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Carpe Diem: U.S. goalie goes from near retirement to Olympic favorite

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Goalie Ryan Zapolski was vacationing in Rome this past offseason when he began receiving messages with links to articles projecting the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team.

Under normal circumstances, a 30-year-old journeyman on a Finnish club with zero NHL experience would have disregarded them.

But these are unusual times. The NHL is not participating in the Olympics for the first time since 1994.

Zapolski knew this by early April. And he also knew that there was a dearth of notable American goalies playing in the world’s other top leagues. None who have ever played in the NHL, actually.

So Zapolski could not have been surprised to look at those Team USA projections and see his name on most, if not all of them.

“It’s disappointing for fans that the NHL wouldn’t be there [in PyeongChang],” Zapolski said in a phone interview earlier this month, “but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me.”

Zapolski, by virtue of an incredible early season in the world’s second-best league, is the current favorite to start in PyeongChang. The Americans open against Slovenia on Feb. 14.

U.S. hockey officials are usually tight-lipped about Olympic roster prospects, but Zapolski has been so good this fall that even U.S. general manager Jim Johannson had to say the Erie, Penn., native has “separated himself.”

When Zapolski was named last week to the U.S. roster for its only pre-Olympic tournament, he was leading the Russian KHL in wins (16-1 record), save percentage (.956), goals-against average (1.11) and shutouts (five). He has since lost three straight games but remains No. 2 in save percentage and goals-against.

The KHL includes 27 teams from seven nations. Zapolski plays for Helsinki’s Jokerit, which has been on average the best non-Russian team in the league since it joined in 2014-15.

Zapolski is now in his fifth season in Finland.

Before that he bounced around — the Mahoning Valley Phantoms, a walk-on at Erie’s Mercyhurst College, the Florida Everblades, Stockton Thunder, Kalamazoo Wings, Toledo Walleye, Gwinnett Gladiators and South Carolina Stingrays.

Frustration set in as he tried and failed to find regular playing time in the ECHL. So many players on NHL and AHL contracts get sent down there.

“I was almost done,” in 2012, said Zapolski, who became a full-time goalie at age 12 and didn’t get serious until 16 or 17. “Traveling to six different cities in a season, not really going anywhere. Then I got a chance in South Carolina and took off.”

Zapolski was the league’s top goalie in 2012-13 by a considerable margin with a goals-against of 1.64 (second-best was 2.17) and a save percentage of .942 (second-best was .925).

It didn’t lead to attention from NHL clubs, but the Finnish League offered him a chance to continue playing regularly.

Zapolski took it and was the No. 1 for one of its top clubs for three seasons before joining Jokerit, the only Finnish team in the KHL. Last season was not his best, and Jokerit then signed Finnish veteran Karri Ramo, a former Tampa Bay Lightning backup.

But Ramo suffered a knee injury in training camp, Zapolski said. That provided Zapolski a chance to earn his place early this season. Suffice to say, he has. Zapolski’s current contract is up in 2018.

“If it’s a good offer, and it works out the next few years, I’ll stay [in Finland],” said Zapolski, who lives with his wife (no kids) in Finland but spends summers in Erie. “I do want that chance to go back home, but it’s really got to be a team that says we’re going to give you a fair chance to be in the NHL. It’s pretty rare for guys my age to jump over to the NHL.”

Zapolski’s associations with the Olympics are few.

“I think [1980 Olympic forward] Mark Johnson maybe walked by me in a hallway once,” he said.

But the U.S. has a history of Olympic star-turn goalies.

Of course, Jim Craig is the clearest example from the Miracle on Ice.

There’s also Ray LeBlanc, one of the veterans on the 1992 Olympic team at age 27. LeBlanc had just as dizzying of a minor-league odyssey as Zapolski before nearly backstopping the U.S. to a surprise medal in Albertville. He had a 46-save shutout of Germany.

LeBlanc got his NHL call shortly thereafter, playing his first and final game for the Blackhawks the next month. (Chicago had an ulterior motive — LeBlanc’s start meant that it could protect its top goalies from an upcoming expansion draft)

Also in 1960, Jack McCartan, on loan from the U.S. Army, beat the Canadians, Czechs (twice) and Soviets en route to gold. Originally cut from the Olympic team, McCartan ended up becoming one of two players from that roster to make the NHL.

Zapolski wears the American flag on the back of his Jokerit mask. At Mercyhurst, where he played in front of a few hundred fans on average, the team motto was “Carpe Diem.” He notes that Mercyhurst has an NHL pipeline of one — defenseman Jamie Hunt played one game for the Washington Capitals in 2006.

The Olympics could be his big chance.

“Everybody dreams of playing in Olympics, winning the Stanley Cup,” he said. “I didn’t know if I’d be playing hockey at this age still. When you’re bouncing around the minors, your dream shakes a bit.”

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MORE: Olympic hockey schedule announced

Erin Hamlin nears end of historic U.S. luge career

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Erin Hamlin is looking forward to normalcy. She is getting married next summer in her hometown. She is thinking about career moves. She is trying to figure out the rest of her life.

It is probably her last luge season. It is definitely her last Olympic season.

As such, it would be easy to fall into the trap of saying that winning a gold medal at PyeongChang in February would be the only thing that makes this season a success.

It’s important, sure, but Hamlin is entering her 13th year of World Cup racing with a much broader view and insisting that she’s going to enjoy whatever time she has left on her sled.

“I’m not going to hyperfocus myself on one result or bust,” Hamlin said. “Very likely, it’s going to be my last time in a lot of places, sliding on a lot of tracks. So I think more so, it’s going to be a lot of soaking it all in.”

