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A path to USA Hockey through gas stations, concussions, 90-save epic

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Goalie Nicole Hensley did not think the Olympics were possible.

Not while growing up in Colorado, which has never produced a female Olympic hockey player.

Not when she started her freshman season opener for little Lindenwood University. Ohio State shelled her with 64 shots in Columbus. She saved 60 in a 4-0 defeat. Lindenwood lost Hensley’s next seven starts, too.

But now, as the U.S. plays its pre-Olympic tournament this week, Hensley is all but assured of making the 23-woman roster for PyeongChang expected to be named in about two months.

She got the start in both games against rival Canada at the world championship tournament last spring, winning each time.

Four weeks later, Hensley was called into a meeting with U.S. head coach Robb Stauber, assistant Brett Strot and general manager Reagan Carey.

You made the national team, they told her. The Olympics are in nine months.

“I was practically in tears,” Hensley, 23, said. “It’s hard to remember anything else. I just couldn’t believe it, I guess.”

Hensley fell in love with the sport as a girl in Lakewood, a city seven miles southwest of Denver. How could she not. The hometown Avalanche made the NHL playoffs every season from when Hensley was 1 until she was 10.

“Her entire room was completely decked out in Avalanche memorabilia,” mom Linda said. “Hockey sticks, posters, anything that they sold at the Pepsi Center she had.”

She adored Joe Sakic.

“We were on vacation on the Outer Banks the year they won the Stanley Cup,” in 2001, Linda said. “The beach is right there, but we had to come in and watch every game.”

Hensley’s parents drove her and little sister Brittany (not much of a hockey fan, now on the Colorado State rodeo team) around the metropolitan area to local Conoco gas stations, where players and coaches signed autographs.

“We went to every single one of those signings,” Linda said.

Sakic once visited her local rink.

“She got an autograph on a crumpled piece of paper that she still has,” Linda said. “When he retired we had some friends of friends who knew him. They had put out a commemorative hockey stick with all his lifetime stats, so he autographed that stick for her.”

Hensley started out as a skater. She became a goalie to continue playing with boys when they started checking at pee-wee ages of 11 and 12.

By her last years of high school, Hensley traveled with the Colorado Select girls club team. Her senior season ended with a concussion after another skater ran into her.

“I actually blacked out,” Hensley said. “I guess I stood up and fell back down, but I don’t remember doing that.”

“When we got home and to our doctor a few days later, she still wasn’t remembering things properly and wasn’t counting properly,” Linda said.

It was not significant enough to question Hensley’s decision to accept her only hockey scholarship offer to Lindenwood. Symptoms cleared after two or three weeks.

Hensley joined a Lindenwood team that had gone 8-21 the previous season, its first as an NCAA program. The returning No. 1 goalie took a shot off her clavicle two or three weeks before the season opener.

So coaches decided Hensley would open her freshman year in net at Ohio State, a school with five times the enrollment of Lindenwood’s 11,000 or so.

“The instant look on her face was oh crap,” Lindenwood goalie coach Cory Whitaker said. “Then, right after that, it was, this is my chance.

“From that point on, you knew that she was going to do anything possible to not give up that starting position.”

Hensley was praised for only giving up four goals as Lindenwood was outshot 64-19. There would be plenty more games like it during a freshman campaign that included another concussion and a few thousand bus miles, including an 18-hour ride to Bemidji State in Minnesota.

Then there’s the conference tournament game that everyone talks about.

Robert Morris University pelted Hensley with 92 shots over three regulation periods and three overtimes. Hensley stopped 90 of them, shattering the NCAA Division I single-game record by 12 saves, but Lindenwood lost 2-1.

A Robert Morris assistant saved the puck and gave it to Lindenwood.

“That’s what started to spark interest, I think people started to say maybe this kid is capable of something more,” said Hensley, who felt fine after that game — until she tried to roll out of bed the next morning.

USA Hockey invited Hensley to a camp for the nation’s top development goalies after her freshman and sophomore seasons.

“I would have put myself maybe middle of the pack for the 12 that were there,” she said. “I never really saw myself standing out or anything like that.”

After her sophomore year, Carey called Hensley to invite her to a more select camp of six to nine goalies. Then, Hensley made the world championship team as the third and final goalie — and third-youngest player on the roster — following her senior year in 2016.

But it wasn’t until later in 2016 at an August camp when Hensley felt like an Olympic prospect.

“Up until that time, I had been somewhat intimidated to even be on the ice with people like Hilary KnightBrianna Decker and Meghan Duggan,” Hensley said, naming star forwards on the 2014 Olympic silver-medal team. “At that camp, I just started to realize I had the ability to play with them and that [the Olympics] could be a possibility.”

Rather than join a club team after graduating in 2016, Hensley stayed in Missouri, where she had a job as a video coach for Lindenwood and a goalie coach in St. Louis.

She was the only member of the 2017 World Championship team who had not played in a league that season.

No matter, she got the start for the opener against Canada over Alex Rigsby, who had blanked the Canadians in the 2016 World final but was mending from a torn hip capsule.

Hensley stopped all 18 Canadian shots, a performance that led Stauber, a former NHL goalie, to call on her again for both medal-round games. 11-0 over Germany in the semifinals. 3-2 over Canada in overtime for a fourth straight world title.

Hensley usually plays with a Bible verse somewhere on her mask. Maddie Rooney, a fellow goalie and roommate, said Hensley’s defining characteristics are that she devotes at least an hour a day to scripture and owns about 25 pairs of Nikes.

There’s also a small ice cream cone drawn at the base of her glove, an inside joke shared with her post-grad coach, Luke Venker.

“She used to get kind of upset if she couldn’t do something right, extremely frustrated, and we would start bickering at each other,” Venker said. “I go, ‘What’s going to make you happy right now?’ She yelled out, ‘Ice cream!’ The running joke is, if she gets mad, just think about ice cream.”

Hensley said that at Lindenwood, she would play in front of 60 fans “on a good night.” The school has never had a Winter Olympian, though two-time Paralympic champion hockey player Josh Pauls studied there, along with recent Summer Olympians.

Space was recently prepared in the athletic office for a framed U.S. hockey jersey to display next to a few football jerseys from NFL alumni.

“Goalies, they develop a little bit later than younger players,” Stauber said. “They can develop quite frankly in any program. Just because a goalie goes to Wisconsin doesn’t necesarily mean that they’re a lot better than somebody that’s at Lindenwood.”

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MORE: Hilary Knight’s trip to historic Olympic ice rekindles love for hockey

Clarification: An earlier version of this post did not mention that two-time Paralympic champion Josh Pauls attended Lindenwood.

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