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Canada’s potential Olympic starting goalie half a world away

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UFA, Russia (AP) — As the NHL opened its season, Canada’s potential Olympic starting goaltender was half a world away.

On the edge of Russia’s Ural mountains, Ben Scrivens suited up for Salavat Yulaev Ufa in the Kontinental Hockey League, taking on Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk‘s SKA St. Petersburg.

Scrivens was pulled after giving up four goals to SKA, which started its season 18-0. It was an off night for Scrivens, who has otherwise been solid in the KHL, posting a .918 save percentage last season with Dinamo Minsk of Belarus.

With the NHL skipping the PyeongChang Olympics in February, he could star for Canada.

Scrivens has been in contact with Hockey Canada, and he played preseason games on a roster assembled from KHL players.

The Canadians played six games across two tournaments, with three goaltenders each playing two games. Of those three, Scrivens has the most NHL experience (144 NHL games for four teams between 2011 and 2016).

“As a Canadian you just want Canada to win,” he said. “Obviously you want to be part of it.”

Without the NHL, the United States and reigning Olympic champion Canada will have to make do with scratch squads of minor leaguers, college players and the many ex-NHL players looking for new opportunities abroad – particularly in the Russia-based KHL, widely considered the best league outside the NHL.

The KHL is taking a massive 33-day break for the Feb. 9-25 Olympics while the NHL soldiers on.

Scrivens was mostly a backup goaltender in the NHL, where he took the league record for saves in a regular-season shutout with 59 for the Edmonton Oilers against the San Jose Sharks in 2014.

After being bounced between the NHL and farm teams in 2015-16 and admittedly outspoken with coaches, he looked abroad. Now 31, a KHL salary offers Scrivens the chance to “give my family a foundation for the rest of our lives.”

Located just west of the Urals that divide Europe from Asia, Ufa is a city of 1 million known for its oil industry and traditionally liberal brand of Islam.

Hockey games in the city’s 8,000-capacity arena feature a passionate section of hardcore fans who roar their way through the game, plus a heavy emphasis on scantily clad cheerleaders as entertainment.

Scrivens admits adapting to Russia hasn’t been easy.

It’s meant a “significant decrease” in his social life, and he speaks mostly in a kind of simplified English with his Russian and Scandinavian teammates – so much so that friends and family sometimes tease him for bizarre or ungrammatical speech on calls home.

“We don’t have time to do (Russian) lessons, so it’s more what you pick up from the rink. Guys teach you how to swear, that’s about it,” Scrivens said.

Scrivens’ wife, Jen, is in North America after spending time with him in Belarus last year.

His wife and family are holding off visiting him in Europe because they don’t want to burn vacation time and miss him at the Olympics – if he goes.

“The elephant in the room is what’s going to happen with the Olympics,” Scrivens said. “They’re tentatively holding that window open.”

USA Hockey has been tracking Europe-based players like former Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mike Lundin, one of four Americans at Finnish KHL club Jokerit, and making sure they’re Olympic-eligible.

Two U.S. Olympic veterans with more than 1,500 combined games of NHL experience are also in the running.

“They’ve been prepared, getting the ball rolling and letting us to know be available for dates, setting us up with the drug testing,” Lundin said.

The team to beat in PyeongChang will likely be Russia, thanks to its many ex-NHL players now playing back home.

KHL players can hit the ground running in PyeongChang with experience on international-size ice and the experience of facing players of Kovalchuk and Datsyuk’s caliber.

The KHL’s vast geographic reach, from Slovakia in Central Europe to Vladivostok and Beijing on the Pacific coast, imposes a brutal travel schedule on its players, who can cross up to eight time zones between games.

“If you can’t get used to the travel, you’re going to have to stop playing in this league,” said Brian O’Neill, a former New Jersey Devils wing who plays with Lundin at Jokerit and has also been contacted by USA Hockey. “When you come home, you get a 12-hour flight back, your body feels the negative side-effects for a week or two.”

Still, the first Olympic tournament without the NHL since 1994 feels different somehow.

“It’s kind of a strange situation, obviously, knowing if you do make it you’re kind of replacements,” Lundin said. “At the same time, the Olympics, it’s an honor to play for your country on such a big stage. It’ll be exciting to try and make the team and see how it unfolds.”

