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With no NHL, Olympic hockey nations turn to Plan B

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The morning after the NHL announced it wasn’t going to the 2018 Olympics, some Americans playing in Europe started wondering if they should keep their schedules open for next February.

“Myself and couple other Americans, Deron Quint and Dave Leggio, were joking around to not make any plans over the Olympic break next year because they might need us to play,” said Keith Aucoin, a 38-year-old former NHL forward who is playing in Germany.

No joking, they might. In the aftermath of the NHL’s decision, USA Hockey and other national federations insisted they have a Plan B – but it’s not clear how to proceed.

Just because the NHL doesn’t stop its season to participate in South Korea doesn’t mean some players won’t try to go anyway, and the league hasn’t decided if it will allow teams to give players permission to leave. The federations can’t just raid the American Hockey League – many players have NHL contracts – and the same is true even in European professional leagues.

The result in coming months may be nations navigating a wild set of complications in putting their Olympic teams together.

If Patrick Kane, Jonathan Quick, Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews aren’t available, USA Hockey will likely look to Americans playing Europe to fill the bulk of its roster and mix in a handful of college players. Former NHL forward Mark Arcobello leads the top Swiss league in scoring, Aucoin is among the leaders in Germany, and former NHL defenseman Matt Gilroy and Jonathon Blum are piling up points in the Kontintental Hockey League based primarily in Russia.

Goaltending options for the Americans could include Leggio and Jerry Kuhn playing in Germany, Ryan Zapolski from the KHL, Notre Dame’s Cal Peters and Tyler Parsons of the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights, who just led the U.S. to world junior gold. USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean called the country’s player pool “as deep as it has ever been,” and executive Jim Johannson – who could be tasked with putting the team together – said the U.S. will “have 25 great stories on the ice in South Korea and will go to the Olympics with medal expectations.”

Two-time defending Olympic champion Canada always has gold-medal expectations but is arguably hurt the most of any country by the NHL not going. Canada’s benefit is that it has depth of talent that spills over into the AHL and European professional leagues.

It’s not the elite of the elite, but there are more than 550 Canadians playing in the AHL and more than 200 across Europe, including former NHL goalie Ben Scrivens, defensemen Cam Barker and Brendan Mikkelson and forwards Derek Roy, Daniel Paille and Jonathan Cheechoo.

“We have developed both a Plan A and a Plan B, and will be ready to move forward,” Hockey Canada president Tom Renney said.

In a recent interview, Renney said Hockey Canada has already pursued its Plan B and will be nimble enough to adjust to any changes to rules concerning eligible players.

Two-time Canadian Olympic gold-medal winner Jonathan Toews expects top junior and college and a lot of European players to make up Canada’s roster.

“There are some really good players playing in Europe,” the Chicago Blackhawks’ captain said.. “They’re guys, you look at them, and you’re surprised they’re not playing here and making big money. Canadian hockey, obviously I’m biased, we’ve proven we’re the best over the course of time. The amount of talent and players we’ve produced out of Canada is so great, that we could ice a good team whether we had NHL players or not.”

Although the International Olympic Committee said “players from all the other professional ice hockey leagues will participate” in PyeongChang, there’s even a small amount of uncertainty about that. Assuming European leagues do give players permission or stop their seasons, the player pool for the U.S., Canada and other countries could grow if potential borderline NHL free agents choose to go abroad next season for a chance to play in the Olympics.

Russia is likely to be the gold medal favorite thanks to former NHL stars like Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk playing in the KHL and being available. Alex Ovechkin intends to go to the Olympics anyway, and Washington Capitals teammates Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov said they plan to join him.

Finland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia could benefit from the absence of NHL stars because of the players they have in Europe. Big goalie Mikko Koskinen isn’t Tuukka Rask but would give the Finns a chance, and the Czechs could get stable goaltending from KHL stars Dominik Furch and Pavel Francouz – plus maybe Jaromir Jagr goes home at age 45 for one last Olympic chance.

Sweden’s NHL talent base is growing, but that could mean a rough go at the Olympics, leaning on former NHL goalie Viktor Fasth and forward Joakim Lindstrom and maybe young Philadelphia Flyers prospect Oskar Lindblom.

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Katie Ledecky extends 5-year win streak

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Katie Ledecky extended a five-year domestic win streak by taking the 200m freestyle at the Tyr Pro Swim Series at Bloomington on Saturday.

In her last full meet before July’s world championships, Ledecky clocked 1:55.80 to beat training partner Simone Manuel by 1.44 seconds for her second win in as many days. Ledecky is also entered in Sunday’s 800m free on the last day of the meet.

