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U.S.-South Korea sister act shapes up for PyeongChang Olympics

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Hannah Brandt is trying out for the U.S. women’s hockey team this week. She is favored to make it and then debut at the Olympics in PyeongChang.

Her older sister, Marissa Brandt, is also confident she’ll skate in PyeongChang, though she is not trying out for the U.S. team.

Marissa plays for South Korea’s national team.

A U.S. Olympian’s sibling competing for another country at the same Winter Games? It has never happened. It likely will next February.

There is the unique story of the Krueger brothersJohn-Henry (U.S.) and Cole (Hungary), short track speed skaters. The Brandt sisters are also an exceptional case.

On May 6, 1993, a 4-month-old South Korean girl flew from Seoul to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, chaperoned of course.

At the gate, Greg and Robin Brandt cradled their daughter Marissa for the first time. (Those were the days you could get to an airport gate without a ticket, Greg joked.)

The Brandts had trouble conceiving early in their marriage, so they decided to adopt. They chose a South Korean program because other family members had previously done the same.

The Brandts brought to the airport balloons, all kinds of relatives and even video and still cameras that day. Greg still remembers Robin passing Marissa to him.

“You know how you’re supposed to support the back of an infant’s neck? I didn’t do that very well,” Greg said with a laugh. “Of course, this is all on video. I took a hold of her, and her head made a little bit of a swoon.”

The South Korean adoption process took two years. In that time, the Brandts did conceive. Robin was three months pregnant when she first held 4-month-old Marissa at the gate.

“We thought, what a great blessing to potentially have two children to fulfill our family,” Greg said. “We wanted to have more than one child anyway, and we knew we may never be able to get pregnant again.”

Marissa’s younger sister, Hannah, was born on Nov. 27, 1993.

Marissa and Hannah did everything together growing up outside the Twin Cities, though they obviously did not look like sisters.

Dance classes, soccer, even a South Korean culture camp (which Hannah enjoyed and Marissa disliked. “I just wanted to not really dig into the Korean heritage, stuff like that,” Marissa said. “I just wanted to be like everyone else.”).

They were most comfortable on the ice.

Both girls took skating lessons by age 5, but this is where they diverged. Marissa showed promise as a graceful figure skater. Hannah, unlike the other girls, wore black hockey skates in class and was jokingly described as “Herman Munster on skates” by her dad.

A tipping point came when Hannah told her father that she wanted to start playing football with the neighborhood boys. They settled on hockey. Marissa switched from figure skating to hockey about two years later, and the two played together through high school.

Hannah compiled one of the greatest prep and college careers in Minnesota history.

She earned a spot on the U.S. women’s national team for the 2012 World Championship at age 18, before her freshman season at the University of Minnesota. She remains the youngest American woman to skate at an Olympics or worlds in the last decade.

Marissa was not as highly recruited out of high school. She played at Gustavus Adolphus College, a Division III school an hour south of Minneapolis.

PyeongChang was awarded the 2018 Winter Olympics in July 2011, shortly after Marissa graduated high school. At the time, Marissa tried to email South Korea’s hockey federation to express interest in trying out for their Olympic team years down the road. (South Korea has never qualified a men’s or women’s hockey team for the Olympics, but receives spots in 2018 as the host nation.)

She received no answer.

Come spring 2015, Marissa believed she had played her final competitive hockey game with the end of her senior season at Adolphus.

She was studying for final exams when she received a call from Rebecca Baker, then a coach with another Minnesota D-III school who also worked with South Korea’s national team.

Baker’s husband was a goalie coach at the University of Minnesota. Somehow, word had trickled to Minnesota head coach Brad Frost that South Korea was looking for players ahead of the Olympics in three years. Frost spoke with Hannah, and Baker eventually received Marissa’s phone number.

Marissa was asked if she wanted to fly to South Korea in a month to try out for the national team.

“It was kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Marissa said. “I thought I was done. So to get that call and to be able to play again was kind of surprising, but also I was happy about it, because I still wanted to play.”

Marissa had not been back to South Korea since she boarded that flight 12 years earlier.

“I was really scared to go over,” she said. “I know nobody there, and I don’t speak the language. It was really intimidating. I just didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into or if any of this was even real because all I had heard was from [the team] was just an email. This guy’s picking you up from the airport. He’ll bring you to the hotel. There was this shred of doubt, like, is this even a real thing? Is this really happening?”

It was. Marissa spent the summer in South Korea, tried out, and coaches apparently liked what they saw.

She joined three other players that the team refers to as “imports” from North America. The other three all had at least one Korean parent, but they were born in the U.S. or Canada.

