Carpe Diem: U.S. goalie goes from near retirement to Olympic favorite

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Goalie Ryan Zapolski was vacationing in Rome this past offseason when he began receiving messages with links to articles projecting the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team.

Under normal circumstances, a 30-year-old journeyman on a Finnish club with zero NHL experience would have disregarded them.

But these are unusual times. The NHL is not participating in the Olympics for the first time since 1994.

Zapolski knew this by early April. And he also knew that there was a dearth of notable American goalies playing in the world’s other top leagues. None who have ever played in the NHL, actually.

So Zapolski could not have been surprised to look at those Team USA projections and see his name on most, if not all of them.

“It’s disappointing for fans that the NHL wouldn’t be there [in PyeongChang],” Zapolski said in a phone interview earlier this month, “but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me.”

Zapolski, by virtue of an incredible early season in the world’s second-best league, is the current favorite to start in PyeongChang. The Americans open against Slovenia on Feb. 14.

U.S. hockey officials are usually tight-lipped about Olympic roster prospects, but Zapolski has been so good this fall that even U.S. general manager Jim Johannson had to say the Erie, Penn., native has “separated himself.”

When Zapolski was named last week to the U.S. roster for its only pre-Olympic tournament, he was leading the Russian KHL in wins (16-1 record), save percentage (.956), goals-against average (1.11) and shutouts (five). He has since lost three straight games but remains No. 2 in save percentage and goals-against.

The KHL includes 27 teams from seven nations. Zapolski plays for Helsinki’s Jokerit, which has been on average the best non-Russian team in the league since it joined in 2014-15.

Zapolski is now in his fifth season in Finland.

Before that he bounced around — the Mahoning Valley Phantoms, a walk-on at Erie’s Mercyhurst College, the Florida Everblades, Stockton Thunder, Kalamazoo Wings, Toledo Walleye, Gwinnett Gladiators and South Carolina Stingrays.

Frustration set in as he tried and failed to find regular playing time in the ECHL. So many players on NHL and AHL contracts get sent down there.

“I was almost done,” in 2012, said Zapolski, who became a full-time goalie at age 12 and didn’t get serious until 16 or 17. “Traveling to six different cities in a season, not really going anywhere. Then I got a chance in South Carolina and took off.”

Zapolski was the league’s top goalie in 2012-13 by a considerable margin with a goals-against of 1.64 (second-best was 2.17) and a save percentage of .942 (second-best was .925).

It didn’t lead to attention from NHL clubs, but the Finnish League offered him a chance to continue playing regularly.

Zapolski took it and was the No. 1 for one of its top clubs for three seasons before joining Jokerit, the only Finnish team in the KHL. Last season was not his best, and Jokerit then signed Finnish veteran Karri Ramo, a former Tampa Bay Lightning backup.

But Ramo suffered a knee injury in training camp, Zapolski said. That provided Zapolski a chance to earn his place early this season. Suffice to say, he has. Zapolski’s current contract is up in 2018.

“If it’s a good offer, and it works out the next few years, I’ll stay [in Finland],” said Zapolski, who lives with his wife (no kids) in Finland but spends summers in Erie. “I do want that chance to go back home, but it’s really got to be a team that says we’re going to give you a fair chance to be in the NHL. It’s pretty rare for guys my age to jump over to the NHL.”

Zapolski’s associations with the Olympics are few.

“I think [1980 Olympic forward] Mark Johnson maybe walked by me in a hallway once,” he said.

But the U.S. has a history of Olympic star-turn goalies.

Of course, Jim Craig is the clearest example from the Miracle on Ice.

There’s also Ray LeBlanc, one of the veterans on the 1992 Olympic team at age 27. LeBlanc had just as dizzying of a minor-league odyssey as Zapolski before nearly backstopping the U.S. to a surprise medal in Albertville. He had a 46-save shutout of Germany.

LeBlanc got his NHL call shortly thereafter, playing his first and final game for the Blackhawks the next month. (Chicago had an ulterior motive — LeBlanc’s start meant that it could protect its top goalies from an upcoming expansion draft)

Also in 1960, Jack McCartan, on loan from the U.S. Army, beat the Canadians, Czechs (twice) and Soviets en route to gold. Originally cut from the Olympic team, McCartan ended up becoming one of two players from that roster to make the NHL.

