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Olympic figure skating season starts with September must-sees

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The international figure skating season begins next week. By the end of the month, we’ll already have some answers for key questions heading into the Olympics.

Let’s dive in:

1. Which three women make the U.S. Olympic team?

This answer will not come definitively until after the U.S. Championships in January, but three of the top contenders compete at next week’s U.S. International Classic in Salt Lake City — Karen ChenMariah Bell and Mirai Nagasu, who finished first, third and fourth at last season’s nationals.

The Olympic team is chosen by a committee that analyzes not only performances at nationals, but also recent international competitions. Which makes the next few months — starting with lower-level events next week and rising to the fall Grand Prix series — key for all of the American women given every single one was flawed last season.

Chen won the U.S. title and was the top American at worlds (fourth), but she struggled in her other six events. Bell chalked up a 12th-place finish at worlds to the worst nerves of her life. The 2010 Olympian Nagasu could unleash a triple Axel this season, but she was 10th, fourth and fourth at the last three nationals.

Last season was forgettable for all three 2014 Olympians. Ashley Wagner had her least successful campaign in six years. Gracie Gold hit rock bottom, changed coaches and announced last week that she is seeking unspecified “professional help” before her debut in November. Polina Edmunds didn’t compete at all in 2016-17 due to a bone bruise in her right foot.

2. What about the U.S. men?

Nathan Chen, the 18-year-old who broke out by landing a record five quadruple jumps in one program last year, is probably the most likely singles skater to make the Olympic team, male or female.

And Chen begins the Olympic season at the U.S. International Classic in his hometown of Salt Lake City. So does 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron, who is certainly in the mix for one of the three Olympic spots.

Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown, who were second and third at last season’s nationals, compete in separate events the following week. Adam Rippon, the 2016 U.S. champion, makes his international return from a broken foot in October.

With teens Chen and Zhou bringing an arsenal of quads, a four-revolution jump may for the first time be a necessity to make the U.S. Olympic team. Aaron, Brown and Rippon, all in their 20s, have struggled to consistently land quads.

3. The best U.S. medal hope?

Has to be sibling ice dancers Maia and Alex Shibutani, the only Americans to earn medals at each of the last two world championships. Silver in 2016. Bronze in 2017.

They are the most successful active U.S. skaters now that Meryl Davis and Charlie White will not attempt to defend their Olympic dance title from Sochi.

But it’s very possible the U.S. fails to win a gold or silver figure skating medal at an Olympics for the first time since 1972.

The Shibutanis have never beaten the world’s top couple — Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir — and haven’t bettered the world No. 2 — French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron — in nearly four years.

All should be at the Grand Prix Final in December, which will be a measuring-stick competition. But the Shibutanis aren’t locked in as the top U.S. dancers.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates outscored the Shibutanis in the free dance at the U.S. Championships and the short dance at the world championships. Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue also bettered the siblings in the short at worlds. Keep an eye on all of their scores at the Grand Prix events.

4. Who are the Olympic favorites?

Until proven otherwise, gold-medal discussions start with the 2017 World champions.

Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva hasn’t lost in nearly two years and posted the three highest total scores of all time at her final three competitions last season. What makes Medvedeva an even bigger favorite is that the runners-up to her at major competitions have been musical chairs. And that the best women from Sochi — Adelina Sotnikova, Yulia Lipnitskaya and Yuna Kim — are out of the picture.

Perhaps the skaters worth the most looks this fall are senior debutants — Marin Honda and Alina Zagitova, who won the last two world junior titles after Medvedeva in 2015.

The men’s field has no shortage of challengers to reigning Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu. Hanyu, seeking to become the first repeat Olympic men’s champion since Dick Button in 1952, would be an underdog if he hadn’t dragged himself from fifth place after the worlds short program to capture his first title in three years in April.

The new generation arrived last year — Chen, 18, beat Hanyu at the PyeongChang Olympic venue, and Hanyu was joined on the world podium by a pair of 19-year-olds — Shoma Uno of Japan and Jin Boyang of China.