Even though the NHL says its decision is final, Scrivens refuses to believe it’s a done deal.

“I’m still anticipating that something’s going to happen with the NHL, that they’re going to be able to come,” he said. “Nothing is certain until it’s already going on. Until they announce final rosters, or until it really is done, all I can do is try and play my game here and make sure that if I do get the opportunity to go, that I’m ready.”

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MORE: Full PyeongChang Olympic hockey schedule

Olympic ski cross champion suffers serious knee injury

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Canadian Marielle Thompson, the reigning Olympic and World Cup ski cross champion, ruptured an ACL and MCL in a training crash in Switzerland.

Alpine Canada did not say when the accident happened or what Thompson’s chances are of returning to defend her Olympic title in PyeongChang.

Thompson flew from Switzerland to Vancouver for an MRI that confirmed the injury.

“I’ll be making a plan with my team moving forward and when the time is right getting back on the ski cross course stronger than ever,” Thompson said in a press release.

Thompson, 25, tore a meniscus in January 2015 and returned to competition 11 months later. She won seven of the 13 World Cup races last season.

Other Olympic medal contenders include Swede Sandra Näslund and Swiss Fanny Smith.

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Nathan Chen leads Yuzuru Hanyu at Grand Prix opener (video)

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U.S. champion Nathan Chen hopes to become comfortable in this spot this season — ahead of reigning Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu in the standings.

The 18-year-old Chen landed two quadruple jumps in his short program at the opening Grand Prix event in Moscow, taking a 5.69-point lead over Hanyu going into Saturday’s free skate.

Two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia topped the women’s short program with 80.75 points (one tenth off her world record).

Full Rostelecom Cup results are here.

Chen’s tally — 100.54 points — is the second-highest short of his flourishing international career. It would have been higher if not for two of his three jumping passes receiving negative grades of execution for wonky landings.

The Japanese megastar Hanyu fell on his final jump, a triple toe loop, on Friday. No matter, Winnie the Pooh bears rained down on the ice from the adoring crowd, many of whom traveled from Japan.

Hanyu scored 94.85 points, one month after breaking his world record short program score with 112.72 points in a small event in Canada.

“Today I made some mistakes in my short program, but overall it didn’t feel bad,” Hanyu said, according to the International Skating Union.

Hanyu, though he is the current PyeongChang favorite, has never won his season-opening Grand Prix event in seven tries.

Chen has now outscored Hanyu, who is four years older, in four of their last eight head-to-head skates.

Hanyu was better in the two biggest programs at last season’s world championships. Chen placed sixth at worlds in April, perhaps gassed at the end of his first senior season while competing on duct-taped skates.

In the women’s standings, Medvedeva topped Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy by 6.13 points.

American Mirai Nagasu landed a triple Axel that was called under rotated and fell on her other two jumping passes. She ended up ninth, two spots behind U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell.

In the short dance, two-time world medalists and U.S. champions Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani tallied 77.30 points.

The siblings lead by .97 over Russians Yekaterina Bobrova and Dmitry Soloviyev going into the free dance.

Russians are one-two in pairs. World bronze medalists Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov lead Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov by 5.49.

All of the free skates are Saturday, live on Olympic Channel. A full schedule is here.

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Rostelecom Cup
Men’s Short
1. Nathan Chen (USA) — 100.54
2. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 94.85
3. Dmitriy Aliyev (RUS) — 88.77
11. Grant Hochstein (USA) — 67.56

Women’s Short
1. Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 80.75
2. Carolina Kostner (ITA) — 74.64
3. Wakaba Higuchi (JPN) — 69.60
7. Mariah Bell (USA) — 63.85
9. Mirai Nagasu (USA) — 56.15

Short Dance
1. Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani (USA) — 77.30
2. Yekaterina Bobrova/Dmitry Soloviyev (RUS) — 76.33
3. Alexandra Stepanova/Ivan Bukin (RUS) — 71.32
7. Rachel Parsons/Michael Parsons (USA) — 59.41

Pairs Short
1. Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 76.88
2. Ksenia Stolbova/Fedor Klimov (RUS) — 71.39
3. Valentina Marchei/Ondřej Hotárek (ITA) — 68.48
7. Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran (USA) — 54.37