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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

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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Russian hockey star stays in KHL, cites Olympics as key

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Ilya Kovalchuk, a four-time Russian Olympian, chose to stay in the KHL rather than explore an NHL return in 2017-18 due largely to the NHL not participating in the PyeongChang Olympics.

“One of the main factors was the upcoming Olympic Games,” Kovalchuk said, according to his KHL team’s website. “In 2018, only players who play in European championships and the KHL can compete there.”

Kovalchuk, 34, shares the Russian men’s record of four Olympic hockey appearances with Sergei Gonchar and Pavel Datsyuk. He has been playing in the KHL with SKA St. Petersburg since 2012, winning two of the last three Gagarin Cups and ranking second in the league in points last season.

Gonchar is retired. Datsyuk, who is four years older than Kovalchuk, also plays for SKA St. Petersburg and is eligible for the Olympics.

Kovalchuk is the youngest Russian or Soviet Olympic men’s hockey player ever, when he suited up at age 18 in 2002.

In 2018, Datsyuk will be older than all but two previous Russian Olympic men’s hockey players, Igor Larionov in 2002 and Sergei Fedorov in 2010.

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