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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

Alysia Montano announces pregnancy with clever video, no racing plans

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U.S. Olympic 800m runner Alysia Montaño is due in November with her second child, but this time she has no current plan to race at the U.S. Championships while pregnant.

Montaño’s husband and manager, Louis, said Wednesday that she has no races on her calendar (nationals are in late June) but hopes to continue her fitness during pregnancy. She may do a couple of 5Ks this summer.

Earlier Wednesday, the family announced the pregnancy in a clever video.

The video included the couple’s first child, Linnea, was born in August 2014, two months after Montaño made worldwide headlines for racing while eight months pregnant at nationals.

Montaño, 31, last raced at the Millrose Games on Feb. 11 in her first meet since falling in the Olympic Trials 800m final on July 4.

Montaño is set to be awarded her first two world outdoor championships medals, four and six years after she ran those races, due to a former Russian rival’s doping ban.

MORE: Montaño finds little joy after Russian stripped of medals

Sweden drops 2026 Winter Olympic bid

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The city of Stockholm says it won’t bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics.

Karin Wanngard, the city official in charge of finances, says the reason is because the International Olympic Committee will not be able to report how big the financial contribution to the host city will be.

She says the figures “will arrive at the earliest in November.”

This means that time will be too short to get enough analysis for the issues raised by several actors,” said the Swedish lawmaker, whose Social Democratic Party had been supportive of hosting the event.

“We Social Democrats have always thought that the Olympic Games are important for Stockholm’s growth and development,” Wanngard said in a statement, adding there was little backing for the event. “Unfortunately, we are alone to have this position about the Olympic Games.”

Swedish Sports Confederation chairman Bjorn Eriksson said he and his organization “fully respect the decision as we also believe in a realistic budget and a sustainable economy.”

Sports Minister Gabriel Wikstrom also supported the decision, adding that the Social Democratic-led government was “ready to handle requests for financial guarantees.”

“We have also been clear that it is Stockholm’s city that must make its decision first,” he told Sweden news agency TT.

The news comes six days after the Swedish Olympic Committee named a CEO for the 2026 bid.

In January, the committee said that Stockholm staging the 2026 Winter Olympics was “possible and desirable” and that a formal bid was expected in March 2018.

In 2015, Stockholm pulled out of the race for the 2022 Winter Games after Swedish politicians refused to give financial backing. Swedish politicians were uncomfortable because of concerns over costs, the environment, post-Games use of venues, the environment and other issues.

The early 2026 bid plan called for 80 percent of the events in Stockholm, while most of the Alpine competitions would be in the northern resort of Are, more than 600 kilometers (400 miles) from the capital. A few skiing events would be in Falun, 215 kilometers (130 miles) northwest from there.

The 2026 Winter Olympics have one bidder — Sion, Switzerland.

Cities in Austria, Canada, Japan and have also discussed potential 2026 bids, as has Lillehammer, Norway, the 1994 Winter Olympic host. The U.S. is not expected to bid for the 2026 Winter Games.

The next two Winter Olympics will be in East Asia in PyeongChang in 2018 and Beijing in 2022, giving a European or North American city a greater opening to be the 2026 host.

The 2026 Olympic host city is expected to be chosen from an International Olympic Committee members vote in 2019.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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MORE: 2026 Olympics coverage