Hanyu will face his chief rival and training partner — double world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain — at a lower-level event in Canada in two weeks. A rare early season showdown.

Canada could go into PyeongChang with favorites in ice dance (Virtue and Moir, undefeated last year after two seasons off) and pairs (two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford). But the latter must shake off a seventh-place finish at worlds in the fall Grand Prix series to be considered rivals to Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong.

Hopefully, clarity will come soon regarding Olympic pairs champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov. The Russians haven’t competed since the 2016 World Championships, with Volosozhar giving birth to their daughter last February. They are not entered in any Grand Prix events. If they’re not back by the Russian Championships in December, you won’t see them at the Olympics.

5. Will North Koreans be in PyeongChang?

North Korea is used to winning Summer Olympic medals, but it has scant Winter Olympic history and sent zero athletes to the Sochi Games.

There’s a chance North Korea doesn’t qualify anyone for PyeongChang. Its most successful athletes across all winter sports are pairs skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik, who are entered in the final Olympic qualification event in three weeks in Germany.

If Ryom and Kim perform like they did last season, they should qualify a North Korean pairs spot for PyeongChang by finishing top four later this month.

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MORE: What to watch every day of the PyeongChang Olympics

Madison Hubbell, Zach Donohue can make it 10 straight at Skate America

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If Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue ever lacked motivation in the post-Olympic summer, they needed only scan their Montreal training ice.

They would spot France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, the only ice dancers from the Olympic podium who return this season. Papadakis and Cizeron relegated the Americans to silver at March’s world championships, one month after Hubbell and Donohue were fourth in PyeongChang (the French took silver). They have trained under the same coaches in Quebec for three years.

They would also see Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, the third- and fourth-place finishers from January’s U.S. Championships. Those couples moved to the Montreal group in the spring. They are Hubbell and Donohue’s top threats to repeat as national champions in Detroit in three months, given U.S. silver medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani are also taking a break.

Practicing next to rivals is often shunned in sports. It has elevated ice dance the last several years.

Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White trained together in Michigan and split the Olympic gold and silver medals in 2010 and 2014.

When Virtue and Moir returned from a two-year break in 2016, they joined the Montreal group and went one-two with training partners Papadakis and Cizeron at every major competition through PyeongChang.

Hubbell and Donohue thrived last season, their third in Montreal, winning their first national title after six straight years of finishing third or fourth. They were in position for an Olympic medal, third after the short dance, but Donohue fell in the free dance (as he did at 2017 Worlds after they were third in the short).

Then at worlds in March, they delivered back-to-back podium-worthy performances on the global stage for the first time for that silver medal. They are the world No. 2 and the favorites at this weekend’s Skate America, with the French not in the field.

U.S. couples have won nine straight Skate Americas, more than the other three disciplines combined in the last decade.

MORE: Skate America TV/Stream Schedule

“Clearly this formula is working for them,” NBC Sports analyst and 2006 Olympic ice dance silver medalist Tanith White said. “It has proven to work for many of the greatest teams in ice dance over the last few decades. … I cannot see a drawback.”

Hubbell and Donohue (and Papadakis and Cizeron) appear to agree.

They joked back and forth at a press conference after worlds in March. Asked how they would spend the offseason, Cizeron looked straight at Hubbell and Donohue and said, jokingly, “Our goal is to get drunk together as many times as we can.”

“As much as our own personal accomplishment is pretty incredible, being on the podium with training mates and having, literally, everyone from our training center skate the best programs of their season, all at the same competition, was pretty incredible,” Donohue said last week.

Hubbell and Donohue should breeze through Skate America in Everett, Wash. Nobody else from the top nine in PyeongChang is in the field. They’re the favorites next week at Skate Canada, too.

The first real test will be at December’s Grand Prix Final, where Papadakis and Cizeron should join them. Hubbell and Donohue never outscored the French in nine head-to-head competitions and were more than 10 points adrift at worlds.

“The French, where they left off last season, I think that they are still in a category on their own based on the last time we saw those two teams go up against each other,” White said. 

