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Russia hopes for boost from Olympic hockey turmoil

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MOSCOW (AP) — After a week of turmoil for Olympic hockey, Russia thinks it is poised to be the big winner next February in South Korea.

Its fans have waited more than 25 years for an Olympic gold medal, and its top league wants to fight the NHL for international markets so the absence of NHL players in Pyeongchang could be, well, a golden opportunity.

The Olympics are “the biggest, most significant event in global sports,” Vyacheslav Bykov, who won Olympic gold as a player in 1988 and 1992 and later coached Russia’s national team, told The Associated Press on Friday. “Competing at the Olympics is much more important than the Stanley Cup.”

The Russian hockey system is a tangled web of sports, government and commercial interests, but all see Olympic gold as a national priority. Since Bykov and the post-Soviet Unified Team won gold in Albertville 25 years ago, the best Olympic result for Russia has been a 1-0 loss to the Czechs in the gold medal game in 1998 – the first Olympic tournament with NHL participation. On home ice in Sochi in 2014, Russia lost 3-1 to Finland in the quarterfinals.

The NHL’s announcement Monday that it won’t shut down so its players can travel to Pyeongchang leaves Russia in a uniquely strong position. It is home to the Kontinental Hockey League, widely regarded as the strongest outside North America with talent including former NHL stars like Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk and Slava Voynov who are playing closer to home. And if some NHL players are allowed to play in the Olympics, Russians including Alex Ovechkin and his Washington Capitals teammates, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov, as well as Pittsburgh star Evgeni Malkin have all said they plan to participate.

MORE: List of NHL stars’ stances on trying to play at Olympics

That would make Russia a likely favorite even if Canada and the U.S. are able to count on a handful of NHL stars, too.

“They’ve got a huge advantage because they’ve got NHL guys, they’ve got guys that have gone home to play,” said Corey Hirsch, goaltender for Canada’s silver medal-winning team at Lillehammer. “They’re going to have NHL players. But it’s not going to be like we’re going back to the 1980s. … They’ll have some good players, but they’ll have some weaknesses, too.”

Added Steve Duchene, a Canadian who plays for the Colorado Avalanche: “They have some career guys who’ve played in the KHL and put up huge numbers and are used to the big ice. I think Russia would probably the favorite just because of who they have playing over there.”

Less well-known to North American fans are Russian players like Vadim Shipachyov, the top scorer at last year’s world championships, and Evgeny Dadonov, who have both been widely reported in Russian media as considering moves from SKA St. Petersburg to the NHL this summer.

Whether they move could be a litmus test for Russia’s Olympic hopes.

With players potentially facing a choice between NHL contracts and what could be the national team’s first gold medal in a generation, the Russian Hockey Federation is trying to “bring home” stars from North America and stop emerging talent from leaving the KHL, chairman Arkady Rotenberg said Wednesday. If Russians want to go Pyeongchang despite holding valid NHL contracts, Rotenberg vowed to help with their legal costs.

Rotenberg typifies the close links between sports and the government in Russia.

A close friend of Vladimir Putin who became a billionaire in large part due to government contracts, he chairs the RHF board and sits on the KHL board. His nephew, Roman Rotenberg, is vice president of SKA St. Petersburg, the KHL team that signed Datsyuk, Kovalchuk and Voynov using money from state gas company Gazprom.

The KHL relies heavily on payments from Russian state companies and regional governments. With the Kremlin focused on controlling government spending, it has gone through some lean years recently – but KHL teams have a track record of finding money – and salary-cap exemptions – when a top Russian player wants to come home.

“I think all the fans in Russia will be happy if our players, Russian players, will come to the KHL and play here, represent the national team at the Olympics,” Bykov said. “Yes, it’s patriotic, but it’s also each player’s personal decision … It’s not an easy situation for any player.”

Taking a schedule break for the Olympics is a no-brainer for the KHL, which already crafts its season to accommodate not only the world championships but national-team tuneups scattered through the year.

The KHL has been pushing to beat the NHL to the potentially lucrative Asian market, with a team in China since August. If its players become Olympic stars in South Korea while the NHL sits things out, it could help the Russia-based league cement its presence in Asia.

The KHL has tried to take advantage of NHL missteps in the past, particularly by attracting star players to come to Russia during the last lockout, but its attempts to expand outside the former Soviet Union have often become entangled in financial problems or lack of interest from local fans.

