans. When the Algerian women’s sitting volleyball team was a no-show in its first match against the U.S. on Friday, officials invited children onto the court to play. The crowd stayed to cheer on the children.

“They could have gone, there weren’t any high-ranking athletes playing; only children,” said Andrada. “But 8,000 people decided to stay and cheer on the kids as they learned the sport.”

The IPC will continue to try raise the profile of para sports between Paralympics. Brazil will host the 2017 Parapan American Youth Games, at a new facility in Sao Paulo. Construction for the Rio 2016 museum will be underway soon, and the IPC is producing a Paralympic Rio 2016 film.

As for current media, 154 countries are broadcasting the games worldwide, a 39-country upgrade from 2012, according to the IPC.

While these are record numbers, Sao Paulo resident Cristina Fumis, who attended events at Olympic Park over the weekend, said she believes that the media exposure can be better.

“The announcement for the opening ceremony was not on the front page, only a small section in the back,” said Fumis of how a Sao Paulo newspaper covered the Paralympics opening ceremony. “I think the media is powerful in the way that it can change the mindset of the population.”

While Spence is excited about ticket sales greatly exceeding expectations, he knows that preparation is key for maximizing potential.

“We’ve sold about 1.5 million tickets in the last three weeks, and that’s because we did a real big push on tickets,” said Spence. “Had we done this push a lot earlier, I know we could have sold out these games.”

MORE: Rio Paralympics broadcast schedule

USA Hockey to start reaching out to potential replacement players

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USA Hockey will begin reaching out to “alternate players” to determine their interest in playing for the U.S. at the women’s world championship next week amid a potential boycott by its national team.

The contact is taking place in the event a resolution cannot be reached between USA Hockey and the women’s national team in a wage dispute.

“It’s important for everyone to understand clearly that our objective is to have the players we named as the U.S. women’s national team be the ones that compete in the world championship,” said Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey, in a statement. “Productive conversations have taken place this week and are ongoing in our collective efforts to reach a resolution.”

The alternate players are in the professional NWHL and college, according to USA Today, a report that USA Hockey would not confirm.

U.S. captain Meghan Duggan has said every player in the U.S. national team player pool, plus under-18 national team players, committed to not playing at worlds unless the wage dispute is resolved.

“We are confident that they [potential replacement players] would choose not to play,” the U.S. players said in a statement.

The world championship tournament starts March 31 in Plymouth, Mich.

As of Thursday evening, no resolution has come between USA Hockey and its women’s national team. They met formally on Monday for more than 10 hours, with both sides calling it productive.

“We ask that they approve the original agreement that, the players believed, was acceptable to both parties after Monday’s meeting,” the players said in a statement. “Unless there is an agreement, the players remain resolved to bypass the defense of the world championship.”

Neither side has said when the next meeting will take place.

On Tuesday, USA Hockey said it postponed a pre-worlds camp that was to run through next Tuesday in Traverse City, Mich., and canceled a scheduled Friday exhibition against Finland.

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MORE: NHL asked for decision on Olympics by end of April

NHL asked for decision on Olympics by end of April

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International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel tells The Associated Press he needs to know by the end of April whether NHL players will be cleared to play in the South Korea Olympics next year.

NHL team owners have made it clear they don’t want to stop their season again for the Winter Games and put their stars at risk of injury. The reluctance has come up before and yet the NHL has participated in the Olympics since 1998. This time, however, there seems to be an impasse.

The head of the NHL Players Association, Donald Fehr, says the players want to participate and hopes the league will take advantage of the chance to market the game in Asia.

However, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly says without “material change to the current status quo, NHL players will not be participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics.”

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MORE: 2018 Olympic hockey groups set