Zapolski wears the American flag on the back of his Jokerit mask. At Mercyhurst, where he played in front of a few hundred fans on average, the team motto was “Carpe Diem.” He notes that Mercyhurst has an NHL pipeline of one — defenseman Jamie Hunt played one game for the Washington Capitals in 2006.

The Olympics could be his big chance.

“Everybody dreams of playing in Olympics, winning the Stanley Cup,” he said. “I didn’t know if I’d be playing hockey at this age still. When you’re bouncing around the minors, your dream shakes a bit.”

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MORE: Olympic hockey schedule announced

Kerri Walsh Jennings is back for one more beach volleyball run

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It wasn’t long after the Tokyo Olympics, the first Games that Kerri Walsh Jennings missed since 1996, that the beach volleyball legend finally made the phone call.

Walsh Jennings, now 44, dialed now-41-year-old Logan Tom, her teammate at Stanford in 1999 and on the U.S. Olympic indoor volleyball team in 2000. “She’s like a sister,” Walsh Jennings said.

Walsh Jennings asked Tom, who played indoors at four Olympics and at the club level at least into 2019, with a beach stint in 2006-07, if she’d like to be her new partner.

“She was like, ‘Kerri, you’re bat— crazy,'” Walsh Jennings recalled Tuesday.

It took a while — Walsh Jennings called the last year-plus “a saga” — but Tom agreed to a six-week tryout period that took place late last year (video here). Their first official practice as a team was last week, Walsh Jennings said. They hope to play their first international tournament together in March, though trying to get into an event is tricky with their collective lack of ranking points.

“For my last go around competing, I want it to feel really good and feel really special,” Walsh Jennings said. “Logan brings that.

“She’s someone I’ve loved since I met her at Stanford, and she’s just one of my favorite teammates ever. She’s such a champion. So the thought of us getting together just makes us both smile, which is why we’re doing this.”

Walsh Jennings is the most decorated beach volleyball player in history with Olympic gold medals in 2004, 2008 and 2012 with Misty May-Treanor and bronze in 2016 with April Ross.

But she is not hyping up trying to qualify as one of two U.S. women’s beach teams for the 2024 Paris Games. At least not yet.

“Paris is in the background, right?” said Walsh Jennings, who last played a tournament in June 2021. “That’s obviously out there. That would be the ultimate goal, but we’re really taking this one phase at a time.”

Emails seeking comment to Tom’s address that was used to schedule a 2016 interview have not been returned.

Qualifying for the Paris Games is based on international results from now until June 2024. For any American looking to get in, it would require unseating at least one of the world’s top young teams.

Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes have won all four tournaments they’ve played since teaming up last fall, including beating the reigning world champions from Brazil in last week’s World Tour Finals. Taryn Kloth and Kristen Nuss won five times between the domestic AVP and international FIVB tours in 2022.

“I’m very comfortable being a very long shot, because I know we’ll put in the time,” Walsh Jennings said. “On paper it makes no sense to do, this late in the game with no points and everything. But I just feel like it’s in my heart, it’s in her heart, and we’re gonna give it a whirl.”

Alix Klineman, who won Tokyo Olympic gold with Ross, announced last week that she is pregnant. Klineman, 33, may come back from childbirth for a late 2024 Olympic run.

Ross, 40, last competed in March, then withdrew before June’s world championships, where she was entered with Emily Day, with an unspecified injury. She has not announced if or when she plans to return to competition.

Walsh Jennings and her last partner, Brooke Sweat, were in position to qualify for the Tokyo Games when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. After the Olympics were postponed by one year, the younger Cheng and Sarah Sponcil made a late charge and grabbed that last spot from them.

“All of 2021 was tougher than anything in my career,” said Walsh Jennings, speaking while promoting Firefly Recovery, which is helping her come back after the longest competition break of her career. “I lost myself. I didn’t know how to play anymore. Brooke and I were disconnected but trying so hard.”

In their last two tournaments, Walsh Jennings and Sweat didn’t win a main draw match. They were two of the three lowest finishes in Walsh Jennings’ career spanning more than 250 domestic and international events, according to BVBinfo.com.

“I’m like, ‘Is this the end? Am I literally going to go out limping?'” Walsh Jennings said. “In my heart and in my body, that just didn’t feel good.”

Walsh Jennings can break the record of oldest Olympic beach volleyball player since the sport debuted at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Come 2024, Tom will be older than all but two previous Olympic beach players, according to Olympedia.org.

