U.S. hockey displays ‘kind of depth’ that ‘you need to have’

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SOCHI, Russia – It may not be blessed with a superstar like Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, but the United States men’s hockey team showed Thursday what four solid lines with a healthy mix of talent, tenacity and chemistry can do.

A dominant 7-1 win over Slovakia was how the U.S. opened its 2014 Olympic tournament. Paul Stastny scored twice while skating between wingers Max Pacioretty and T.J. Oshie on a line that was technically the Americans’ fourth, but sure didn’t play that way.

Not that the trio’s effectiveness surprised head coach Dan Bylsma.

“We talked about it going into the game,” said Bylsma, “that the line of Stastny, Pacioretty, and Oshie could be our best line in this game, and it turned out to be that for us.

“Not only did they find themselves on the score sheet, I think every time over the boards they made something positive happen with their shifts, with their offensive zone time. That’s the kind of depth throughout your lineup that you need to have, that we do have.”

Phil Kessel had a big game as well, finishing with a goal and two assists while showing off his already-proven chemistry with Toronto teammate James van Riemsdyk, who assisted on Kessel’s second-period tally.

“He is on fire,” van Riemsdyk said of Kessel. “It is fun to play with him and the game is coming really easy to him right now. He is working hard and creating a lot.”

The pair of Maple Leafs, centered by Joe Pavelski, also combined to set up John Carlson for the game’s first goal.

On top of all that, Patrick Kane and Ryan Kesler – usually on opposite sides of a fierce (or at least once-fierce) rivalry in the NHL – seemed to click, with the former setting up the latter for the one-timer game-winner early in the second period.

“He’s always looking for you,” Kesler said of playing with Kane. “He’s always dangerous when he gets the puck. For whatever reason, we seem to be reading off each other well, and I like playing with him a lot.”

And remember that finding chemistry in rapid fashion is especially important in a short tournament like the Olympics, where there’s so little time to gel before the win-or-go-home games begin.

“You need to figure out each other’s lines quick, get chemistry,” said Kesler. “If you do that, you’re going to be successful.”

Next up for the Americans? A date Saturday with the host Russians in the showcase contest of the preliminary round.

Alex Ovechkin. Evgeni Malkin. Pavel Datsyuk. Alex Semin. Ilya Kovalchuk. The Russians may not have the kind of forward depth the Americans showed off today, but Bylsma – who coaches Malkin in Pittsburgh – doesn’t know if any team can match the hosts’ top-end skill.

“Their team is very talented,” said Bylsma, “maybe the most talented in the tournament, with some of the star players they have. Evgeni Malkin, I’ve seen him do things that I don’t know what he’s going to do next, and how he does it offensively and with the puck.

“So to have a game plan, or to tell someone what to expect, you might have to expect the unexpected against a player of that ilk, how talented he is. … It’s not just going to be one or two players on their team that we have to be concerned with. We may have a little more information on how to get to Evgeni Malkin, but I’m not sure it’s going to be the full story.”

IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

Thomas Bach
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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

Alyssa Thomas
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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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