It took more than one year for Marissa to become a dual citizen. She estimated the other imports’ processes were about half as long, but she still considered hers the easier route.

“They had to do everything in Korean [language] and learn the national anthem,” said Marissa, who mostly had to bring paperwork, such as her birth certificate, to offices. “I’m really bad at Korean.”

Marissa made her national-team debut last month at a lower-level world championship tournament at a 2018 Olympic venue in Gangneung, South Korea. At the same time, Hannah played in the top-level world championship tournament in Plymouth, Mich.

The sisters watched each other’s games via early morning internet streams. The U.S. and South Korea, two teams coached by Minnesotans, won gold medals hours apart.

In two years of back-and-forth Detroit-to-Seoul trips, Marissa gained an appreciation for a culture she once shied away from as a child. Marissa spent the entire winter in South Korea and will return again in July. She says that her new teammates teach her the Korean language, while she reciprocates with English tips where she can.

At worlds, Marissa decided to use her Korean birth name, Park Yoon-Jung, to wear on the back of her national-team jersey. (The North American-born imports kept their English names.)

“At first, I was kind of hesitant, like I kind of wanted Brandt to be on my jersey because that’s all I’ve known growing up,” she said. “But now I guess, looking back, I’m very proud to wear my Korean name because that’s my only tie to Korea. That’s the name my birth mother gave me.”

Marissa stood with her new teammates after winning gold and listened to a national anthem that she could not recite.

“I could have cried at that point,” she said. “It’s being there, standing in your home country, wearing Korea on the front of your jersey, looking up at your flag. It’s a very proud moment.”

Marissa has been asked if she hopes to find her birth parents in South Korea.

“In the back of my head, I just don’t get my hopes up because I know we don’t have much information on her,” she said of her mother. “It would be a one-in-a-million chance that we actually find her.”

Marissa, a defenseman, said she and the other imports are cautiously optimistic that they’ll make the Olympic team, but she doesn’t know when that will be decided.

“She just sees the ice very well,” Hannah said. “She’s a great skater. She’s just very calm and composed. She doesn’t ever get too nervous. She’s graceful on the ice, and I’m kind of the opposite of that.”

Hannah already went through an Olympic team selection process in 2014.

She remembers sitting in a Lake Placid room as head coach Katey Stone read the alphabetical list of national-team players in front of everyone — those who made it and those who were cut. The Bs came and went without a mention of Brandt.

“So I knew pretty much right away that I wasn’t going to be on the team,” Hannah said. “If you don’t make it, you leave right away. They get you off to the airport.”

Hannah is excited for what this Olympic season could bring under new coach Robb Stauber. She wasn’t able to try out for the 2016 Worlds team due to upper-body injuries. The forward joined the third line this season with Alex Carpenter, who scored the 2016 Worlds gold-medal-winning goal, and longtime team captain Meghan Duggan.

Hannah is currently in Tampa trying out with 41 other players. USA Hockey is expected to announce the national team Friday. It’s expected to be made up of 23 players, the same number as the Olympic roster that will be named closer to the Winter Games.

The U.S. and South Korea are in separate groups for the Olympic tournament. South Korea is unlikely to advance to the medal round, so the Brandt sisters likely won’t play each other in PyeongChang. That won’t make it any less unique.

Siblings have competed for different nations at every Summer and Winter Olympics since 2008, according to Olympstats.com. But never has the Olympic sibling set included one athlete from the host nation.

“The potential is pretty incredible,” Greg said. “I told Marissa, the greatest thing will be walking in that stadium as a member of the home country. I said, Hannah will never have that. That will make it really worth it for me, right there.”

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Norway’s crazy curling pants tapped for third Olympics after close call

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The Pants are on the path to PyeongChang.

Norway’s curling federation named Thomas Ulsrud‘s rink — known for its flashy pants at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Games — as its Olympic curling team.

That’s provided Ulsrud and Co. finish in the top four at the European Championships in November.

That shouldn’t be a problem. Ulsrud earned medals at the last 10 European Championships, including making the final eight times.

If Ulsrud’s rink finishes between fifth and seventh place at Europeans, it will have a playoff with the other top Norwegian team for its Olympic spot.

The Olympic announcement was a relief for Ulsrud. The other top Norwegian team — skipped by Steffen Walstad, who is 17 years younger than Ulsrud — played well of late and is immediately behind Ulsrud in worldcurl.com’s standings.

“It must have been a really tuff [sic] choice for our federation as we now for the first time in about 10 years have 2 top teams in Norway,” was posted on Team Ulsrud’s Facebook page.