“To create this pressure and this energy around qualifying doesn’t make sense for us right now,” Walsh Jennings said, adding that her six-times surgically repaired right shoulder is feeling “awesome.” “Let’s just take it one step at a time.”

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Alpine skiing TV, live stream schedule for 2022-23 World Cup season

Mikaela Shiffrin, Marco Odermatt
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NBC Sports and Peacock combine to air live coverage of the 2022-23 Alpine skiing season, including races on the World Cup.

Coverage began with the traditional season-opening stop in Soelden, Austria.

The first of four stops in the U.S. — the most in 26 years — was Thanksgiving weekend with a women’s giant slalom and slalom in Killington, Vermont. The men’s tour visited Beaver Creek, Colorado the following week, with stops in Palisades Tahoe, California, and Aspen, Colorado after February’s worlds in Courchevel and Meribel, France.

NBC Sports platforms air all four U.S. stops in the Alpine World Cup season, plus four more World Cups in other ski and snowboard disciplines, and every world championships race. All Alpine World Cups in Austria stream live on Peacock.

Mikaela Shiffrin, who last year won her fourth World Cup overall title, is the headliner. Shiffrin, who began the season with 74 career World Cup race victories, is now up to 85, passing Lindsey Vonn for the female record and now one behind Ingemar Stenmark‘s overall record.

On the men’s side, 25-year-old Swiss Marco Odermatt returned after becoming the youngest man to win the overall, the biggest annual prize in ski racing, since Marcel Hirscher won the second of his record eight in a row in 2013.

2023 World Alpine Skiing Championships Broadcast Schedule

Date Event Time (ET) Platform
Mon., Feb. 6 Women’s Combined Super-G Run 5 a.m. Peacock
Women’s Combined Slalom Run 8:30 a.m. Peacock
Tues., Feb. 7 Men’s Combined Super-G Run 5 a.m. Peacock
Men’s Combined Slalom Run 8:30 a.m. Peacock
Wed., Feb. 8 Women’s Super-G 5:30 a.m. Peacock
Thu., Feb. 9 Men’s Super-G 5:30 a.m. Peacock
Sat., Feb. 11 Women’s Downhill 5 a.m. Peacock
Highlights 2:30 p.m.* NBC, Peacock
Sun., Feb. 12 Men’s Downhill 5 a.m Peacock
Highlights 3 p.m.* NBC, Peacock
Tue., Feb. 14 Team Parallel 6:15 a.m. Peacock
Men’s/Women’s Parallel Qualifying 11 a.m. Peacock
Wed., Feb. 15 Men’s/Women’s Parallel 6 a.m. Peacock
Thu., Feb. 16 Women’s Giant Slalom Run 1 4 a.m. Peacock
Women’s Giant Slalom Run 2 7:30 a.m. Peacock
Fri., Feb. 17 Men’s Giant Slalom Run 1 4 a.m. Peacock
Men’s Giant Slalom Run 2 7:30 a.m. Peacock
Sat., Feb. 18 Women’s Slalom Run 1 4 a.m. Peacock
Women’s Slalom Run 2 7:30 a.m. Peacock
Highlights 2:30 p.m.* NBC, Peacock
Sun., Feb. 19 Men’s Slalom Run 1 4 a.m. Peacock
Men’s Slalom Run 2 7:30 a.m. Peacock
Highlights 3 p.m.* NBC, Peacock

*Delayed broadcast
*All NBC coverage streams on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app for subscribers.

2022-23 Alpine Skiing Season World Cup Schedule
Schedule will be added to as the season progresses. All NBC Sports TV coverage also streams live on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

