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IIHF president hopes NHL changes its mind over 2018 Olympics

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PARIS (AP) — The NHL still has a couple more months to reverse its decision and opt to participate in next year’s Olympics in South Korea.

International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel said Tuesday his organization was in contact with the National Hockey League Players’ Association two or three times per week, hoping to work out a solution that will bring the sport’s biggest stars to Pyeongchang.

“I would say the latest we can do is end of June, beginning of July, for calendars, schedules, arenas,” Fasel said at a news conference during the hockey worlds. “We will see.”

Fasel, who is Swiss, also said he plans to call NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, but he didn’t seem too enthusiastic about his chances.

“I have a very good relation with Gary. But what can I say? I have nothing to give him,” Fasel said. “I can say ‘Hello, how are you? Great playoffs.’ Just social talk. Maybe I come to New York, we have a steak and go back. This is the way it is.

“The puck is for sure on the stick of the NHL Players’ Association and we will see.”

Last month, the NHL announced that it will not stop its season to allow players to compete at the Feb. 9-25 Olympics for the first time in 20 years.

“I’m a very positive person so I never give up, and there is still some time where maybe we can convince Gary Bettman to change his opinion,” Fasel said.

The NHL has not decided whether to allow teams to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. It was not immediately clear how the United States, Canada and other countries will fill Olympic rosters, though national federations have already begun planning.

“We played before without the NHL, we will have anyway a great tournament. But it would be so much better with the best players in the world,” Fasel said. “The players want to go, so I really don’t understand.

“But if Gary decides not to go to the Olympics, the fans will not be happy, the players will not be happy, I hope (the) media won’t be happy. The whole world will not be happy.”

Skipping the Olympics in Pyeongchang would be a huge mistake, Fasel said, in terms of growing hockey in Asia.

“There is a unique opportunity for our sport to show up there, a unique opportunity for the NHL to be there,” said Fasel, who is also a long-standing IOC member. “We are in discussion with the IOC. We have internally our discussion and we try and make a snowball, a package that maybe we can go to Gary (with) and say ‘Listen, Gary: Yes or no?’

“There is nothing bigger and more important. We don’t have a better platform for our sport than the Olympic Winter Games. Three billion people watching.”

NHL stars like Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews and New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist have all spoken out strongly in favor of taking part.

The NHL’s stance, if unchanged, would put Russia in a dominant position.

Russia is home to the Kontinental Hockey League, widely regarded as the strongest outside North America. Taking a schedule break for the Olympics is easier for the KHL, which already shapes its season to accommodate the world championships and national-team warmups.

“What we will do for sure if the NHL isn’t coming is that we will work in China, in the KHL,” Fasel said. “That will give the space to the Russian and the non-Russian clubs to be present in Asia.”

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Penny Oleksiak edges Simone Manuel, Regan Smith sizzles again in Knoxville

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Penny Oleksiak and Simone Manuel nearly duplicated their Olympic gold-medal tie. The Canadian Oleksiak edged Manuel by .03 in the 100m freestyle at a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., on Sunday night.

Oleksiak clocked 53.41 seconds, coming back from .37 behind Manuel at the 50-meter mark. The two tied for the Rio Olympic title in an Olympic record 52.70 seconds four years ago. Oleksiak was the surprise, a 16-year-old who came into the Games ranked eighth in the world for the year.

Since, Manuel swept the 2017 and 2019 World titles. Oleksiak was sixth at 2017 Worlds and withdrew before the 100m free at 2019 Worlds. She ranked 21st in the world last year. Oleksiak’s time Sunday was her fastest since 2017.

Full Knoxville meet results are here. The Pro Series’ next stop is Des Moines from March 4-7.

In other events Sunday, world-record holder Regan Smith won the 200m backstroke in 2:05.94, the fastest time ever outside of a national championships or major international meet. Smith, 17, achieved the same feat on Saturday in the 100m back, where she also broke the world record at last summer’s worlds.

Madisyn Cox won a matchup of the three fastest U.S. women in the 200m individual medley in 2019. She clocked 2:09.88, beating Alex Walsh by a half-second and Melanie Margalis by .54.

It was Cox’s fastest time since she took bronze at the 2017 World Championships. She missed the 2019 Worlds after failing a 2018 drug test over what she said was a contaminated multivitamin.

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Mikaela Shiffrin among favorites eliminated early in parallel giant slalom

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Mikaela Shiffrin was upset in the round of 16 of the first World Cup parallel giant slalom by unheralded Frenchwoman Clara Direz, who went on to earn her first win on Sunday.

Shiffrin had the fastest qualifying time but was bounced in the second round of head-to-head racing in Sestriere by Direz. Direz, 24, came into the day with a best career finish of seventh.

Direz was 16th-fastest in qualifying, 1.02 seconds behind Shiffrin combining times from two runs. Direz edged Shiffrin by .13 in their head-to-head run. Shiffrin appeared to be at a disadvantage being put on the red course, which produced just three winners among 20 one-run matchups.

“It is fun; I think I like the parallel GS actually more than the parallel slalom, but it’s a little bit difficult,” Shiffrin said. “I think there’s still a lot of work we have to do, and FIS [the International Ski Federation] has to do to really make the race as even as it can be because for sure you can see, there’s always a faster course. But today it’s like they’re not even the same course at all. Especially in the last four, five gates on the blue course, you can even see just looking up the hill that it’s straighter than the red course.

“Today I would say it’s a day where the luck [of which course you draw randomly] really plays a role.”

Direz eventually beat Austrian Elisa Moerzinger in the final. Direz was on the blue course for three of her four one-run rounds. Full results are here.

Higher-ranked racers used to be have their choice of courses in the parallel format.

“Maybe that wasn’t fair, either, but I think there must be a way to make it something that is more even, but at the same time, yeah, I don’t really have the answers on how to do that, either,” Shiffrin said. “It’s still in its infancy, this event.”

Shiffrin has a track record of success in parallel slaloms and similar city events, winning five of her last six starts. But the parallel GS proved problematic for the world’s best in slalom.

Swiss Wendy Holdener and Slovakian Petra Vlhova were also eliminated before the quarterfinals after being second- and third-fastest in qualifying. Holdener was also on the red course. Vlhova lost in the round of 32, when skiers were taking runs on both the blue and red courses.

Sestriere marked the last weekend of technical races (slaloms/giant slaloms) until mid-February. The next three weekends feature downhills and super-Gs. Shiffrin is expected to travel to Bansko, Bulgaria, for the first set on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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