That process starts Saturday, when the World Cup season opens in Igls, Austria.

Hamlin, who turns 31 on Sunday, is coming off the finest year of her career — she won a gold medal and two silvers at the world championships for the biggest haul ever by an American luger, got two World Cup wins and finished fourth in world rankings.

She might be going out, and there’s a chance she can go out on top.

“We’re working hard to convince her to stay,” longtime U.S. teammate Emily Sweeney said.

Sweeney knows that’s probably futile.

Sliders always tend to cycle out after an Olympics, no matter if it’s bobsled, skeleton or luge, and the Americans will see plenty of veterans take their last rides this winter.

A few U.S. sliders already retired this fall, in part because they weren’t going to have a shot at an Olympic berth.

For her part, Hamlin hasn’t officially said this is the end.

“There’s never really as concrete of a plan as you hope there would be, because you never know what can happen,” Hamlin said. “But at the moment, what I’m excited to do is see what other opportunities are there and what other adventures await.”

Hamlin has been in the world’s top 10 in each of the past 11 seasons — the second-longest current streak of any woman in luge, one year behind German legend Tatjana Huefner.

She won a World Cup each of the past three years, took the world title in sprint last winter and became the first U.S. Olympic singles luge medalist in 2014 with a bronze.

A lesson learned that season: Not expecting much can work wonders. That’s one of the reasons why PyeongChang isn’t taking up all the bandwidth in her brain.

“That’s the nature of winter sports in a Winter Olympic year, there being so much focus on the Games,” Hamlin said. “How I went into the last Olympics taught me a lot. I had no expectation of walking away from the last Olympics with a medal. At this point, goal No. 1 is to make the team and beyond that, I know if I slide as I’m capable of I can be pretty fast and I can do well.”

The schedule this season is hectic.

This weekend’s stop in Austria starts a run of five races in five weekends, with the next two in Germany followed by another in Calgary, Alberta, and then on home ice in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 15-16.

When that Lake Placid World Cup is over, the U.S. Olympic team will be named.

So when Hamlin needs an escape from all that, the wedding is there to bring her back to reality.

It will be at her parents’ home in July. It will, without question, be the social event of the season in Remsen, N.Y., where the one-time high school soccer player has annually left her tiny hometown brimming with pride.

“Pretty exciting,” Hamlin said. “It’s definitely adding a whole new aspect to an Olympic year, planning a wedding, but it’s cool. It gives me a good distraction when I need to think about something other than sliding.”

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MORE: U.S. luge head coach steps down due to Parkinson’s

Kaetlyn Osmond leads Grand Prix France as co-favorite falls (video)

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Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond topped the Grand Prix France short program, moving closer to another Grand Prix Final berth on Friday.

The world silver medalist was flawed — performing a triple-double combination rather than a triple-triple and putting a hand down on another jump landing.

She goes into Saturday’s free skate with a 1.26-point lead over Russian Maria Sotskova. Japan’s Yuna Shiraiwa is third, while the lone American Polina Edmunds is ninth.

Co-favorite Alina Zagitova of Russia fell and dropped to fifth place in Grenoble.

In the short dance, France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron improved on their personal best with 81.40 points, the third-highest all-time in an eight-year-old system.

Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov lead French Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres by 4.66 going into Saturday’s pairs free skate.

The event continues later Friday with the men’s short, live on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA.

GP FRANCE: Full Results | TV Schedule

Osmond, 21, was a revelation last season, winning her first Grand Prix medals in four years, making her first Grand Prix Final and finishing second to dominant Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva at worlds.

She’s continued that this fall, winning her first two events in Canada to solidify Olympic medal favorite status. One Canadian woman has won an individual Olympic medal in the last 25 years — Joannie Rochette‘s emotional bronze in 2010.

Zagitova, the 15-year-old world junior champion, fell on her opening triple Lutz. Zagitova won her Grand Prix debut in China two weeks ago and ranks second to training partner Medvedeva in top scores this season.

Medvedeva, Zagitova and Sotskova are the favorites to claim Russia’s three Olympic women’s spots. Sotskova, 17, made the podium in all three of her Grand Prix starts but was a disappointing eighth at last season’s worlds.

Edmunds tallied 56.31 points Friday, stepping out of the landing of her opening triple-triple jump combination.

Still, she improved on her short program from her earlier event this season, where she scored 49.62 with errors on all of her jumps.

Edmunds, the youngest U.S. Olympic competitor across all sports in Sochi, went 20 months between competitions, missing the entire 2016-17 season due to a bone bruise in her right foot.

She is an underdog to make the three-woman U.S. team for PyeongChang that will be named after nationals in January.

Russian Elizaveta Tuktamysheva continued her string of underwhelming programs since her 2015 World title. She fell on a triple Axel attempt and singled a Lutz, plummeting to last place of 11 skaters.

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Internationaux de France
Women’s Short Program
1. Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN) — 69.05
2. Maria Sotskova (RUS) — 67.79
3. Yuna Shiraiwa (JPN) — 66.05
9. Polina Edmunds (USA) — 56.31

Short Dance
1. Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) — 81.40
2. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 73.55
3. Alexandra Stepanova/Ivan Bukin (RUS) — 70.02
6. Elliana Pogrebinsky/Alex Benoit (USA) — 60.64

Pairs
1. Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 77.84
2. Vanessa James/Morgan Cipres (FRA) — 73.18
3. Nicole Della Monica/Matteo Guarise (ITA) — 70.65
6. Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran (USA) — 58.99