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Ilka Stuhec looks to keep breakout season going at World Cup Finals

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ASPEN, Colo. (AP) — It’s easy to spot Slovenia’s Ilka Stuhec in her lime green speed suit.

Almost as easy is finding her name in the standings — just look near the top.

On skis waxed, tuned and maintained by her mom, Stuhec is in the midst of a breakout season that has her on the verge of clinching the downhill and super-G titles this week at the World Cup Finals.

The 26-year-old will certainly be one of the skiers to watch heading into the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, possibly even the one to give four-time overall World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn a strong push in the speed events.

All this success, though, has caught even Stuhec by surprise.

“I knew I was skiing good and capable of a lot of things. But it’s quite more than I expected,” said Stuhec, who turned in the second-fastest downhill training run Monday, 0.14 seconds behind the time posted by Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany. “After it started to happen, I was just really enjoying it, having fun skiing, getting more and more confident of myself and my skiing. I like it.”

Although she’s been on the World Cup circuit for quite some time, she’s uncovered another gear this season. She also capitalized on Vonn’s early absence — along with Swiss skier Lara Gut‘s season-ending knee injury — to appear on the podium 11 times, including six wins.

Stuhec is 97 points in front of Italy’s Sofia Goggia in the season-long downhill title race with only Wednesday’s competition remaining. Things are a little tighter in the super-G race, with Stuhec holding a scant 15-point advantage over Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein.

“No pressure. Not at all,” Stuhec said. “I was really looking forward to getting here.”

She’s a fan of this hill, too, with its grippy and spring-like conditions.

“The snow is perfect,” said Stuhec, who trails American Mikaela Shiffrin by a nearly insurmountable 378 points in the overall race. “I hope we will get a little bit of sun over the next days. It will be fun.”

Really, it’s not as if she arrived out of nowhere. Stuhec won a super-G title at the 2008 World Junior Championships. But she’s been hampered over her career by a right knee that’s required five surgeries.

She ultimately lost funding on the Slovenian ski team, forcing her to set up her own team. Now traveling the World Cup circuit with her own coach and her mother, Darja Crnko, who prepares her skis, Stuhec has found success. There have been accounts of her mom’s willingness to mortgage their house in order to keep her career going.

Asked if that was true, she just smiled.

“Almost,” said Stuhec, who switched skis this season. “We did struggle a lot before. Now, it’s way easier. I’m not happy that it happened, but I learned a lot. I learned a lot about myself, about people around me. I think I wouldn’t be the same as I am today if nothing would’ve happened.”

Recently, Stuhec captured the downhill title at the world championships in Switzerland. By doing so, she kept the title in the Slovenian family as she succeeded the 2015 World downhill winner, Tina Maze, who’s now retired.

Stuhec said she doesn’t stay in contact much with Maze.

“It’s been interesting, her team compared to Tina’s team. They did things a lot differently,” said Vonn, dealing with a cold as she finished sixth in the training run Monday. “I was always interested to see what she did. She has her mother as her technician. It’s a really interesting dynamic and seems to work really well for her. It’s nice to see her having such a successful season.”

Especially with Winter Games around the corner. At the World Cup race on the Olympic course earlier this month, Stuhec finished third in the super-G and third in the downhill. She also has Olympic experience, taking 10th in the downhill at the 2014 Sochi Games and 13th in the super-G.

“I never give up,” Stuhec said, “no matter how hard it was.”

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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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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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