For many in Russia, though, the NHL-KHL intrigue is far less important than the Olympics.

“It’s the top of the pyramid,” Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko told state news agency TASS. “No business interests, no loss of earnings – though you can discuss those things – should restrict your opportunity to show what you can do at the Olympics.”

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MORE: With no NHL, Olympic hockey nations turn to Plan B

Paralympian Blake Leeper advances in 400m at USATF Outdoors (video)

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Paralympic medalist Blake Leeper, believed to be the first double amputee to race at a USATF Outdoor Championships, advanced out of the 400m heats in Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday.

Leeper ran 45.52, third in his heat, to grab the 16th and last spot in the 400m semifinals Friday (10:34 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold).

It marked a personal best by .58 of a second for Leeper, who was racing one day after his ban for testing positive for cocaine in 2015 ended.

“I wanted to advance, but if I don’t I have won already,” Leeper said before he learned he made the semis, according to USA Track and Field. “Just being here and showing everybody what you can truly do with a disability.”

Leeper ran faster than Olympians David VerburgKyle ClemonsArman Hall and Manteo Mitchell, who were all eliminated.

It’s likely that the top five or six in Saturday’s final will make the 4x400m team for the world championships in London in August.

USATF OUTDOORS: Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview
Broadcast Schedule | Full Results

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Alysia Montano races pregnant again at USATF Outdoor Championships (video)

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U.S. Olympic 800m runner Alysia Montaño raced five months pregnant in 100-degree heat at the USATF Outdoor Championships (Summer Champions Series) in Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday.

Montaño, who raced eight months pregnant at the 2014 USATF Outdoors also in Sacramento, finished last in her 800m first-round heat in 2:21.40. She was 10 seconds faster than her time three years ago.

“People were like, oh, you’re going to run faster than you did last time because you’re less pregnant,” Montaño told media in Sacramento, standing next to 2-year-old daughter Linnea. “I was like, I’m still pregnant.”

Athletes are looking for top-three finishes to qualify for the world championships in London in August. Finals are later this weekend.

USATF OUTDOORS: Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview
Broadcast Schedule | Full Results

In a Wonder Woman top, Montaño gritted her teeth on the final straightaway and raised her arms crossing the finish line.

“[In 2014] women let me know that my journey and my story had inspired them in so many different ways,” Montaño said. “I think there’s something about coming out to any venue, not really expecting to win, but just going along with the journey and seeing what comes out of it. And that’s the most beautiful part for me, being a track and field athlete, the platform that I have, I feel so responsible to be a representative of people who don’t have the same platform, don’t have the same voice that I do.

“I represent so many different people. I represent women. I represent black women. I represent pregnant women. Not everybody has the same platform that I do. I think it’s my responsibility to make sure I’m a voice and advocate for them.”

Montaño said she was inspired when she learned Gal Gadot, who played the title role in the movie “Wonder Woman,” filmed half of it while five months pregnant.

“I saw Wonder Woman, and I was like, I for sure am signing up for USA Nationals,” Montaño said. “I already was thinking I was going to do it.”

Montaño said it wasn’t easier or harder racing Thursday versus three years ago, when she had a bigger baby bump.

“The weird part about five months is you’re still growing and like shifting a lot,” she said. “So every week you have to readjust.”

Linnea has seen enough photos of her mom’s famous race in 2014 to know what was going on.

“I go, mom is going to run with your sibling in her belly,” Montaño recalled. “I did that with you, too. And [Linnea] was like, ‘Yeah, it was sticking out!'”

Montaño raced outdoors for the first time since falling in the Olympic Trials 800m final on July 4. Montaño had won the previous Olympic Trials (and finished fourth in London) and the 2015 U.S. title coming back from pregnancy.

She ran without an apparel sponsor Thursday, frustrated that Asics waited until December to say they were not interested in retaining her for 2017. Montaño said that left her no time to try and find a different sponsor, even though she was already planning to have her second child.

“You need to let an athlete know in September, October,” she said. “I’ve been calling [Asics] since September to be like, hey, I didn’t make the Olympic team, I’m 30, I’m going to have another baby.”

In the men’s 800m Thursday, two-time Olympian and 2013 World silver medalist Nick Symmonds was eliminated, 32nd-fastest of 33 runners in the first round.

Symmonds, in his final season, said he has one more race left — the Honolulu Marathon on Dec. 10.

MORE: Montaño finds little joy after Russian stripped of medals

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