Ledecky, who also cruised to a 400m free victory on Friday, ranks third in the world in the 200m free this year, behind Australian Ariarne Titmus and Swede Sarah Sjöström (the Olympic silver medalist who is not expected to race the 200m free at worlds).

Ledecky, a five-time Olympic champion, hasn’t lost a 200m, 400m, 800m or 1500m free final at a domestic meet since Allison Schmitt beat her in a 200m free on Jan. 18, 2014 when Ledecky was 16 years old.

BLOOMINGTON: Full Results

But Ledecky lost the two biggest 200m frees of this Olympic cycle so far, at the 2017 World Championships and the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships. Italian veteran Federica Pellegrini handed Ledecky her first individual final defeat at a major international meet at 2017 Worlds.

Ledecky dropped to third in the 200m free at Pan Pacs in Tokyo last year, beaten by younger swimmers Taylor Ruck of Canada and Rikako Ikee of Japan.

Ruck, who like Ledecky trains at Stanford, is in Bloomington, but she chose not to swim the 200m free on Saturday. She instead swam the 200m backstroke about 45 minutes after the 200m free and was upset by 17-year-old Regan Smith. Smith won in 2:06.47, moving to No. 3 in the world this year.

In other events Saturday, Ella Eastin captured the 400m individual medley in 4:37.18, taking 1.25 seconds off her personal best and moving to fifth in the world this year. Eastin is not on the world championships team after an untimely bout with mono before qualifying meets last summer.

Blake Pieroni won the men’s 200m free in 1:47.25. No American ranks in the top 20 in the world this year. World silver medalist Townley Haas did not enter Bloomington.

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Noah Lyles wins duel with Christian Coleman in Shanghai

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Noah Lyles won the first of what will hopefully be multiple head-to-heads with Christian Coleman this season, taking a 100m at a Diamond League meet in Shanghai on Saturday.

Both U.S. sprint phenoms clocked 9.86 seconds, with Lyles coming from about fifth place at 50 meters to edge Coleman by .006 with a lean.

“This was a message to myself,” Lyles said, according to the IAAF. “The 100 has never been my dominant thing so I wanted to make sure this year that everybody knew I was a 100 and 200 runner, and not just a 200 runner kind of running the 100.”

It’s a personal best for Lyles. Coleman has run 9.79.

Lyles, undefeated in outdoor 200m races since finishing fourth at the 2016 Olympic Trials at age 18, beat Coleman for the first time in three career senior 100m head-to-heads.

While Lyles prefers the 200m, Coleman has said he hopes to qualify for this fall’s world championships in both the 100m and 200m.

If Coleman follows through on that, he and Lyles will face off in the 200m at the USATF Outdoor Championships in July. Saturday marked Coleman’s first individual race since Aug. 31.

“It is always a struggle to get in good form after such a long time away from competition, so I didn’t have any specific expectations for today,” Coleman said. “In general I am fine with 9.86 today.”

Full Shanghai results are here. The Diamond League next visits Stockholm on May 30.

In other events, Qatar’s Abderrahman Samba won his anticipated duel with Rai Benjamin in a matchup between the second- and third-fastest 400m hurdlers in history. Samba, who took up the event full-time two years ago, clocked 47.27 seconds, which would have been the fastest time in a decade if not for Samba and Benjamin’s rapid times last June.

Benjamin, born in the Bronx and raised partly in Antigua and Barbuda, was passed before the last hurdle and crossed in 47.80. Last June, Benjamin won the NCAA title in 47.02, then matching Edwin Moses as second-fastest in history. Samba ran 46.98 later that month.

Kevin Young remains the longest-standing world-record holder in men’s track racing, setting 46.78 in the 1992 Olympic final.

Sydney McLaughlin, who in Rio became the youngest U.S. track and field athlete to compete at an Olympics in 44 years, was an impressive second in the 400m in her Diamond League debut. The 19-year-old pro, whose focus is the 400m hurdles, clung to world 400m silver medalist Salwa Eid Naser in the final straight and crossed in 50.78, just .13 back of Naser.

Naser hasn’t lost to anyone other than Olympic and world champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo in the last two years. Miller-Uibo was absent from Shanghai.

U.S. champion Aleia Hobbs won her senior international 100m debut in 11.03 seconds, beating a field that included Olympic champ Elaine Thompson. Hobbs did so two weeks after fracturing a wrist playing laser tag. Thompson, who last won a Diamond League race in 2017, was third in 11.14.

Ethiopian Yomif Kejelcha won a battle among the three fastest active 5000m runners, bounding from Selemon Barega to win by .55 in 13:04.16. Barega won last year’s Diamond League Final in 12:43.02, the world’s fastest time in 13 years.

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