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KHL retracts Olympic participation announcement

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MOSCOW (AP) — The president of the KHL, the world’s second-best hockey league after the NHL, said Wednesday he is waiting to find out how many Russians will be banned from the Pyeongchang Olympics before deciding if he will allow his players to compete in South Korea.

Dmitry Chernyshenko, the head of the Sochi Olympic organizing committee and now president of the KHL, said “we’ll understand who’s going and who’s not going and then the league will respond accordingly.”

The Moscow-based KHL previously expressed outrage at bans for Russian athletes in other sports tainted by doping at the Sochi Olympics.

No allegations have been made of wrongdoing in Sochi by the Russian men’s hockey team that lost in the quarterfinals.

With the NHL already out of the Pyeongchang Olympics, any KHL withdrawal would affect more than just the Russian team, whose current roster is entirely KHL-based. Teams like Canada, the United States and Finland are also counting on KHL players for Pyeongchang.

Russians in Pyeongchang must compete as “Olympic Athletes from Russia” under a neutral flag as IOC punishment for doping offenses at the 2014 Olympics.

The KHL also published a statement on its website Wednesday supporting Russian players competing under the IOC conditions, but then removed it. The league’s media department said it was taken down because it was posted by mistake and that Chernyshenko’s comments took precedence.

Last week’s IOC ruling didn’t accuse Chernyshenko of any wrongdoing in Sochi, but did order him removed from an IOC body overseeing preparations for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Also Wednesday, the Russian Hockey Federation — which accepts Russians competing as neutral athletes in Pyeongchang — looked set for a dispute with the IOC over uniforms.

Russians in Pyeongchang are required to compete in IOC-approved uniforms without Russian national colors or symbols. However, the RHF believes it can still use its existing Nike-manufactured jerseys, which are red with a large Russian double-headed eagle emblem across the chest.

“There’s a discussion around the uniform,” said Roman Rotenberg, the federation’s senior vice president. “It’s been produced already and there are certain technical questions.”

Rotenberg predicted there was a “90 percent chance” the Russian hockey team could wear the red Nike uniforms when competing in Pyeongchang.

For the U.S., seven of the 28 players on its pre-Olympic tournament roster from November were playing in the KHL.

Notable potential Olympians in the KHL:

Russia
Pavel Datsyuk (F) — Four Olympics, four NHL All-Star teams
Ilya Kovalchuk (F) — Four Olympics, three NHL All-Star teams
Andrei Markov (D) — Three Olympics, two NHL All-Star teams
Slava Voynov (D) — Sochi Olympian,, two NHL All-Star teams
Sergey Mozyakin (F) — KHL career goals, points leader

U.S.
Ryan Zapolski (G) — No. 1 U.S. goaltender playing abroad

Canada
Max Talbot (F) — Scored 2009 Stanley Cup-winning goal for Pittsburgh Penguins
Ben Scrivens (G) — No. 1 Canada goaltender playing abroad

Finland
Sami Lepistö (D) — Two-time Olympian, parts of five NHL seasons
Mikko Koskinen (G) — Top goalie at 2016 World Championship

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KHL could pull out of Olympics over Russia doping cases

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MOSCOW (AP) — The Kontinental Hockey League may withdraw its players from the PyeongChang Olympics in protest at doping investigations into Russian athletes, the league president suggested Saturday.

The Moscow-based KHL, widely considered the strongest league outside the NHL, contains leading Russians but also many players who could represent the United States, Canada, and various European nations.

The stars include former NHL All-Stars Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk of Russia. Plus American Ryan Zapolski, one of the league’s top goalies this season.

In a statement, KHL president Dmitry Chernyshenko said the International Olympic Committee “is destroying the existing world order in sports” by pursuing doping cases against Russians in other sports who are suspected of using banned substances around the time of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Chernyshenko referenced the NHL’s absence from PyeongChang this February after failing to reach a deal with the IOC, and said “the KHL is ready to respond accordingly.”

IOC commissions “suspend athletes without a basis of real facts confirming doping,” Chernyshenko said. A Russian gold medalist in cross-country skiing was stripped of his title by an IOC panel on Wednesday using evidence of Russian doping cover-ups and tampering with sample bottles.

Chernyshenko previously headed Russia’s organizing committee for the Sochi Olympics, where Russia has since been accused of operating a state-sponsored program of drug use and cover-ups.

Russians were being unfairly targeted by the IOC, Chernyshenko said. He referred to a recent speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin in which Putin accused the U.S. of lobbying the IOC for Russia’s exclusion from the PyeongChang Olympics or trying to force IOC officials to make Russians compete under a neutral flag.

A KHL pullout from the Olympics would leave Russia with very few players to choose from — if Russia was still allowed or willing to take part in the Olympic ice hockey tournament.

For the U.S. and Canada, it would mean a greater reliance on junior or college players, or those scattered across smaller European leagues.

Countries like Finland and Sweden could benefit — they’d lose some KHL-based players, but would be in a comparatively stronger position because of the depth in their national leagues.

The KHL contains clubs across seven countries from Finland to China, but the vast majority are in Russia. Many teams are funded by Russian state companies, regional governments or businessmen close to Putin. The league chairman is Gennady Timchenko, a billionaire who used to be Putin’s sparring partner in judo.

“The KHL won’t talk about a ban [on players going to the Olympics], but about reviewing the calendar,” KHL board member Alexander Medvedev told Russian news agency TASS. “In that case, contracted players won’t be able to go anywhere. Legally, it’s absolutely permitted. If Russia isn’t taking part in the games, then there’s no sense in having a break [in the KHL season].”

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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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