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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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Five events to watch at Prefontaine Classic

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The 2017 World Track and Field Championships left questions that could carry over into 2019 and 2020. What does Allyson Felix have left? When will Justin Gatlin cede the world’s fastest man title? How much longer will Caster Semenya be unbeatable?

Those questions might not be answered at this weekend’s Prefontaine Classic (NBC and NBC Sports Gold broadcast schedule here), but it could be the most important meet of a year without a world championships to sort them out.

Felix races the 400m, now her trademark event after a decade as mainly a 200m sprinter, for the first time since taking bronze at worlds in London in August. She does so against the women who beat her both at worlds in London and in Rio.

Gatlin withdrew from Pre on Wednesday, but the man now seen as the heir to Usain Bolt‘s sprint throne, Christian Coleman, races the 100m for the first time since worlds, too. Coleman may have been edged by Gatlin in their one-two at worlds, but he is 14 years younger and coming off an indoor season where he ran the 60m faster than the world record three times (twice under legal conditions).

If Coleman stays fast at Pre, through the summer and 2019, we may look back on 2017 as the transition year between the retiring Bolt and rising Coleman more so than Gatlin’s return to the top.

Semenya faces all of her closest 800m rivals on Saturday, though “close” must be used loosely. Her dominance may be impacted going into next season if the IAAF’s new testosterone limits on middle-distance runners are implemented. This Diamond League season presents what could be the final opportunities for American Ajee’ Wilson and others to take on Semenya before the women’s 800m landscape changes significantly.

Eugene start lists are available here. Here’s the schedule (all times Eastern):

FRIDAY
9:37 p.m. — Men’s Pole Vault
9:42 — Men’s Javelin
10:52 — Men’s 800m
11:06 — Men’s 2 Mile

SATURDAY
3:40 p.m. — Women’s Pole Vault
3:43 — Men’s Triple Jump
3:48 — Men’s International Mile
4 — Men’s High Jump
4:03 — Women’s 400m Hurdles
4:10 — Women’s 800m
4:18 — Men’s 100m
4:26 — Men’s 3000m Steeplechase
4:41 — Women’s 100m
4:50 — Women’s 1500m
4:58 — Men’s Shot Put
5:03 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
5:10 — Women’s 5000m
5:31 — Women’s 400m
5:44 — Men’s 200m
5:51 — Men’s Bowerman Mile

Here are five events to watch on Saturday:

Women’s 800m — 4:10 p.m. ET
Olympic champion Caster Semenya faces the fastest American of all time, Ajee’ Wilson, for the first time since the 2017 Worlds, where Semenya breezed past Wilson and Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba in the final straight. Semenya is undefeated at 800m for 22 straight meets dating to September 2015, according to Tilastopaja.org.

Men’s 3000m Steeplechase — 4:26 p.m. ET
First matchup between Olympic and world champion Consenslus Kipruto of Kenya and top American Evan Jager this season, and Jager’s first steeplechase anywhere since Sept. 1. Kipruto relegated Jager to silver at the Olympics and bronze at the world championships. Jager has never won a race with Kipruto in the field but does have the world’s fastest time since the Rio Games.

Women’s 100m — 4:41 p.m. ET
The top five women from the 2017 World Championships, led by gold medalist Tori Bowie and Jamaican Elaine Thompson, who swept the 100m and 200m in Rio but was shockingly fifth at worlds. Thompson suffered her second 100m defeat since the start of 2016 at the Diamond League opener in Doha on May 4. Bowie has been absent from the Diamond League since worlds in August. Marie-Josée Ta Lou and Murielle Ahouré of the Ivory Coast and Dutchwoman Dafne Schippers have a chance here.

Men’s Shot Put — 4:58 p.m. ET
Every reigning Olympic and world medalist is in this field, plus the six men who combined for the world’s 33 best outdoor throws since the start of 2013. It’s headlined by Rio gold and silver medalists Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs of the U.S. and New Zealand’s Tomas Walsh, who on March 25 matched the farthest throw in the world since 1990. Crouser defeated Walsh at the Drake Relays on April 28.

Women’s 400m — 5:31 p.m. ET
Allyson Felix and Shaunae Miller-Uibo go head-to-head in the 400m for the first time outside of the Olympics and world championships. Their last meeting was at 2017 Worlds in London: Miller-Uibo led Felix going into the final straight, but Felix was passed by countrywoman Phyllis Francis and Bahrain’s Salwa Eid Naser while Miller-Uibo stumbled and ended up behind all three of them. Pre is the outdoor 400m season debut for Felix, Miller-Uibo and Francis. Miller-Uibo has already in 2018 run the fastest times ever for 300m indoors and 150m on a straightaway.

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Katinka Hosszu, coach/husband Shane Tusup split

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Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu, the Olympic and world champion in both individual medleys, is no longer working with coach and husband Shane Tusup, according to Hosszu’s Facebook.

Tusup later said in an email and on social media that the couple, who wed in 2013, would “no longer be involved, personally or professionally.”

“I would like to get ahead of the gossips, sadly Shane and I haven’t been able to resolve our personal issues, therefore we are no longer working together,” Hosszu’s post read. “I’m still preparing for the upcoming competitions while looking at my options for my support team.”

Hosszu, 29, swept the individual medleys at the last three world championships in addition to the Rio Games, making her the world’s best all-around female swimmer for the last half-decade, since turning to Tusup as her coach following a medal-less London Olympics. She also captured the 200m and 400m individual medley world records in that span.

Hosszu and Tusup’s relationship was covered by mainstream media in Rio, when Tusup’s fiery behavior, well-known on the pool deck, showed during Hosszu’s Olympic races. At the time, Hosszu defended Tusup.

They began dating as swimmers at the University of Southern California and endured difficult recent times, as Hosszu noted in a December Facebook post.

On March 29, Hosszu posted a Facebook photo with Tusup with a caption, “You and me against the World,” both of them smiling.

Hosszu last competed Dec. 21. Her name appears on psych sheets for a meet in California that starts Friday.

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