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With no NHL, Olympic hockey nations turn to Plan B

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The morning after the NHL announced it wasn’t going to the 2018 Olympics, some Americans playing in Europe started wondering if they should keep their schedules open for next February.

“Myself and couple other Americans, Deron Quint and Dave Leggio, were joking around to not make any plans over the Olympic break next year because they might need us to play,” said Keith Aucoin, a 38-year-old former NHL forward who is playing in Germany.

No joking, they might. In the aftermath of the NHL’s decision, USA Hockey and other national federations insisted they have a Plan B – but it’s not clear how to proceed.

Just because the NHL doesn’t stop its season to participate in South Korea doesn’t mean some players won’t try to go anyway, and the league hasn’t decided if it will allow teams to give players permission to leave. The federations can’t just raid the American Hockey League – many players have NHL contracts – and the same is true even in European professional leagues.

The result in coming months may be nations navigating a wild set of complications in putting their Olympic teams together.

If Patrick Kane, Jonathan Quick, Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews aren’t available, USA Hockey will likely look to Americans playing Europe to fill the bulk of its roster and mix in a handful of college players. Former NHL forward Mark Arcobello leads the top Swiss league in scoring, Aucoin is among the leaders in Germany, and former NHL defenseman Matt Gilroy and Jonathon Blum are piling up points in the Kontintental Hockey League based primarily in Russia.

Goaltending options for the Americans could include Leggio and Jerry Kuhn playing in Germany, Ryan Zapolski from the KHL, Notre Dame’s Cal Peters and Tyler Parsons of the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights, who just led the U.S. to world junior gold. USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean called the country’s player pool “as deep as it has ever been,” and executive Jim Johannson – who could be tasked with putting the team together – said the U.S. will “have 25 great stories on the ice in South Korea and will go to the Olympics with medal expectations.”

Two-time defending Olympic champion Canada always has gold-medal expectations but is arguably hurt the most of any country by the NHL not going. Canada’s benefit is that it has depth of talent that spills over into the AHL and European professional leagues.

It’s not the elite of the elite, but there are more than 550 Canadians playing in the AHL and more than 200 across Europe, including former NHL goalie Ben Scrivens, defensemen Cam Barker and Brendan Mikkelson and forwards Derek Roy, Daniel Paille and Jonathan Cheechoo.

“We have developed both a Plan A and a Plan B, and will be ready to move forward,” Hockey Canada president Tom Renney said.

In a recent interview, Renney said Hockey Canada has already pursued its Plan B and will be nimble enough to adjust to any changes to rules concerning eligible players.

Two-time Canadian Olympic gold-medal winner Jonathan Toews expects top junior and college and a lot of European players to make up Canada’s roster.

“There are some really good players playing in Europe,” the Chicago Blackhawks’ captain said.. “They’re guys, you look at them, and you’re surprised they’re not playing here and making big money. Canadian hockey, obviously I’m biased, we’ve proven we’re the best over the course of time. The amount of talent and players we’ve produced out of Canada is so great, that we could ice a good team whether we had NHL players or not.”

Although the International Olympic Committee said “players from all the other professional ice hockey leagues will participate” in PyeongChang, there’s even a small amount of uncertainty about that. Assuming European leagues do give players permission or stop their seasons, the player pool for the U.S., Canada and other countries could grow if potential borderline NHL free agents choose to go abroad next season for a chance to play in the Olympics.

Russia is likely to be the gold medal favorite thanks to former NHL stars like Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk playing in the KHL and being available. Alex Ovechkin intends to go to the Olympics anyway, and Washington Capitals teammates Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov said they plan to join him.

Finland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia could benefit from the absence of NHL stars because of the players they have in Europe. Big goalie Mikko Koskinen isn’t Tuukka Rask but would give the Finns a chance, and the Czechs could get stable goaltending from KHL stars Dominik Furch and Pavel Francouz – plus maybe Jaromir Jagr goes home at age 45 for one last Olympic chance.

Sweden’s NHL talent base is growing, but that could mean a rough go at the Olympics, leaning on former NHL goalie Viktor Fasth and forward Joakim Lindstrom and maybe young Philadelphia Flyers prospect Oskar Lindblom.

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U.S., Great Britain to hold track and field dual meet

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The U.S. and Great Britain go head-to-head in a track and field meet on July 21 at the London Olympic Stadium.

