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2018 Olympic men’s hockey groups set; U.S. opponents same as 2014

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The U.S. men’s hockey team is grouped with Russia, Slovakia and Slovenia for a second straight Olympics.

Norway, Slovenia and Germany claimed the last spots in the 2018 Olympic men’s hockey field of 12 nations Sunday, while France heartbreakingly failed in its bid to qualify for the first time since 2002 with a goalie who played under Herb Brooks at the 1998 Olympics.

Norway came from behind to beat France 2-1 in their final qualifying game Sunday at an Oslo arena that hosted 1952 Olympic hockey games. France would have qualified for Pyeongchang over Norway with a win. Instead, Norway scored the decider with 2:29 left.

In other winner-take-all games, Slovenia ousted Belarus 3-2 in a shootout in Minsk. Germany edged Latvia 3-2 in Riga.

Two nations from Sochi failed to qualify for Pyeongchang — Austria and Latvia.

Latvia inspired at the 2014 Olympics, where it was tied with Canada in the third period of the quarterfinals but ultimately fell 2-1, a close affair despite a 57-16 shots-on-goal advantage for Canada.

Austria and Latvia are replaced in the 2018 Olympic field by host South Korea, in its first Olympics, and Germany, which had made every Olympics since the fall of the Berlin Wall before being upset by Austria in 2014 Olympic qualifying.

In Sochi, the U.S. crushed Slovakia 7-1, edged Russia 3-2 in the T.J. Oshie shootout and beat Slovenia 5-1. The Americans would lose 1-0 to Canada in the semifinals and 5-0 to Finland in the bronze-medal game.

The 2018 Olympic format will be the same as 2014, with all 12 nations advancing to a playoff bracket, but only group winners and the best second-place team receiving byes into the quarterfinals.

The 2018 Olympic men’s hockey groups (world ranking in parentheses):

Group A Group B Group C
Canada (1) Russia (2) Finland (3)
Czech Republic (6) USA (4) Sweden (5)
Switzerland (7) Slovakia (8) Germany (10)
South Korea (23 — host) Slovenia (15) Norway (11)

France’s elimination Sunday quashed what could have been one of the great stories of the Pyeongchang Winter Games.

Cristobal Huet, 41, was France’s goalie in all three qualification games this weekend.

Huet, best known for playing in the NHL from 2003 through 2010 and winning a Stanley Cup that last year, was in line to become the oldest playing goalie at the Olympics in 90 years, according to Olympic historians.

Huet played for France in its last two Olympic appearances, in 1998 and 2002. In the former, his coach was Herb Brooks, best known as the man who guided the U.S. team in the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Lake Placid Games.

In November 1997, Brooks took the French Olympic coaching job as a favor to a friend who happened to be the French team’s general manager, according to reports back then. It was his first Olympic coaching job since Lake Placid, and Brooks reportedly spoke little French.

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before the Nagano 1998 Olympics:

Earlier this week, a French reporter asked Brooks if France could pull off a Lake Placid-style miracle.

Brooks gave the man an icy stare.

“You are way off base,” Brooks said. “I mean no disrespect to you, but you have to understand that there will never be another Lake Placid. Never.”

The 1998 Olympic hockey tournament included a preliminary round for lower-ranked nations that first weekend.

France went 1-2, beating Japan but losing to Belarus and Germany, and failed to advance to face medal-contending nations such as the U.S. or Canada. Huet played in two of those preliminary-round games.

Brooks would lead France to an upset of the U.S. at the world championship three months after the Olympics. The American team at those worlds included few NHL players.

The 1998 Winter Games were the first Olympics with NHL participation, which continued for the next four editions. Whether the NHL will send its players to Pyeongchang is to be decided.

Here’s what Brooks said about NHL participation in the 1998 Olympics, according to the Post-Dispatch:

“It will be a tremendous tournament with the NHL players here,” Brooks said. “And this will be great marketing for the NHL. But I’m more of a traditionalist. I’m not a big fan of professionals in the Olympic Games. Maybe I’m sort of a dinosaur along those lines. I still hold out hope that the young players in the United States do not have to be an NHL All-Star to play in the Olympics. I think we’re taking a lot of the hopes and dreams and aspirations out of our young people.”

MORE: NHL decision on 2018 Olympic hockey not expected until after Rio

Carreira, Ponomarenko understand the depth of U.S. ice dance at nationals

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GREENSBORO, N.C. Heading into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro this week, up-and-coming ice dancers Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko focused on their “quads” not four-revolution jumps, but still pretty tough to execute.

“(Our coaches) have us doing double run-through weeks, triple run-throughs, even quadruple run-throughs, to make sure we’re fully ready,” Carreira said. “We’re drilling a lot more, so at nationals we go in 100 percent confident.”

Pasquale Camerlengo, who trains the team along with primary coach Igor Shpilband, agreed that the run-up to Greensboro has been grueling for the skaters from Novi, Mich.

“We always plan a week we call the quads, performing (programs) four times,” Camerlengo said. “We’re trying to make them ready physically and work their stamina, to handle their programs in competition, which is a little bit different than in practice. Physically, they’re ready for it.”

Tough practices are just one component of what’s been a challenging but productive sophomore senior season for the two-time world junior medalists, fifth in the U.S. in 2019.

Thus far, they’ve competed at six international competitions, stretching from Lake Placid, N.Y., in August to NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan, in late November. Six is a lot, considering other top teams they’ll compete against in Greensboro have competed three to five times so far this season.

