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Canada’s potential Olympic starting goalie half a world away

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UFA, Russia (AP) — As the NHL opened its season, Canada’s potential Olympic starting goaltender was half a world away.

On the edge of Russia’s Ural mountains, Ben Scrivens suited up for Salavat Yulaev Ufa in the Kontinental Hockey League, taking on Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk‘s SKA St. Petersburg.

Scrivens was pulled after giving up four goals to SKA, which started its season 18-0. It was an off night for Scrivens, who has otherwise been solid in the KHL, posting a .918 save percentage last season with Dinamo Minsk of Belarus.

With the NHL skipping the PyeongChang Olympics in February, he could star for Canada.

Scrivens has been in contact with Hockey Canada, and he played preseason games on a roster assembled from KHL players.

The Canadians played six games across two tournaments, with three goaltenders each playing two games. Of those three, Scrivens has the most NHL experience (144 NHL games for four teams between 2011 and 2016).

“As a Canadian you just want Canada to win,” he said. “Obviously you want to be part of it.”

Without the NHL, the United States and reigning Olympic champion Canada will have to make do with scratch squads of minor leaguers, college players and the many ex-NHL players looking for new opportunities abroad – particularly in the Russia-based KHL, widely considered the best league outside the NHL.

The KHL is taking a massive 33-day break for the Feb. 9-25 Olympics while the NHL soldiers on.

Scrivens was mostly a backup goaltender in the NHL, where he took the league record for saves in a regular-season shutout with 59 for the Edmonton Oilers against the San Jose Sharks in 2014.

After being bounced between the NHL and farm teams in 2015-16 and admittedly outspoken with coaches, he looked abroad. Now 31, a KHL salary offers Scrivens the chance to “give my family a foundation for the rest of our lives.”

Located just west of the Urals that divide Europe from Asia, Ufa is a city of 1 million known for its oil industry and traditionally liberal brand of Islam.

Hockey games in the city’s 8,000-capacity arena feature a passionate section of hardcore fans who roar their way through the game, plus a heavy emphasis on scantily clad cheerleaders as entertainment.

Scrivens admits adapting to Russia hasn’t been easy.

It’s meant a “significant decrease” in his social life, and he speaks mostly in a kind of simplified English with his Russian and Scandinavian teammates – so much so that friends and family sometimes tease him for bizarre or ungrammatical speech on calls home.

“We don’t have time to do (Russian) lessons, so it’s more what you pick up from the rink. Guys teach you how to swear, that’s about it,” Scrivens said.

Scrivens’ wife, Jen, is in North America after spending time with him in Belarus last year.

His wife and family are holding off visiting him in Europe because they don’t want to burn vacation time and miss him at the Olympics – if he goes.

“The elephant in the room is what’s going to happen with the Olympics,” Scrivens said. “They’re tentatively holding that window open.”

USA Hockey has been tracking Europe-based players like former Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mike Lundin, one of four Americans at Finnish KHL club Jokerit, and making sure they’re Olympic-eligible.

Two U.S. Olympic veterans with more than 1,500 combined games of NHL experience are also in the running.

“They’ve been prepared, getting the ball rolling and letting us to know be available for dates, setting us up with the drug testing,” Lundin said.

The team to beat in PyeongChang will likely be Russia, thanks to its many ex-NHL players now playing back home.

KHL players can hit the ground running in PyeongChang with experience on international-size ice and the experience of facing players of Kovalchuk and Datsyuk’s caliber.

The KHL’s vast geographic reach, from Slovakia in Central Europe to Vladivostok and Beijing on the Pacific coast, imposes a brutal travel schedule on its players, who can cross up to eight time zones between games.

“If you can’t get used to the travel, you’re going to have to stop playing in this league,” said Brian O’Neill, a former New Jersey Devils wing who plays with Lundin at Jokerit and has also been contacted by USA Hockey. “When you come home, you get a 12-hour flight back, your body feels the negative side-effects for a week or two.”

Still, the first Olympic tournament without the NHL since 1994 feels different somehow.

“It’s kind of a strange situation, obviously, knowing if you do make it you’re kind of replacements,” Lundin said. “At the same time, the Olympics, it’s an honor to play for your country on such a big stage. It’ll be exciting to try and make the team and see how it unfolds.”

Even though the NHL says its decision is final, Scrivens refuses to believe it’s a done deal.