“The Meet” will include nine running, jumping, hurdles and relay events and last two hours. Specific events and athletes will be announced early next year.

The U.S. topped the overall medal standings at every Olympics and world outdoor championships since 2004.

Great Britain is one of three countries to earn at least five medals at every Olympics and worlds since 2007, joining the U.S. and Kenya.

British athletes made six podiums at the just-completed worlds at the London Olympic Stadium, including in all four relays. The other two medals came from Mo Farah, who is moving to road racing and marathons after this season.

“The Meet” is similar to swimming’s “Duel in the Pool,” a biennial head-to-head competition between the U.S. and rival Australia from 2003 through 2007 and between the U.S. and Europe between 2009 and 2015.

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Five women’s gymnasts to watch at P&G Championships

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As Rio gold medalists decide on their futures, this week’s P&G Championships mark the first showcase for a new class of U.S. women’s gymnasts.

For the first time since 2008, nobody in the nationals field in Anaheim has competed at an Olympics. Usually, a gymnast or two carries over into the post-Olympic year, like Bridget Sloan in 2009 and Kyla Ross in 2013.

But this year, the feeling is akin to 2005, when no woman (or man) from the 2004 Athens Games chalked up at nationals.

Back then, a 15-year-old Nastia Liukin, who had already starred in a commercial during the 2004 Olympics, made her senior nationals debut and won the all-around. Three years later, Liukin won the Olympic all-around in Beijing.

There will be talk this week of finding the next Liukin, or Gabby Douglas, or Simone Biles, who, like Liukin, won her senior nationals debut the year after the Olympics.

“Some of them [from Rio], hopefully Simone, will be coming back, but I think this is a great opportunity for some of these girls to go out there and prove that they’re just as ready to compete at a world championships,” said Liukin, now an NBC Olympics analyst. “They have to step up a little bit and kind of become the leaders.”

MORE: P&G Champs broadcast schedule

Gymnasts this week are vying to impress new U.S. national team coordinator Valeri Liukin (Nastia’s father). The four-woman roster for October’s worlds, where there is no team event, will be named after a selection camp later this summer.

Five gymnasts to watch at the P&G Championships:

Ragan Smith
Rio Olympic alternate
2017 AT&T American Cup champion

The Texan performed admirably in her first senior season in 2016, placing fifth in the all-around at the Olympic Trials. Her best events are balance beam and floor exercise, but the U.S. needed uneven bars help in Rio. So she went to the Games as an alternate at age 15, making headlines for this photo with 6-foot-11 basketball player DeAndre Jordan.

Smith, coached by 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal, emerged this year as the U.S.’ most reliable all-arounder and clear favorite this week. She won the American Cup on March 4 despite a beam fall. A definite all-around medal favorite at October’s worlds.

Ashton Locklear
Rio Olympic alternate
2014 World team champion

Locklear was beaten for the Olympic team bars specialist spot by Madison Kocian after nearly matching Kocian in scores in four routines between last year’s P&G Championships and Olympic Trials. The 19-year-old is not considered an all-around threat this week but is favored to make the world team based on her bars ability. She was fourth in the event at 2014 Worlds.

Riley McCusker
2017 Jesolo Trophy all-around winner

McCusker, who has the same coach as Laurie Hernandez, struggled at the American Cup in her first senior competition, falling on bars and beam. She rebounded to win Jesolo a month later and remain in the mix as the No. 2 U.S. all-arounder (Smith wasn’t at Jesolo).

However, McCusker was on crutches with a cast on her wrist in early July and said she expected to be back to peak form in September, not August.

Morgan Hurd
2017 Stuttgart World Cup bronze medalist

Hurd, a first-year senior who competes in glasses, was adopted from China as a toddler and now lives with her mom in Delaware.

Liukin, asked to name gymnasts to watch this week, started with Hurd, whom she says has the highest floor exercise start value in the world. “She could be capable of winning a world all-around medal and possibly become a world champion on floor,” Liukin said.

Jade Carey
2017 U.S. Classic vault winner

The U.S. has a tradition of sending a vault specialist to worlds, but neither of the top vaulters from the last Olympic cycle — Biles nor MyKayla Skinner — is competing this week. Enter Carey, a 17-year-old who wasn’t an elite gymnast before this season.

Carey performed the difficult Amanar vault at July’s U.S. Classic, where she was the only gymnast to perform two vaults, which is required to compete for medals on the event at worlds.

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