After IOC joins talks, no decision yet on NHL players in 2018 Olympics

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The four top stakeholders in the discussion over whether NHL players will participate in the Winter Olympics in South Korea next year met without resolution Friday, with one warning that time is running short to make a decision.

Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, for the first time joined International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players’ Association Executive Director Don Fehr at a meeting in New York. With league owners reluctant to put next season on hiatus for nearly three weeks against the wishes of their own players, it’s clear that hurdles remain with 12 months to go.

Fasel said the group may need to get back together soon and set a deadline.

“I have a coordination commission in March in Korea,” Fasel told reporters at NHL offices in New York. “We need to know about the accommodation. We need to know about the transportation. The sooner we know, the better we can prepare the conditions for the NHL players and the NHL.”

Bettman and NHL team owners appear willing to skip the Pyeongchang Games in 2018 and possibly resume Olympic participation in China four years later, assuming the IOC would allow that to happen. They don’t want to shut their season down without tangible benefits, and the 14-hour time difference and relatively small market in South Korea are not enticing.

“The focus from the clubs’ standpoint is what does this disruption to our season mean?” Bettman said. “Clubs are very concerned about the competitiveness of our season, the health and wellbeing of our players, whether or not there’s fatigue. From our standpoint, I think the clubs are very much focused on disruption to the NHL season.”

Players, it seems universally, want to participate in a sixth straight Olympics.

“There’s a shared interest in developing our game with international play,” Fehr said in a telephone interview. “We have a difference of opinion with the owners about where the Olympics fit in, particularly in South Korea.”

Fehr said Bach’s presence was a positive sign.

“It was good that he came and showed interest,” Fehr told The Associated Press. “We had a frank discussion without any agreements.”

While the IOC got involved in the talks, Bach made it clear the other three parties will have to come up with an agreement.

“We all want see the best players at the Olympic Winter Games Pyeongchang 2018, and we know the players feel the same,” Bach said. “Therefore, we hope even more that the international federation and the NHL will reach a solution to make the Olympic dreams of the players come true.”

The IIHF has come up with the money needed to cover travel and insurance costs for players, Fasel said, suggesting other issues are more important.

The Olympics has become part of the NHL labor situation. The league recently asked if the union would eliminate its opt-out option in 2019 and extend the labor pact three years through the 2024-2025 season in exchange for participating in the 2018 Olympics. The union refused.

More than 400 miles away from the meeting, John Tavares was paying attention in Detroit as he and the rest of the New York Islanders prepared for a game against the Red Wings. Tavares, a union representative, said the topic seems to be a bargaining chip between the league and players.

“It can be used as a sensitive issue,” he said. “You can make the argument on the negative impact it can make during the regular season, but then globally, the positive impact it can make. There’s a lot of talk about China and preseason games and the growth there when the Olympics go there. We’ll see what happens. There’s a lot of moving parts.”

Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said the Olympics is a unique event and is eager to return to a third Games.

“This is an event, huge in the whole world. I don’t see why we have to give something up now. I think just play for your country in a big event all over the world,” he said.

MORE: 2018 Olympic hockey groups set

 

 

Major League Baseball sponsors U.S. Olympic softball team

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NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball is using its financial muscle to support the U.S. women’s softball team, which already is assured a spot in the Tokyo Olympics while the American men’s baseball team struggles to qualify.

MLB announced an agreement Thursday to become presenting sponsor of the women’s “Stand Beside Her” tour, a slate of exhibition games leading up to the Olympic tournament from July 22-28.

“We’re both bat and ball sports. Even though we’re not the same sport, there are so many similarities that you just can’t ignore,” said Kim Ng, MLB’s senior vice president for baseball operations. “It was important for us to make sure that they have this acknowledgment and recognition of their ability and their talent.”

Softball began as an Olympic sport for the 1996 Atlanta Games. The U.S. won gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004 with players that included Dot Richardson, Jennie Finch and Jessica Mendoza, then lost to Japan in the 2008 gold-medal game.

