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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

Serena Williams eyes Australian Open return after pregnancy

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Serena Williams hopes to return from pregnancy (due date by the end of the summer) to defend her Australian Open title in January, according to Vogue.

“It’s the most outrageous plan,” Williams said, according to the report. “I just want to put that out there. That’s, like, three months after I give birth. I’m not walking anything back, but I’m just saying it’s pretty intense.”

Williams, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, won her 23rd Grand Slam singles title last January and, two months later, said she played that event while about two months pregnant.

Williams, 35, is already the oldest Grand Slam women’s singles champion in the Open Era. That’s by virtue not of her 2017 Australian Open title but of her 2016 Wimbledon crown.

She hopes to pass Margaret Court‘s record of 24 Grand Slaim singles titles, though Court won the majority of her events before the Open Era began in 1968.

“In this game you can go dark fast,” Williams said, according to the report. “If I lose, and I lose again, it’s like, she’s done. Especially since I’m not 20 years old. I’ll tell you this much: I won’t win less. Either I win, or I don’t play.”

As for another Olympics?

“I can’t promise that … Tokyo 2020 is a lot,” Williams said on Japanese TV on Jan. 28 after winning the Australian Open, while knowing she was already, secretly, two months pregnant.

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MORE: Past two men’s champions out of U.S. Open

Vuelta a España TV, live stream schedule

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Less than a month after winning his fourth Tour de France, Chris Froome returns to headline the Vuelta a España, the final Grand Tour of the season, with daily live coverage on NBC Sports Gold’s Cycling Pass and the Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA.

Olympic Channel coverage will be live streamed on OlympicChannel.com, the Olympic Channel app, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

NBCSN will also air encore broadcasts of select stages.

NBC Sports Gold coverage will be commercial-free.

Froome, eyeing his first Tour of Spain win after a trio of runners-up, is joined by Spaniard Alberto Contador, who has won every Grand Tour multiple times and is set to retire after this event.

Rounding out the marquee men is 2014 Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali, who also captured the Vuelta back in 2010.

Romain Bardet and Fabio Aru, who challenged Froome at the Tour de France last month, are also in the Vuelta field.

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Day Time (ET) Network Stage
Saturday, Aug. 19 11:25 a.m.-1:30 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Stage 1
Saturday, Aug. 19 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Olympic Channel Stage 1
Sunday, Aug. 20 9 a.m.-12 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Stage 2
Sunday, Aug. 20 12-2 p.m. Olympic Channel Stage 2
Monday, Aug. 21 7:10 a.m.-12 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Stage 3
Monday, Aug. 21 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Olympic Channel Stage 3
Monday, Aug. 21 12 p.m. NBCSN Stage 3
Tuesday, Aug. 22 9 a.m.-12 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Stage 4
Tuesday, Aug. 22 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Olympic Channel Stage 4
Wednesday, Aug. 23 9 a.m.-12 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Stage 5
Wednesday, Aug. 23 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Olympic Channel Stage 5
Thursday, Aug. 24 9 a.m.-12 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Stage 6
Thursday, Aug. 24 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Olympic Channel Stage 6
Friday, Aug. 25 9 a.m.-12 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Stage 7
Friday, Aug. 25 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Olympic Channel Stage 7
Friday, Aug. 25 5 p.m. NBCSN Stage 7
Saturday, Aug. 26 9 a.m.-12 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Stage 8
Saturday, Aug. 26 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Olympic Channel Stage 8
Sunday, Aug. 27 9 a.m.-12 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Stage 9
Sunday, Aug. 27 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Olympic Channel Stage 9
Tuesday, Aug. 29 9 a.m.-12 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Stage 10
Tuesday, Aug. 29 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Olympic Channel Stage 10
Tuesday, Aug. 29 6:30 p.m. NBCSN Stage 10
Wednesday, Aug. 30 9 a.m.-12 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Stage 11
Wednesday, Aug. 30 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Olympic Channel Stage 11
Thursday, Aug. 31 9 a.m.-12 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Stage 12
Thursday, Aug. 31 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Olympic Channel Stage 12
Thursday, Aug. 31 1 p.m. NBCSN Stage 12
Friday, Sept. 1 9 a.m.-12 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Stage 13
Friday, Sept. 1 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Olympic Channel Stage 13
Saturday, Sept. 2 9 a.m.-12 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Stage 14
Saturday, Sept. 2 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Olympic Channel Stage 14
Sunday, Sept. 3 7:45 a.m.-12 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Stage 15
Sunday, Sept. 3 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Olympic Channel Stage 15
Tuesday, Sept. 5 9 a.m.-12 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Stage 16
Tuesday, Sept. 5 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Olympic Channel Stage 16
Tuesday, Sept. 5 9 p.m. NBCSN Stage 16
Wednesday, Sept. 6 6:25 a.m.-12 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Stage 17
Wednesday, Sept. 6 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Olympic Channel Stage 17
Thursday, Sept. 7 9 a.m.-12 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Stage 18
Thursday, Sept. 7 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Olympic Channel Stage 18
Friday, Sept. 8 9 a.m.-12 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Stage 19
Friday, Sept. 8 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Olympic Channel Stage 19
Saturday, Sept. 9 8:15 a.m.-12 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Stage 20
Saturday, Sept. 9 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Olympic Channel Stage 20
Sunday, Sept. 10 10:55 a.m.-3 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Stage 21
Sunday, Sept. 10 1-3 p.m. Olympic Channel Stage 21
Sunday, Sept. 10 7 p.m. NBCSN Stage 21