Date Coverage Network/Platform Time (ET)
Sat., Oct. 22 Women’s GS (Run 1) – Soelden (PPD) Peacock 4 a.m.
Women’s GS (Run 2) – Soelden (PPD) Peacock 7:05 a.m.
Sun., Oct. 23 Men’s GS (Run 1) — Soelden Peacock 4 a.m.
Men’s GS (Run 2) – Soelden Peacock 7 a.m.
Sat., Nov. 12 Women’s Parallel (Qualifying) — Lech (PPD) Peacock 6 a.m.
Women’s Parallel (Finals) — Lech (PPD) Peacock 12 p.m.
Sun., Nov. 13 Men’s Parallel (Qualifying) — Lech (PPD) Peacock 4 a.m.
Men’s Parallel (Finals) — Lech (PPD) Peacock 10 a.m.
Sat., Nov. 19 Women’s SL (Run 1) — Levi Skiandsnowboard.live 4 a.m.
Women’s SL (Run 2) — Levi Skiandsnowboard.live 7 a.m.
Sun., Nov. 20 Women’s SL (Run 1) — Levi Skiandsnowboard.live 4:15 a.m.
Women’s SL (Run 2) — Levi Skiandsnowboard.live 7:15 a.m.
Fri., Nov. 25 Men’s DH — Lake Louise (PPD) Skiandsnowboard.live 2:30 p.m.
Sat., Nov. 26 Women’s GS (Run 2) — Killington NBC, Peacock 12:30 p.m.
Men’s DH — Lake Louise Skiandsnowboard.live 2:30 p.m.
Sun., Nov. 27 Women’s SL (Run 2) — Killington NBC, Peacock 12:30 p.m.
Men’s SG — Lake Louise Skiandsnowboard.live 2:15 p.m.
Fri., Dec. 2 Women’s DH — Lake Louise Skiandsnowboard.live 2 p.m.
Sat., Dec. 3 Women’s DH — Lake Louise Skiandsnowboard.live 2:30 p.m.
Men’s DH — Beaver Creek NBC, Peacock 5 p.m.*
Sun., Dec. 4 Women’s SG — Lake Louise Skiandsnowboard.live 1 p.m.
Men’s SG — Beaver Creek NBC, Peacock 5 p.m.*
Sat., Dec. 10 Men’s GS (Run 1) – Val d’Isere Skiandsnowboard.live 3:30 a.m.
Women’s GS (Run 1) – Sestriere Skiandsnowboard.live 4:30 a.m.
Men’s GS (Run 2) — Val d’Isere Skiandsnowboard.live 6:30 a.m.
Women’s GS (Run 2) – Sestriere Skiandsnowboard.live 7:30 a.m.
Sun., Dec. 11 Men’s SL (Run 1) – Val d’Isere Skiandsnowboard.live 3:30 a.m.
Women’s SL (Run 1) – Sestriere Skiandsnowboard.live 4:30 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 2) — Val d’Isere Skiandsnowboard.live 6:30 a.m.
Women’s SL (Run 2) – Sestiere Skiandsnowboard.live 7:30 a.m.
Thu., Dec. 15 Men’s DH — Val Gardena Skiandsnowboard.live 6 a.m.
Fri., Dec. 16 Women’s DH — St. Moritz Skiandsnowboard.live 4:30 a.m.
Men’s SG — Val Gardena (PPD) Skiandsnowboard.live 5:45 a.m.
Sat., Dec. 17 Women’s DH — St. Moritz Skiandsnowboard.live 4:30 a.m.
Men’s DH — Val Gardena Skiandsnowboard.live 5:45 a.m.
Sun., Dec. 18 Men’s GS (Run 1) — Alta Badia Skiandsnowboard.live 4 a.m.
Women’s SG — St. Moritz Skiandsnowboard.live 5:30 a.m.
Men’s GS (Run 2) — Alta Badia Skiandsnowboard.live 7:30 a.m.
Mon., Dec. 19 Men’s GS (Run 1) — Alta Badia Skiandsnowboard.live 4 a.m.
Men’s GS (Run 2) — Alta Badia Skiandsnowboard.live 7:30 a.m.
Thu., Dec. 22 Men’s SL (Run 1) – Madonna Skiandsnowboard.live 11:45 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 2) — Madonna Skiandsnowboard.live 2:45 p.m.
Tue., Dec. 27 Women’s GS (Run 1) – Semmering Peacock 4 a.m.
Women’s GS (Run 2) – Semmering Peacock 7:05 a.m.
Wed., Dec. 28 Women’s GS (Run 1) — Semmering Peacock 4 a.m.
Men’s DH — Bormio Skiandsnowboard.live 5:30 a.m.
Women’s GS (Run 2) – Semmering Peacock 7:05 a.m.
Thu., Dec. 29 Men’s SG — Bormio Skiandsnowboard.live 5:30 a.m.
Women’s SL (Run 1) – Semmering Peacock 9 a.m.
Women’s SL (Run 2) – Semmering Peacock 12:30 p.m.