Earlier this month, Walstad’s rink became the first Norwegian team to make the final of a Grand Slam (one of seven major annual tournaments played in Canada).

What’s more, Walstad beat Ulsrud at last season’s Norwegian Championships, earning the nation’s berth at the world championship.

Walstad struggled at worlds, going 5-6, which marked Norway’s worst record at an Olympics or worlds since 2007. Ulsrud had won world gold in 2014 and silver in 2015.

At the Olympics, Ulsrud was fifth in Sochi and earned silver in Vancouver, where The Pants first gained fame.

From NBC Olympic Research:

Shortly before the Vancouver Games, Norway’s national Olympic committee outfitted Thomas Ulsrud’s squad with rather dull, all-black uniforms for the tournament. Ulsrud’s teammate Christoffer Svae, an enterprising 31-year-old from Oslo, thought the team should be more patriotic and purchased several checkered pairs of pants with the Norwegian colors of red, blue and white. As soon as the Norwegians took the ice for their first game, the pants were an immediate sensation. Most major international news agencies interviewed the team and a Facebook fan page developed nearly half a million followers.

Ulsrud turns 46 next month. In PyeongChang, he will be older than any previous Olympic medal-winning skip.

The Olympic favorite is whichever team emerges from Canada’s Trials or Sweden’s Niklas Edin‘s rink. Three different men skipped Canada to gold at the last three Olympics. Two different men skipped Canada to the last two world titles.

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Notable men’s hockey players eligible for PyeongChang Olympics

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With active NHL players, even Alex Ovechkin, set to miss the Olympics, a look at the most recognizable names who could be in PyeongChang …

Russia
Pavel Datsyuk
, Forward
The 39-year-old played at the last four Olympics and was Russia’s captain in Sochi. He’s also a four-time NHL All-Star from his 14 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings. Datsyuk left for the KHL last season. He could become the third-oldest Russian or Soviet Olympic men’s hockey player after Igor Larionov and Sergei Fedorov, also former Red Wings.

Ilya Kovalchuk, Forward
Like Datsyuk, Kovalchuk eyes his fifth Olympics, which would be a Soviet/Russian hockey record. At age 18 in 2002, he became the youngest Russian or Soviet Olympic men’s hockey player ever. Kovalchuk played 11 NHL seasons and made three All-Star teams. He has been in the KHL since 2013.

Andrei Markov, Defenseman
The most experienced former NHL blueliner eligible for PyeongChang. Markov, 38, made two NHL All-Star teams in 16 years with the Montreal Canadiens before moving to the KHL this year. He played at the last three Olympics for Russia.

Slava Voynov, Defenseman
Another two-time NHL All-Star defenseman. Voynov, 27, made the Sochi Olympic team the same year he won his second Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings. In 2015, Voynov spent nearly two months in jail after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor domestic violence charge before heading back to Russia and the KHL.

Sergey Mozyakin, Forward
The 36-year-old is the most decorated active skater never to play in the NHL. Mozyakin owns KHL career records in goals and points and, last season, set single-season league records in those categories. Mozyakin has never made an Olympic team, though he has played in several world championships.

Canada
Max Talbot, Forward
Best known for scoring both Pittsburgh Penguins goals to win Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings. Talbot, 33, played for four teams from 2005-2016 before moving to the KHL. He has never made a Canadian team for the Olympics or world championships.

Derek Roy, Forward
A Buffalo Sabres mainstay a decade ago. Roy, now 34, tallied at least 60 points in four straight seasons from 2006-10 and has played in Europe since 2015.

Ben Scrivens, Goalie
All three of Canada’s prospective Olympic goalies have NHL experience, but none more than Scrivens. He played in 144 games from 2011-16 before moving to the KHL. He also split time in net for Canada at the 2014 World Championship.

Cam Barker, Defenseman
The No. 3 overall pick in the 2004 NHL Draft played with four teams before beginning his KHL stint in 2013.

United States
Ryan Malone, Forward
The only player with Olympic experience to openly express interest in making Team USA. The Vancouver 2010 silver medalist hasn’t played in the NHL since 2015 but unretired this summer. He’s in the Minnesota Wild’s preseason camp but doesn’t expect to make the NHL club. He could use the camp to segue to the American Hockey League, which would make him Olympic eligible.

Troy Terry, Forward
The T.J. Oshie of the 2017 World Junior Championship. Terry went 3-for-3 in shootout attempts to lead the U.S. past Russia in the semifinals, then scored the only shootout goal of either nation in the final against Canada. Three months later, Terry helped the University of Denver to an NCAA title. Going into his junior NCAA season.

