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U.S. women’s hockey players in tears after legend’s surprise

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About three months ago, the U.S. women’s hockey team took a bonding trip to Nike’s headquarters.

One of those nights in Oregon, after a day full of training and meetings, players had just finished dinner and gathered in the team hotel for what they thought was one last debrief before bed.

Some staff members started talking generally about legacy. Cammi Granato entered the room.

No introduction was necessary. Granato received a standing ovation.

“I was in tears, actually,” said Meghan Duggan, one of four women who have captained the U.S. at the Olympics (Granato, Krissy Wendell and Natalie Darwitz are the others).

Duggan, who has been on the national team for a decade, had never met Granato.

“It wasn’t like she stood up at a podium and delivered a speech to us,” Duggan said. “She just kind of sat and talked to us about her experience.”

The surprise appearance was the latest motivational move from the mind of Reagan Carey, director of the U.S. women’s program since 2010.

It was Carey who in 2013 put together a reported 90-page hardcover book with contributed words and photos from all 41 previous U.S. Olympic players. Carey had three of the 41 hand copies to every 2014 Olympic team member the day they left for Sochi.

Carey has brought in several guest speakers — from Julie Foudy to retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, one of five soldiers from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to survive a quadruple amputation.

“We’re really lucky to have a woman like Reagan at the helm of the ship,” forward Hilary Knight said.

Granato has delivered video messages to the team before, but this was her first in-person address. Now 46, Granato lives with her family in Vancouver. (One of Granato’s four brothers, retired NHL All-Star Tony Granatowill coach the U.S. men in PyeongChang.)

“One of the things that stuck with me the most she said was, when you think about the Olympics and the gold-medal game, how big that is and you’re on the world stage, nerves come into play,” said Duggan, a member of the teams that lost gold-medal games to Canada in 2010 and 2014. “You think, oh my gosh, I have to play the best game of my life. Really, what she said was you have to play the team game. Play like you’ve played all year. Play the systems. Play the way that you need to play. Bring your role to the team. Not every single person on the team has to have the best game of their lives.”

Granato spent an hour with women who idolized her that night and joined them for team activities the next day.

“It was almost like she was back in the locker room,” Carey said. “Just a different team.”

Knight, arguably the world’s best player, wears No. 21 in honor of Granato. They are the only U.S. women to wear No. 21 at the Olympics.

Knight has a hockey stick autographed by Granato from when she attended a youth camp. This time, she had Granato sign her journal.

“So I have to hold it pretty closely now,” Knight said.

Forward Brianna Decker had not seen the Hall of Famer since Granato was her coach at an early teen development camp.

“I got the chills,” Decker said. “The greatest player in women’s hockey, I believe, of all time. She was there, right in front of us, sharing her experience.”

As Knight summarized, Granato told the team “this is how we did it” in 1998.

The U.S. won the first Olympic women’s hockey gold medal in Nagano, with Granato the captain and face of the program. They haven’t won any since, losing three times to Canada in the final.

“[Granato] talked about team chemistry, team bonding, generally enjoying the moments together,” Decker said. “She could tell with our group, just by talking to us, that we have that bond and that special unique bond between all of us that can’t be really broken.”

This year’s national team has lived together in residency in Wesley Chapel, Fla, for the last few months. Their next game is Sunday against Canada (NBCSN, 4 p.m. ET), one of eight matchups with their rivals before PyeongChang.

The U.S. has to be considered the Olympic favorite, having won all three world championships since a gut-wrenching overtime loss in the Sochi final.

Maybe that’s why Granato chose not to bring her gold medal to that meeting in Oregon.

“I don’t think any of us would have touched it anyways,” defenseman Monique Lamoureux-Morando said.

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New generation of male figure skaters owns spotlight at worlds; preview

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Nobody in the men’s field at figure skating worlds owns an Olympic or world title for the first time since 1985. This could lead to the best U.S. men’s results in years.

Yuzuru HanyuJavier Fernandez and Patrick Chan combined to win every gold medal since 2011, but all of them ended their seasons at the Olympics.

This week in Milan, the four leading men, who just competed in their first Olympics, are all 20 years or younger. And that includes two Americans.

Nathan Chen can become the first world singles champion from the U.S. since Evan Lysacek in 2009. Chen and Vincent Zhou could be the first U.S. men to finish in the top five together since Lysacek and Johnny Weir in 2005. Chen, Zhou and Max Aaron could make up the best U.S. trio at a worlds in more than 20 years.

Start with Chen. The 18-year-old said he planned to compete this week regardless of what happened at the Olympics, but after his struggles in the team event and individual short programs, the quad master nailed his free skate, came home to California and said he took maybe one day off of training before this event.

Chen is one of three men in the gold-medal hunt, along with Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan and world bronze medalist Jin Boyang of China. While Chen largely struggled at the 2017 Worlds and in PyeongChang, Uno and Jin each made the podium at both events. And each can come close to or equal Chen in quad numbers.

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Zhou, 17, has a chance to become the youngest man to earn a world medal since Hanyu in 2012. Or the first man to win the world junior title one season and make the world senior podium the next since Yevgeny Plushenko in 1997-98.

Zhou is riding momentum. He struggled in the fall and entered nationals in January ranked fifth among Americans for the season. He placed third to make the Olympic team and then landed three clean quads in his Olympic free skate to jump from 12th to sixth.

“I did better there than a lot of people thought I would,” Zhou told NBC Sports research last week. “I knew I was capable of that all season.

“I want to reach my ultimate goal of being Olympic champion, and my best chance is in 2022 … because by 2026 I will probably be old and creaky with four prosthetic limbs.”

Aaron made it to Milan after Olympian Adam Rippon gave up his spot, and the top two alternates (Jason Brown and Ross Miner) both declined. Still, Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion, is seeded seventh in the men’s field based on top scores this season.

NBC Sports figure skating researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

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Carolina Kostner the sentimental favorite at figure skating worlds

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Olympic champion Alina Zagitova is without question the favorite at this week’s world figure skating championships, especially after the sprightly Russian’s training partner and rival Yevgenia Medvedeva withdrew because of injury.

She won’t be the sentimental favorite, though.

That would be Carolina Kostner, the ageless Italian star who could be competing at worlds for the last time on home soil. The 2012 champion and six-time world medalist seemed to indicate that retirement could be looming after she finished fifth at the PyeongChang Games, where she was chosen to carry the Italian flag at the Closing Ceremony.

Kostner will have a huge home crowd behind her when the event begins Wednesday in Milan.

“Decisions like that should never be taken in a hot moment. It will come naturally,” said Kostner, who no longer can compete with the sport’s high-fliers when it comes to technical marks, but whose elegant artistry and presentation often make up the difference.

“She is an example of perseverance, of a long-lasting athlete,” Medvedeva said. “I have trouble imagining how someone can stay in that shape for a very long time. When you see people like Carolina, you understand that if she can do something, then that something is possible. If you love what you do, you put all of yourself into it, like Carolina Kostner.”

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When asked about retirement, Kostner brought up her cousin, Isolde Kostner, who won three Olympic Alpine skiing medals before deciding to step away from competition.

“She stopped skiing shortly before the (2006) Olympics in Italy,” Caroline Kostner said. “Many did not understand why she wouldn’t pull through because it was her home country, and she said, ‘You will feel strongly when it is time to stop.’ And I haven’t felt it yet.”

The biggest story at the world championships in an Olympic year tends to be who is missing rather than who shows up. The grind of competing for an entire season builds toward the quadrennial event, and athletes who medal or intend to retire rarely press on to worlds. Then there are the injuries, which accumulate during the year.

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