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After 2 years off, NHL veteran returns with Olympic goal

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The U.S. Olympic hockey team in PyeongChang — the first without NHL players since 1994 — should include an array of collegians and veterans in minor leagues and Europe.

It could also include a previous Olympian who hasn’t played professional hockey in more than two years.

Ryan Malone, a 37-year-old forward who earned a silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, will try out for the Minnesota Wild during a preseason training camp starting next week.

Malone is setting realistic expectations — not to return to the NHL (though it would be incredible), but to make a minor-league team so he can be eligible for PyeongChang. He would love for his two boys — Will, 9, and Cooper, 7 — to watch him in South Korea.

“Either way I’m looking at it as a win-win for me to get back into the game on borrowed time and enjoy it,” Malone said in a phone interview Wednesday. “That was something I never even dreamed about or thought was possible [to play in the Olympics]. To have that experience and put on those colors, you get goosebumps talking about it. To have the slightest chance to do that again is well worth taking for me.”

He is older than all but one previous U.S. Olympic hockey player (Chris Chelios, who played at age 40 in 2002 and 44 in 2006 and is an assistant on the PyeongChang team).

The comeback began earlier this summer, when Malone was coaching in Minnesota’s “Da Beauty League.”

Despite the farcical name, the summer league is competitive. NHL.com called it “a glorified pickup game” for NHL and college players.

One night, Malone’s team was short on players. He laced up and felt pretty good for a retiree.

Earlier this summer, Malone had called USA Hockey GM Jim Johannson about a possible scouting gig. USA Hockey must scour the NCAA, Europe and U.S. minor leagues for talent to fill its 25-man Olympic roster.

So Malone decided to call Johannson again, but this time to ask about playing for the U.S. Malone was told that he would be eligible for Olympic consideration as long as he was playing in a non-NHL league (and not in the top minor league, the AHL, on an NHL contract).

“They’re in my corner,” Malone said of USA Hockey. “They have a good sense of my character and the player I am. It’s up to me to go out there and prove it.”

Malone made more calls that led to a tryout with the Wild, whose general manager, Chuck Fletcher, worked in the front office for the Pittsburgh Penguins when Malone was on that team a decade ago.

Malone debuted in the NHL with the Pens in 2003 and tallied 51 points for them in 2007-08, highlighting an 11-season NHL career. He opened 2009-10 with 19 goals in the first 38 games for the Tampa Bay Lightning and was named to the Vancouver Olympic team.

Malone can’t forget being on the bench when Zach Parise tied the gold-medal game with 25 seconds left, and for when Sidney Crosby won it with a golden goal. His silver medal has been in storage for a month or two as he has been between houses.

In April 2014, Malone was arrested for cocaine possession and driving under the influence and later sentenced to 12 months’ probation. His contract was bought out by the Lightning, and by the next year he was out of pro hockey.

Malone confirmed that his retirement wasn’t brought on by the arrest, but rather from leg injuries.

“I literally had legs like a 70-year-old lady,” Malone said, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and confirmed that he underwent surgeries for varicose veins. “I feel better now than I did probably my last two years in the league.”

Malone might not be the only player with Olympic experience eyeing the 25-man U.S. team for PyeongChang.

“There are some guys that have a rich history in the NHL and with USA Hockey that we think could potentially really help this roster,” Johannson said last month, without naming names.

A pair of 2006 Olympians — John-Michael Liles, a 36-year-old defenseman, and Brian Gionta, a 38-year-old forward — played in the NHL last season but are currently free agents.

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Bernard Lagat reminded of Atlanta Games at U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials

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ATLANTA — As 45-year-old Bernard Lagat sat inside a hotel overlooking Centennial Olympic Park, he spoke one sentence that prefaced the start of his Olympic journey more than two decades ago.

“We are doing this in a special place,” he said of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, which finish at the park on Saturday (12 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Lagat is an underdog, but has a chance to make a sixth Olympic team by placing in the top three. He can break his own record as the oldest U.S. Olympic runner in history.

Lagat was reminded this week of the Atlanta Olympics that got away.

In 1996, the Kenyan-born runner was coming off his freshman year at Jomo Kenyatta University Agriculture and Technology in Nairobi. He studied mathematics and computer science.

Lagat debuted at the Kenyan Olympic Trials. He remembered finishing seventh in the 1500m, having exhausted himself by clocking a 3:37 semifinal.

“They had fancy shoes, nice clothing,” he said of the pros. “Me, I was like hand-me-down spikes.”

Lagat’s coach at the time, Nganga Ngata, arranged for him to transfer to Washington State later that summer. But first, Lagat watched on TV the Olympic 1500m final — famous for then-world-record holder Noureddine Morceli and current world-record holder Hicham El Guerrouj making contact at the bell; El Guerrouj fell, Morceli won.

Days later, Lagat headed to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. He was to fly to the United States for the first time, embarking on a journey that would lead to U.S. Olympic teams in 2008, 2012 and 2016 after he represented Kenya in 2000 and 2004.

Before a 21-year-old Lagat boarded his flight, he encountered a reception. The Kenyan Olympic team was arriving back from Atlanta after collecting eight medals, including in every men’s distance-running event.

“They had all these celebrations, traditional milk and the gourds,” Lagat said. “Oh, it was amazing. … That fire, seeing them coming home with medals, and I thought, I want to be like those guys.”

Lagat went on to earn eight combined Olympic and world championships medals between the 1500m and 5000m. Lagat qualified for one last Olympics on the track in 2016, going from sixth place at the bell to win the trials 5000m. He was fifth in Rio.

Then he turned to the marathon. Lagat has raced two of them. He clocked 2:17:20 in New York City in 2018, saying he was “running blind” with inexperience. He ran 2:12:10 at the 2019 Gold Coast Marathon in Australia, ranking him outside the 20 fastest Americans in this Olympic cycle.

Lagat went back to Kenya last month to train for the trials with the likes of world-record holder Eliud Kipchoge. Lagat soaked up so much that he likened it to a six-week school term.

At one point, Lagat was part of a 30km training run with Kipchoge. By the end he rounded a bend and saw the Olympic favorite just 60 seconds ahead.

“You think about Eliud being 60 seconds ahead of you in a 30K?” an incredulous Lagat said. “I thought, I’m done. Now I can buy my flight and go back to USA. I’m ready.”

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Chris Lillis, after missing Olympics, back atop aerials podium

Andrey Kulagin
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U.S. men’s aerials skiers had gone four years between World Cup victories. Now, they’ve won back-to-back events.

Chris Lillis prevailed in Kazakhstan on Friday, six days after Justin Schoenefeld ended the U.S.’ longest men’s victory drought since aerials became an Olympic medal sport in 1994.

Lillis, the 21-year-old brother of 2017 World champion Jon Lillis, landed a double full-full-full in the super final to score 121.27 points. Full results are here. He beat a field that included Schoenefeld (sixth place) and his older brother (14th) but lacked the world’s best from China and Russia.

“That was definitely one of the best jumps of my career,” Chris Lillis said. “Moving forward I’m feeling deadly.”

Chris has earned back-to-back World Cup podiums, his first top-three finishes since missing the PyeongChang Olympics with a torn ACL.

Also Friday, American Megan Nick finished second in the women’s event for her second runner-up this season. The last U.S. woman to win a World Cup was Kiley McKinnon on Jan. 6, 2018.

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