Chris Bourque, Forward
The son of Hall of Famer and Canadian Olympic defenseman Ray Bourque. Turned pro after one season at Boston University in 2005. Led all skaters with seven goals at the 2006 World Junior Championship, a tournament that included Evgeni MalkinJonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom and Phil Kessel. Bourque has played 51 games in the NHL but has spent the majority of his career in the AHL. The AHL’s active career leader in points is currently in the Washington Capitals’ training camp but is on an AHL contract with the Hershey Bears.

Nathan Gerbe, Forward
The diminutive 30-year-old played 394 NHL games between the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes from 2008-16 before joining the Swiss League.

Ryan Zapolski, Goalie
A journeyman with experience in the ECHL, the Finnish League and the KHL last season. Currently ranks second in the KHL in goals-against average (1.48 with a 6-1 record for Jokerit in Helsinki).

Sweden
Viktor Fasth, Goalie
Split time in the Anaheim Ducks’ net in 2012-13, then was Scrivens’ backup in Edmonton two seasons later before joining the KHL. Fasth, 35, was Sweden’s No. 1 at the 2017 World Championship until New York Rangers star Henrik Lundqvist joined the team and backstopped it to gold.

Jonas Gustavsson, Goalie
The only netminder other than Lundqvist to play for Sweden at either of the last two Olympics. The 32-year-old hasn’t been on the Swedish team at any world championship this Olympic cycle. His NHL ice time steadily decreased from 2012 until his last AHL demotion in January. Played 179 games among the Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins and Edmonton Oilers from 2009 through 2017. Back in the Swedish League for the first time since 2009, when he earned MVP and a championship.

Joakim Lindström, Forward
Reigning Swedish League MVP. Lindström, 33, led the league in points in his return after stints in the NHL and KHL. He’s never made Sweden’s Olympic team but did play in the 2014 and 2015 World Championships.

Joel Lundqvist, Forward
Identical twin brother of the New York Rangers goalie. The 35-year-old captained Sweden to the world title in May — his third gold — but has never made an Olympic team. He played for the Dallas Stars from 2006-09 before moving back to the Swedish League.

Viktor Stalberg, Forward
Spent parts or all of the last eight seasons in the NHL before joining the Swiss League this summer. One of the most notable omissions from Sweden’s Sochi Olympic team.

Finland
Sami Lepistö, Defenseman
On Finland’s Olympic bronze-medal-winning teams in 2010 and 2014. Spent parts of five seasons in the NHL, the last in 2011-12 before signing in the KHL.

Mikko Koskinen, Goalie
Started four games for the New York Islanders in February 2011. Now in his fifth KHL season. Never saw much time internationally behind the likes of Tuukka Rask and Pekka Rinne until the 2016 World Championship. He was named the tournament’s top goalie with a 1.13 goals-against average and .947 save percentage, anchoring Finland to a silver medal.

Otto Koivula, Forward
The Finnish League Rookie of the Year turned 19 years old on Sept. 1. He was drafted in the fourth round by the Islanders last year.

Czech Republic
Jaromír Jágr, Forward
It was thought Sochi would be the final Olympics for Jagr, the last link to the Czech Republic’s gold-medal-winning team at the first Winter Games with NHL participation in 1998. But he’s still going at 45 years old. He played full NHL seasons the last five years but is currently unsigned.

Martin Erat, Forward
Three-time Olympian who spent 13 seasons in the NHL, leading the Nashville Predators in points in 2011-12. Erat, 36, played last season in the KHL and is now in the Czech League.

Milan Michálek, Forward
A 2012 NHL All-Star who played in the 2010 and 2014 Olympics. He led the Ottawa Senators with 35 goals in 2011-12. The 32-year-old was demoted to the AHL last October and is currently a free agent.

Slovakia
Andrej Meszároš, Defenseman
Three-time Olympian with 10 seasons of NHL experience. The 31-year-old is in his third season in the KHL.

Switzerland
Jonas Hiller, Goalie
The Swiss No. 1 at the last two Olympics, when he played for the Anaheim Ducks. Famously stopped 44 of 47 Canadian shots in a near upset in group play at the 2010 Vancouver Games. Hiller, now 35, moved back to the Swiss League last year but was not the primary goalie for Switzerland at the world championship in May.

Germany
Christian Ehrhoff, Defenseman
Played his first Olympics in 2002 at age 19, then played in the NHL from 2003-2016 while rejoining Germany for the Olympics in 2006 and 2010. The Germans didn’t qualify for Sochi but came back to nab one of the last spots in the PyeongChang field. In his second season back in the German League.

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