“I’m still anticipating that something’s going to happen with the NHL, that they’re going to be able to come,” he said. “Nothing is certain until it’s already going on. Until they announce final rosters, or until it really is done, all I can do is try and play my game here and make sure that if I do get the opportunity to go, that I’m ready.”

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MORE: Full PyeongChang Olympic hockey schedule

Cyclist in induced coma after Tour of Poland crash

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Dutch cyclist Fabio Jakobsen was put into an induced coma Wednesday after suffering injuries in a crash on the final stretch of the Tour of Poland, organizers said.

A massive crash at the finish of the first stage resulted in Dylan Groenewegen‘s disqualification from the race.

Leading a bunch sprint, Groenewegen veered toward the right barrier, pinching countryman Jakobsen, who barreled into the barrier meters from the finish line.

Jakobsen went head over heels, his bike went airborne and the barriers exploded onto the road, causing more cyclists to crash.

Jakobsen was airlifted to a hospital in serious condition and was put into an induced coma, the Tour de Pologne press office said.

Doctor Pawel Gruenpeter of the hospital in Sosnowiec said Jakobsen suffered injuries to the head and chest but that his condition was stable at the intensive care unit. Jakobsen will need surgery to his face and skull, Gruenpeter told state broadcaster TVP Sport.

Groenewegen crossed the finish line first but was disqualified, giving Jakobsen the stage win, according to the stage race website.

Groenewegen, a 27-year-old Jumbo-Visma rider, owns four Tour de France stage wins among the last three years.

The International Cycling Union (UCI) “strongly condemned” Groenewegen’s “dangerous” and “unacceptable” behavior. It referred Groenewegen’s actions to a disciplinary commission for possible sanctions.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Figure skating Grand Prix Series will be held as ‘domestic’ competitions

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Figure skating’s Grand Prix Series will go ahead as scheduled this fall, with modifications due to the coronavirus pandemic, the International Skating Union decided Monday.

Each of the series’ six tops around the globe will be “a domestic run event,” limited to skaters of the event’s host country, who regularly train in the host country and from a respective geographical area. The number of disciplines and skaters at each event are to be worked out.

The Grand Prix Series, held annually since 1995, is a six-event fall season, qualifying the top six skaters and teams per discipline to December’s Grand Prix Final. The annual stops are in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan, leading up to the Final, which is held at a different site each year.

The Final is the second-biggest annual competition after the world championships, which are typically in late March. The Final is still scheduled for Beijing, though whether or when it can be held will be discussed.

The series begins in late October with Skate America, which debuted in 1979 and has been held every year since 1988 as the biggest annual international competition in the U.S. Skate America’s site is Las Vegas, just as it was in 2019.

Skaters typically compete twice on the Grand Prix Series (three times if they qualify for the Final). ISU vice president Alexander Lakernik said skaters will be limited to one start in the six-event series before the Final, according to a Russian media quote confirmed by Phil Hersh.

The ISU has not confirmed or denied Lakernik’s assertion.

Most, if not all, top-level U.S. skaters train in the U.S. or Canada. That makes the first two Grand Prix stops — Skate America and Skate Canada — likely destinations. Grand Prix assignments have not been published.

“I appreciate the ISU is open to adapting competitive formats and is working to give athletes opportunities to compete,” Evan Bates, a U.S. ice dance champion with Madison Chock who trains in Montreal, wrote in a text message to Hersh. “This announcement gives reassurance that the ISU is doing their best to ensure a season will still take place. Of course, it’s hard to predict what will happen, and we’re not sure about what country we would compete in. It would probably depend on what the quarantine rules are at that time.”

The January 2021 U.S. Championships are scheduled for San Jose, Calif. The March 2021 World Championships are set for Stockholm.

In July, the ISU canceled the Junior Grand Prix Series for skaters mostly ages 13 to 18, including two-time U.S. champion Alysa Liu, who cannot enter the senior Grand Prix until 2021.

Other early season senior international competitions scheduled for September were also canceled or postponed.

U.S. Figure Skating said in a statement that it will have more details on the Grand Prix Series in the coming weeks after collaborating with an ISU-appointed group.

“This is a great example of the figure skating community coming together to ensure that the world’s premier figure skating series will continue during these challenging times,” the statement read. “Figure skaters want to compete and figure skating fans from all around the world want to see their favorite athletes skate, and this format will ensure just that.”

MORE: World’s top skater leaves famed coach

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