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Gary Bettman on hockey at Summer Olympics, leaving the door open, Ovechkin

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In his first year as NHL commissioner in 1993, Gary Bettman met with then-International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch to discuss NHL participation in the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

Bettman asked the 73-year-old Samaranch if hockey could be moved to the Summer Games.

“I don’t think I finished the sentence before he said no,” Bettman recalled in 2009, according to the Canadian Press. “The Winter Olympics are too dependent on hockey in terms of attention [and] ticket sales. We are from that standpoint perhaps their most important event.”

On Tuesday night, Bettman made his first public comments since the NHL’s Monday announcement that it would not accommodate sending players to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games, ending a streak of five straight Olympics with blanket NHL participation starting in 1998.

Bettman intimated that he brought up the Summer Games again in recent discussions with Olympic and international officials.

“Listen, if the IOC would move the Olympic hockey tournament to the summer, that would be great. OK?” Bettman said on Sportsnet in Canada. “We’d be thrilled to have our players participate because then it doesn’t affect our season.”

Bettman was asked Tuesday if there is any chance the NHL could change it’s mind on 2018. He did not completely rule it out:

Sportsnet: It’s still believed by most that we have talked to that the door is not 100 percent closed, that the timing of your announcement leaves the opportunity for someone, whether it’s the IOC, the IIHF or the Players’ Association, to come forward with a proposal that would be more amendable to ownership.

Bettman: I don’t think that’s accurate or realistic. The fact of the matter is that we have been clear for a very long period of time that the clubs have had enough of how disruptive the Olympics are to our season, when we have to shut down for three weeks.

Sportsnet: If you hang up from us, and the phone rings and it’s [NHL Players’ Association executive director] Don Fehr on the other line, saying, ‘I’d like to sit down and discuss possible things we could to make sure our players go to the Olympics,’ will you listen?

Bettman: I would never not take a meeting with Don to hear anything he has to say on any subject. But the more important point here is, we’re not looking for a negotiation. … We left the door open, not for a negotiation, to see if anybody had a suggestion.

It was unclear from Bettman’s last answer whether “left the door open” referred to the past, before Monday’s announcement, or remains Bettman’s current view.

If the NHL follows through on not participating in PyeongChang, the most immediate issue is that of individual players wanting to leave their teams to go anyway.

Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin has taken this stance, and his team owner, Ted Leonsis, has supported him. Ovechkin repeated his desire Tuesday.

Leonsis backed off a bit Tuesday, saying he had not thought about what he will do if one of his players wants to go to PyeongChang, according to Sports Business Daily.

“What the league now does with the IOC, I will wait to see what happens,” Leonsis said, according to the report. “But I’m not going to spend five seconds thinking about what happened yesterday when the playoffs are a week away.”

Bettman said those situations will “be dealt with appropriately at the appropriate time.”

“I love Alex as a person and as a player,” Bettman said. “We don’t have to deal with that now. My expectation is that NHL players will be here playing for their teams. We don’t have to get into that kind of debate and argument now. There’s plenty of time between now and the Olympics.”

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Geraint Thomas attacks, takes Tour de France lead ahead of Chris Froome

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British Olympic track cycling champion Geraint Thomas grabbed the Tour de France lead, attacking with three and a half miles to win a summit finish on Stage 11 on Wednesday.

Thomas now leads a Team Sky one-two in the overall standings, 85 seconds ahead of four-time Tour winner Chris Froome, as the three-week Grand Tour passed the halfway mark.

Thomas continues to say he’s riding in support of Froome — who could tie the record of five Tour titles — rather than to win cycling’s biggest event himself.

“Froome is the [Team Sky] leader here, so there’s no pressure on me,” Thomas said Tuesday, according to Cyclingnews.com. “It’s a bonus for me to be up there, and hopefully I can be there for as long as possible.”

The Tour continues Thursday with stage 12 to Alpe d’Huez, live on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold (full broadcast schedule here).

The 109-mile stage features three beyond-category climbs — Col de la Madeleine, Croix-de-Fer and the iconic Alpe d’Huez finish after 21 switchbacks to close out the Tour’s three days in the Alps. The overall standings are sure to change.

Greg Van Avermaet, the Rio Olympic road race champion, went into Wednesday with the yellow jersey and a 2:22 lead, which he had tripled on the first mountain day Tuesday.

But Van Avermaet, who predicted he would lose the yellow jersey before stages Tuesday and Wednesday, cracked on the second of three major climbs Wednesday. He finished in a group 22 minutes after Thomas.

Van Avermaet is a super one-day racer but not a strong climber.

Thomas showed his climbing prowess, finishing 20 seconds ahead of 2017 Giro d’Italia champion Tom Dumoulin and Froome.

“It’s unreal,” Thomas said. “I didn’t expect it at all.”

Thomas dons the yellow jersey for a second straight Tour. The 2008 and 2012 Olympic track cycling gold medalist won the opening time trial in 2017 and wore the maillot jaune four days before Froome took over en route to his fourth title in Paris.

There was talk before and during this year’s Tour that Thomas could challenge Froome as Sky’s team leader, even though Froome has won the last three Grand Tours.

But Thomas and Sky have played that down.

“Whatever happens now is bonus,” Thomas said. “Froomey’s won six Grand Tours. He knows how to race over three weeks. For me, it’s an unknown. … As long as one of us wins, that’s the main thing.”

Dumoulin moved into third overall, 1:44 behind Thomas and 19 seconds back of Froome.

The other top contenders — 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana and Romain Bardet — finished 59 seconds behind Thomas on Wednesday.

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Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics add 7 new events

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Seven new events were added to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic program:

Women’s monobobsled
Short track mixed team relay
Ski jumping mixed team event
Freestyle skiing big air (men and women)
Aerials mixed team event
Snowboard cross mixed team event

The additions bring the Winter Olympic total number of events to 109, an all-time high and nearly double the amount of events at the 1992 Winter Games.

The number of women’s hockey teams will increase from eight to 10 in 2022, but the overall number of athletes is expected to be fewer than the 2,933 in PyeongChang. The International Olympic Committee said athlete quotas will decrease in some sports, but no events have been contracted. Alpine skiing’s super combined events are still under review as to whether they will remain in the Olympic program.

The IOC said the Winter Olympics will have its highest-ever gender balance in 2022, rising from 41 percent female athletes to more than 45 percent.

The IOC had a “long discussion” about adding a women’s event in Nordic combined, the only sport without a women’s event in the Winter Games, IOC sports director Kit McConnell said.

“Nordic combined, and women’s in particular, still need to be developed further in terms of universality [the number of countries with Olympic-level athletes], in terms of the level of the athletes,” McConnell said.

The IOC also weighed whether to add a four-woman bobsled event rather than women’s monobobsled. The Games have two-man and two-woman events and a four-man event.

McConnell said the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation was “very supportive” of monobob, in part because it is already on the Youth Olympic program.

“Woman’s four-man bob costs three or four times of monobob,” McConnell said. “We felt there would be more universality in the women’s monobob. We really didn’t see more than a handful of countries really developing women’s four-man programs because of the costs involved.”

Beijing will mark the third straight Winter Olympics to add mixed-gender events. In 2014, mixed relays in biathlon and luge debuted, as well as the figure skating team event. In PyeongChang, a mixed Alpine skiing team event and mixed doubles curling debuted.

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