Hubbell said the world silver medal showed that they had tackled their demons, fear and history of errors. If the next goal is gold, they must conquer a much more visible foe, one they see every day on the ice.

“The podium at worlds,” Hubbell said, “was the moment I was able to leave that season behind me and go into the future.”

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NHL helped end USA Hockey, women’s national team wage dispute

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The NHL’s support of women’s hockey included the league stepping in at the last moment to end a wage dispute between USA Hockey and national team players threatening to boycott the 2017 World Championship on home ice.

Two people familiar with the situation said the NHL agreed to pay USA Hockey to help fund the four-year agreement reached in March 2017. The people spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because the league and USA Hockey have not made that information public.

The NHL also supports the idea of one women’s professional league and has several member teams involved in both leagues.

The Buffalo Sabres purchased the Buffalo Beauts in December to become the NHL’s first franchise to fully own an National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) team. The Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens each have partnerships with Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) teams based in their respective cities.

The NHL has been careful to avoid the appearance of favoring one league over the other. Commissioner Gary Bettman told the AP last month he has no interest in forming a third league because he doesn’t want the NHL “to look like a bully” by pushing the existing leagues out of business.

Players want a single North American women’s professional hockey league. Bettman does, too. And now NWHL founder and Commissioner Dani Rylan is on record saying she is working toward that objective.

“One league is inevitable,” Rylan wrote in an email to the AP, her strongest statement regarding a potential merger with the rival CWHL.

Rylan’s comments come nearly four years after she split from the CWHL to establish the NWHL, which became the first women’s hockey league to pay its players a salary.

The investor-funded NWHL has provided a framework for how a pro women’s league can function, but most observers agree that two leagues competing for the same talent pool and limited financial resources isn’t going to last — or help the game grow.

The U.S.-based NWHL, in its fourth season, grew to five teams after expanding into Minnesota this year. The CWHL, in its 12th season, began paying its players a salary for the first time last year and has six teams, including ones in Worcester, Massachusetts, and China.

Rylan is now echoing what Jayna Hefford said in July upon being named the CWHL’s interim commissioner. The former Canadian star called the formation of one league “a priority” and projected it could happen within two years.

Rylan’s comments also come after both leagues discussed merger options this summer, a person with direct knowledge of the discussions told The AP. Also on the table is an NWHL proposal for both league champions to compete in an end-of-season playoff, the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the talks were private.

Rylan confirmed she’s spoken to Hefford, and added: “There is a path, and Jayna and I and our business partners will continue those discussions.”

Hefford expressed cautious optimism regarding the possibility of joining forces.

“It’s certainly something we have to figure out,” she said, while noting she’s still new on the job. “I’m trying to understand what the challenges are, what the roadblocks are and try to figure out a way to get us to the point where we have one truly professional women’s hockey league.”

Hefford was scheduled to meet this week with NHL officials, including Bettman, for the first time since replacing former commissioner Brenda Andress.

Bettman is hesitant of the NHL assuming control of the CWHL or NWHL because, as he put it, “we don’t believe in their models.”

“We need to start on a clean slate,” Bettman said.

“If at some point the leagues say, ‘We’ve had enough, we don’t see this as a long-term solution, we’d like you to start up and we’ll discontinue operations,’ then we’ll do it. But we’re not pushing it,” he said. “If we’re going to get involved, it cannot fail, which means it has to be on us.”

Rylan, who previously worked at the NHL, took exception to the comments.

“What’s it like when Gary Bettman tells the media the model for our women’s league doesn’t work? Of course, it’s really disappointing,” said Rylan, who nonetheless called Bettman a “gracious adviser.”

“Can we improve? No question about it,” she added. “If Gary and more NHL owners want to get involved in women’s hockey, that’s an awesome an exciting thing. Let’s get started now.”

Hayley Wickenheiser, a retired six-time Olympian and newly hired Maple Leafs assistant director of player development, said, “I think the NHL should and could do more and in a heartbeat make it happen.” But she placed more of an onus on the players to make it happen.

“They need to take control and move it forward, and the NHL is there and ready when they are,” said Wickenheiser, the first woman to be hired to a hockey operations role.

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