Steve Yzerman: NHL players in Olympics ‘fantastic for our league’

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SOCHI, Russia — Tuesday at a mass press conference for the Russian men’s national hockey team, the man who vowed to participate in the Sochi Games no matter what the NHL said was given a prime opportunity to voice his support for ongoing Olympic participation. Instead, Alex Ovechkin sidestepped the question, saying his focus was on the current Games, not the next ones four years later in South Korea, or beyond.

Evgeni Malkin spoke next and backed ongoing participation — “I wish that every four years the NHL lets the players go to the Olympic Games” — and drew some applause for his comments.

But the moment was sort of lost by then.

Perhaps the most fervent argument for keeping NHLers in the Olympics we’ve heard here in Sochi has come from Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman.

“I think this is fantastic for our league,” he said. “We go back to the last year, and even beyond that, look how much attention this draws, how much conversation this draws, not only in Canada, but around the world. It promotes our league, it promotes our players. I believe it’s good for our game, I believe it’s good for the NHL.”

“It’s once every four years, I’m hopeful that we can continue. I understand there are challenges for our league, and things that we’d like to improve upon with the NHL’s relationship with the IIHF, the IOC, but I think it’s good for our league, and I’m hopeful that we’ll stay.”

The same question has been asked of numerous players here. Some have sidestepped it, a la Ovechkin. Others have said they’d like to keep coming. None have pulled an Ed Snider and said, “I hate ’em.” Big surprise there, right?

If the NHL had its way, unless commissioner Gary Bettman is trying to bluff his way to a better agreement with the IOC, these Sochi Games would probably be the last for the league.

Yesterday, deputy commissioner Bill Daly downplayed the allure of the Games.

“We certainly think the key element that makes the Olympics successful is best-on-best competition,” said Daly.

Translation: it’s not the magic of the Games that makes the hockey special. It’s the hockey. And we can hold our own best-on-best competition with the World Cup.

Daly did, however, allow that the Games were “special” for the players.

“I have heard the players feel the Olympics is something special and it is something different than best-on-best, it is the Olympics,” he said. “So there is an added element that the Olympics bring that is impossible for us to recreate.”

Translation: if the players want to be in South Korea four years later, they’d better speak up.

Related: Daly expects 2018 Olympic decision in six months

Kendall Gretsch wins six gold medals at Para Nordic Ski Worlds

Kendall Gretsch
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Kendall Gretsch, who won Paralympic titles at the last Summer and Winter Games, added another six gold medals at the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships in Sweden last week.

Gretsch, 30, earned seven total medals in seven days between biathlon and cross-country skiing.

Gretsch won gold medals in three different sports across the last three Paralympics: biathlon and cross-country skiing in 2018 (two years after taking up the sports), triathlon in 2021 and biathlon in 2022.

She plans to shift her focus back to triathlon after this winter for 2024 Paris Games qualification.

Gretsch, born with spina bifida, was the 2014 USA Triathlon Female Para Triathlete of the Year. Though triathlon was added to the Paralympics for the 2016 Rio Games, her classification was not added until Tokyo.

Also at last week’s worlds, six-time Paralympian Aaron Pike earned his first Paralympic or world championships gold medal in his decade-plus career, winning a 12.5km biathlon event.

Oksana Masters, who won seven medals in seven events at last year’s Paralympics to break the career U.S. Winter Paralympics medals record, missed worlds due to hand surgery.

The U.S. also picked up five medals at last week’s World Para Alpine Skiing Championships in Spain — three silvers for five-time Paralympian Laurie Stephens and two bronzes for 17-year-old Saylor O’Brien.

Stephens now has 18 career medals from world championships, plus seven at the Paralympics.

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World champion skier Kyle Smaine dies in avalanche at age 31

Kyle Smaine
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Kyle Smaine, a retired world champion halfpipe skier, died in an avalanche in Japan on Sunday, according to NBC News, citing Smaine’s father. He was 31.

Smaine, a 2015 World champion in ski halfpipe, had been doing ski filming in Japan, sharing videos on his Instagram account over the past week.

The native of South Lake Tahoe, California, finished ninth in ski halfpipe at the 2016 Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado.

In 2018, Smaine won the fifth and final U.S. Olympic qualifying series event in ski halfpipe but did not make the four-man team for PyeongChang. His last sanctioned international competition was in February 2018.

Late Sunday, two-time Olympic champion David Wise won the X Games men’s ski halfpipe and dedicated it to Smaine.

“We all did this for Kyle tonight,” Wise said on the broadcast. “It’s a little bit of an emotional day for us. We lost a friend.”