Wed., Jan. 4 Women’s SL (Run 1) — Zagreb Skiandsnowboard.live 6:30 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 1) — Garmisch Skiandsnowboard.live 9:40 a.m.
Women’s SL (Run 2) — Zagreb Skiandsnowboard.live 10:30 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 2) — Garmisch Skiandsnowboard.live 12:45 p.m.
Thu., Jan. 5 Women’s SL (Run 1) — Zagreb (PPD) Skiandsnowboard.live 9 a.m.
Women’s SL (Run 2) — Zagreb (PPD) Skiandsnowboard.live 12 p.m.
Sat., Jan. 7 Women’s GS (Run 1) — Kranjska Gora Skiandsnowboard.live 3:30 a.m.
Men’s GS (Run 1) — Adelboden Skiandsnowboard.live 4:30 a.m.
Women’s GS (Run 2) — Kranjska Gora Skiandsnowboard.live 6:30 a.m.
Men’s GS (Run 2) — Adelboden Skiandsnowboard.live 7:30 a.m.
Sun., Jan. 8 Women’s GS (Run 1) — Kranjska Gora Skiandsnowboard.live 3:30 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 1) — Adelboden Skiandsnowboard.live 4:30 a.m.
Women’s GS (Run 2) — Kranjska Gora Skiandsnowboard.live 6:30 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 2) — Adelboden Skiandsnowboard.live 7:30 a.m.
Tue., Jan. 10 Women’s SL (Run 1) — Flachau Peacock 12 p.m.
Women’s SL (Run 2) — Flachau Peacock 2:45 p.m.
Fri., Jan. 13 Men’s SG — Wengen Skiandsnowboard.live 6 a.m.
Sat., Jan. 14 Women’s SG — St. Anton Peacock 5 a.m.
Men’s DH — Wengen Skiandsnowboard.live 6:30 a.m.
Sun., Jan. 15 Men’s SL (Run 1) — Wengen Skiandsnowboard.live 4:15 a.m.
Women’s SG — St. Anton Peacock 5:30 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 2) — Wengen Skiandsnowboard.live 7:15 a.m.
Fri., Jan. 20 Women’s DH — Cortina d’Ampezzo Skiandsnowboard.live 4:15 a.m.
Men’s DH — Kitzbühel Peacock 5:30 a.m.
Sat., Jan. 21 Women’s DH — Cortina d’Ampezzo Skiandsnowboard.live 4 a.m.
Men’s DH — Kitzbühel Peacock 5:30 a.m.
Men’s DH — Kitzbühel NBC 5 p.m.*
Sun., Jan. 22 Men’s SL (Run 1) — Kitzbühel Peacock 4:30 a.m.
Women’s SG — Cortina d’Ampezzo Skiandsnowboard.live 5:30 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 2) — Kitzbühel Peacock 7:30 a.m.
Tue., Jan. 24 Women’s GS (Run 1) — Kronplatz Skiandsnowboard.live 4:30 a.m.
Women’s GS (Run 2) — Kronplatz Skiandsnowboard.live 7:30 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 1) — Schladming Peacock 11:45 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 2) — Schladming Peacock 2:45 p.m.
Wed., Jan. 25 Women’s GS (Run 1) — Kronplatz Skiandsnowboard.live 4:30 a.m
Women’s GS (Run 2) — Kronplatz Skiandsnowboard.live 7:30 a.m.
Men’s GS (Run 1) — Schladming Peacock 11:45 a.m.
Men’s GS (Run 2) — Schladming Peacock 2:45 p.m.
Sat., Jan. 28 Women’s SL (Run 1) — Spindleruv Mlyn Skiandsnowboard.live 3:30 a.m
Men’s SG — Cortina d’Ampezzo Skiandsnowboard.live 5:10 a.m.
Women’s SL (Run 2) — Spindleruv Mlyn Skiandsnowboard.live 6:30 a.m
Sun., Jan. 29 Women’s SL (Run 1) — Spindleruv Mlyn Skiandsnowboard.live 3:15 a.m.
Men’s SG — Cortina d’Ampezzo Skiandsnowboard.live 4:15 a.m.
Women’s SL (Run 2) — Spindleruv Mlyn Skiandsnowboard.live 6:15 a.m.
Sat., Feb. 4 Men’s SL (Run 1) — Chamonix Skiandsnowboard.live 3:30 a.m.
Men’s SL (Run 2) — Chamonix Skiandsnowboard.live 6:30 a.m.

*Delayed broadcast.

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