“Igor wants to get more experience at the senior level, and also more world points,” Carreira, 19, said. “For that we have to compete. We get out there and compete as much as we can, so our programs feel more trained.”

Those programs – a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot” and flamenco free dance to “Farrucas” – stretch their abilities far more than last season’s routines. Competing every two weeks or so left little time to make adjustments, so the past six weeks were the key to their preparation for Greensboro.

“We pushed a lot of changes we needed to make until after NHK, to smooth out the programs and really train them,” Ponomarenko, 18, said.

He added that the grueling first half of 2019-20 was a necessary ice dance rite of passage.

“It’s very different from our first season. We really didn’t know what to expect. Now we kind of know where we’re at and how we can improve. We definitely feel the sophomore slump this year, but we just want to compete and keep putting our good performances.”

On paper, Carreira and Ponomarenko’s 2018 Grand Prix results – which included a bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup – look more impressive than the sixth-place finishes they earned at Skate America and NHK this season. But the skaters don’t think the placements tell the full story.

“Last season, results-wise, it might have looked better, because a lot of (top) teams took the Grand Prix season off last season,” Carreira said. “This season, I feel our programs are more difficult and we’re skating better. We want to improve our consistency so that we can compete with the top teams.”

It doesn’t take much to lose points in an ice dance routine, especially on step sequences and “twizzles,” a series of fast rotations moving across the ice. A few slips here – including a small mistake on their twizzles in the rhythm dance at Skate America – can easily drop teams out of the top group.

“They always have the feeling they could do more,” Camerlengo said. “But the season is a progression. They’re getting better and better. That’s the goal, to have them (be) more reliable.”

“They need to do what they’re capable of,” he added. “They just have to do what they’ve learned, with no fear, and just go for it.”

In Greensboro, Carreira and Ponomarenko will have to throw caution to the wind to grab one of the three U.S. ice dance spots at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal this March.

With Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, very likely battling for gold, the Michigan skaters have their sights set on bronze. It’s a herculean task, considering the reigning U.S. bronze medalists, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, qualified for the Grand Prix Final last season and notched career-best scores at Skate Canada this fall.

All three of those teams train together in Montreal. 

But Carreira and Ponomarenko think their programs, strengthened by adjustments and all of those quadruple run-throughs, give them a fighting chance.

“(A bronze medal) is more realistic now than last season,” Carreira said.

“I believe we’ve really grown as skaters,” Ponomarenko said. “Our programs are much more difficult, which has really helped us improve. I believe the podium at nationals is very reasonable. It could be achieved with some good skating.”

Other teams could be in the mix. Last season, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter placed a strong fourth, but injuries forced them to withdraw from one of their Grand Prix events this fall. A new pairing, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, has gelled quickly, winning two medals at Challenger Series international events.

“The level of U.S. ice dance level is high, the depth in the U.S. is really the top worldwide,” Camerlengo said. “But the podium, it is reasonable for Christina and Anthony. They have been working hard and they have a very good level to fight for the medal. We’ll see how they will perform here. They’re ready for it.”

Not all of the team’s challenges are on the ice. The Montreal-born Carreira – who has lived and trained in Novi since she was 13 – faces hurdles gaining her U.S. citizenship, without which the couple cannot compete at the Olympics. Last May, she petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to be deemed an “alien with extraordinary ability” under the immigration code, which would help smooth the way for legal permanent residency status. She was denied and filed suit against the USCIS, later dropping the action.

Carreira is still working to achieve a pathway to U.S. citizenship and prefers not to discuss the issue.

“I can’t really say anything,” she said. “We’re working on it, we’re hoping for the best.”

Citizenship issues never entered the skaters’ minds when they teamed up in the spring of 2014. Ponomarenko and his parents, 1988 Olympic ice dance champions Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, had long admired Carreira’s skating. When he and his former partner Sarah Feng split after the 2014 U.S. Championships, he tried out with Carreira in Novi.

“We really worked well together from the beginning,” Ponomarenko said. “I had wanted to skate with Christina for a really long time even before getting together, so it was no-brainer. The bump in the road (citizenship) can be worked through.”

“There were so many good factors it would be, I think, stupid to let something that can be fixed get in the way of (our partnership),” Carreira said. “We didn’t even think about it.”

The ice dance competition in Greensboro kicks off with the rhythm dance on Friday afternoon, with medalists decided with the free dance on Saturday night.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Coronavirus forces Olympic soccer and boxing qualifiers to move

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Olympic qualifying events in two sports were moved from the Chinese city of Wuhan on Wednesday because of an outbreak of a deadly viral illness.

A four-nation Asian qualifying group for the women’s soccer tournament was switched from the city at the center of the health scare to Nanjing.

The Asia-Oceania boxing qualifying tournament scheduled for Feb. 3-14 in Wuhan was cancelled. No new plans were announced.

The decisions followed Chinese health authorities telling people in Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings.

The Asian Football Confederation said the round-robin group — featuring host China, Australia, Taiwan and Thailand — will be played on Feb. 3-9, retaining the same dates, in Nanjing.

More than 500 people have been infected and at least 17 killed since the outbreak emerged last month. The illness comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus.

Cases have also been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. All involve people from Wuhan or who recently traveled there.

In the soccer qualifiers in China, two teams advance to a four-nation playoff round in March. That will decide which two teams from Asia join host Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

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