Baseball and softball were dropped for the next two Olympics, then restored for this year, when the U.S. and Japan will be joined by Australia, Canada, Italy and Mexico for games in Fukushima and Yokohama but not Tokyo. The sports are likely to be dropped for 2024 in Paris but could return four years later in Los Angeles.

The U.S. men’s baseball team stumbled in its first attempt to qualify, wasting a ninth-inning lead against Mexico in the final game of the Premier12 tournament in November and losing in the 10th. The U.S. has two more chances to join Israel, Japan, Mexico and South Korea in the Olympic field: an Americas tournament in Arizona from March 22-26 and a final tournament in Taiwan from April 1-5.

MLB is not allowing players on 40-man big league rosters to compete in qualifying, and few top pitching prospects were at the November tournament.

Softball has no such issues. The Olympics are the sport’s highest-profile event.

“The platform for us is 10 times bigger,” American outfielder Haylie McCleney said. “For us, it’s a great opportunity for people that have never watched softball before, people that have only followed it at the collegiate level, to really see how fun our game is to watch, how pure it is. If people are baseball fans, I guarantee they’re going to love softball because it’s pretty much just a faster game – it’s shorter, it’s quicker, it’s more entertaining to watch, in my opinion.”

The 2008 gold-medal softball game took 1 hours, 45 minutes — less than half the 3:45 average for this year’s World Series.

As part of the deal with MLB, the softball team’s official training facility will be at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Florida, the old Dodgertown spring training camp.

MLB Network will include programming from the tour, which currently starts Feb. 4 in Tampa and has about three dozen stops.

The U.S. women’s soccer team has attracted huge television audiences. MLB sees softball as an opportunity for the sport’s growth.

“These are world-class athletes,” Ng said. “Because we have not been in the Olympics for the last 12 years, they just haven’t had that stage. So it’s really important at this point that we show as much support as we can for them.”

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MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

Rafael Nadal advances at Australian Open; American back on Slam stage

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Rafael Nadal joined Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open third round, sweeping Argentine Federico Delbonis 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-1 on Thursday.

Nadal, whose lone Australian Open title came in 2009, gets countryman Pablo Carreno Busta in Saturday’s third round. He could face No. 23 Nick Kyrgios of Australia in round four, but neither Federer nor Djokovic until the final.

No. 4 Daniil Medvedeva and No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Simona Halep were also winners Thursday. Friday’s third-round action is headlined by defending champion Naomi Osaka facing 15-year-old U.S. phenom Coco Gauff.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

The only top-20 seed to lose Thursday was No. 20 Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic. American CiCi Bellis bounced her 6-4, 6-4.

This was a big deal for Bellis: Two full years and four right arm operations have come and gone since she was last healthy enough to participate in a Grand Slam tournament.

Bellis was something of a teen prodigy. In her very first tour-level match, at age 15 at the 2014 U.S. Open, she stunned 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, an Australian Open runner-up, to become the youngest American to win a match at Flushing Meadows in 28 years.

She reached No. 35 in the rankings at 17, when she won WTA Newcomer of the Year honors.

Then came the series of health problems, including for torn tendons in her wrist, to shorten a bone in her arm and for bone spurs in her elbow. All the time away from the tour has her at No. 600 in the rankings currently, but she was able to get into the draw in Australia via the protected ranking rule.

In other action, U.S. Open runner-up Medvedev  found himself seated in the nosebleed section at Margaret Court Arena, even though he was playing his second-round match there.

That’s because the No. 4-seeded Russian found himself dealing with something he said happens to him a couple of times each year: a nosebleed.

Medvedev blotted his nose with a towel and then was treated by a trainer while his 7-5, 6-1, 6-3 over Spanish qualifier Pedro Martinez was delayed for more than five minutes late in the second set.

“Can happen to me sometimes. Doesn’t usually happen during the match, so I had to stop (playing). Usually takes like four minutes — three, four minutes. … But it’s nothing,” Medvedev said.

MORE: Another top U.S. tennis player cools on Olympics

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