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

Getty Images
0 Comments

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.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Olympic hockey schedule announced

U.S. women’s basketball team, statistically greatest ever, rolls to FIBA World Cup title

FIBA Women's World Cup
Getty
0 Comments

The revamped U.S. women’s basketball team may have been the greatest of all time.

The Americans completed, statistically, their most dominant global championship ever by routing China 83-61 in the FIBA World Cup final on Saturday in Sydney — giving them 60 consecutive wins between the Olympics and worlds dating to 2006.

It marked the largest margin of victory in a World Cup final since the event converted from a fully round-robin format in 1983.

For the tournament, the U.S. drubbed its opponents by an average of 40.75 points per game, beating its previous record between the Olympics and worlds of 37.625 points from the 2008 Beijing Games. It was just off the 1992 U.S. Olympic men’s Dream Team’s legendary margin 43.8 points per game. This U.S. team scored 98.75 points per game, its largest at worlds since 1994.

“We came here on a mission, a business trip,” tournament MVP A’ja Wilson said in a post-game press conference before turning to coach Cheryl Reeve. “We played pretty good, I think, coach.”

Since the U.S. won a seventh consecutive Olympic title in Tokyo, Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles retired. Tina Charles ceded her national team spot to younger players. Brittney Griner was detained in Russia (and still is). Diana Taurasi suffered a WNBA season-ending quad injury that ruled her out of World Cup participation (who knows if the 40-year-old Taurasi will play for the U.S. again).

Not only that, but Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, implementing a new up-tempo system.

“There was probably great concern, and maybe around the world they kind of looked at it and said, ‘Hey, now is the time to get the USA,'” Reeve said Saturday.

The U.S. response was encapsulated by power forward Alyssa Thomas, the oldest player on the roster at age 30 who made the U.S. team for the first time in her career, started every game and was called the team’s glue and MVP going into the final.

Wilson and Tokyo Olympic MVP Breanna Stewart were the leaders. Guard Kelsey Plum, a Tokyo Olympic 3×3 player, blossomed this past WNBA season and was third in the league’s MVP voting. She averaged the most minutes on the team, scored 15.8 points per game and had 17 in the final.

“The depth of talent that we have was on display,” Reeve said. “What I am most pleased about was the trust and buy-in.”

For the first time since 1994, no player on the U.S. roster was over the age of 30, creating a scary thought for the 2024 Paris Olympics: the Americans could get even better.

“When you say best-ever, I’m always really cautious with that, because, obviously, there are great teams,” Reeve said when asked specifically about the team’s defense. “This group was really hard to play against.”

Earlier Saturday, 41-year-old Australian legend Lauren Jackson turned back the clock with a 30-point performance off the bench in her final game as an Opal, a 95-65 victory over Canada for the bronze. Jackson, who came out of a six-year retirement and played her first major tournament since the 2012 Olympics, had her best scoring performance since the 2008 Olympics.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup schedule, results

FIBA Women's World Cup
Getty
0 Comments

The U.S. women’s basketball team won its fourth consecutive title at the FIBA World Cup in Sydney — and eighth global gold in a row overall when including the Olympics.

A’ja Wilson, a two-time WNBA MVP, and Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP, headlined a U.S. roster that, for the first time since 2000, included neither Sue Bird (retired) nor Diana Taurasi (injured).

The new-look team had nobody over the age of 30 for the first time since 1994, before the U.S. began its dynasty at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The Americans have won 60 consecutive games between worlds and the Olympics dating to the 2006 Worlds bronze-medal game.

The U.S. beat China in the final, while host Australia took bronze to send 41-year-old Lauren Jackson into retirement.

Nigeria, which played the U.S. the closest of any foe in Tokyo (losing by nine points), wasn’t present after its federation withdrew the team over governance issues. Spain, ranked second in the world, failed to qualify.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup Schedule, Results

Date Time (ET) Game Round
Wed., Sept. 21 8:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 82, Bosnia and Herzegovina 58 Group A
9:30 p.m. USA 87, Belgium 72 Group A
11 p.m. Canada 67, Serbia 60 Group B
Thurs., Sept. 22 12 a.m. Japan 89, Mali 56 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 107, South Korea 44 Group A
6:30 a.m. France 70, Australia 57 Group B
8:30 p.m. USA 106, Puerto Rico 42 Group A
10 p.m. Serbia 69, Japan 64 Group B
11 p.m. Belgium 84, South Korea 61 Group A
Fri., Sept. 23 12:30 a.m. China 98, Bosnia and Herzegovina 51 Group A
4 a.m. Canada 59, France 45 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 118, Mali 58 Group B
Sat., Sept. 24 12:30 a.m. USA 77, China 63 Group A
4 a.m. South Korea 99, Bosnia and Herzegovina 66 Group A
6:30 a.m. Belgium 68, Puerto Rico 65 Group A
Sun., Sept. 25 12:30 a.m. France 74, Mali 59 Group B
4 a.m. Australia 69, Serbia 54 Group B
6:30 a.m. Canada 70, Japan 56 Group B
9:30 p.m. Belgium 85, Bosnia and Herzegovina 55 Group A
11:30 p.m. Serbia 81, Mali 68 Group B
Mon., Sept. 26 12 a.m. USA 145, South Korea 69 Group A
2 a.m. France 67, Japan 53 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 95, Puerto Rico 60 Group A
6:30 a.m. Australia 75, Canada 72 Group B
9:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 92, South Korea 73 Group A
11:30 p.m. China 81, Belgium 55 Group A
Tues., Sept. 27 12 a.m. USA 121, Bosnia and Herzegovina 59 Group A
2 a.m. Canada 88, Mali 65 Group B
3:30 a.m. Serbia 68, France 62 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 71, Japan 54 Group B
Wed., Sept. 28 10 p.m. USA 88, Serbia 55 Quarterfinals
Thurs., Sept. 29 12:30 a.m. Canada 79, Puerto Rico 60 Quarterfinals
4 a.m. China 85, France 71 Quarterfinals
6:30 a.m. Australia 86, Belgium 69 Quarterfinals
Fri., Sept. 30 3 a.m. USA 83, Canada 43 Semifinals
5:30 a.m. China 61, Australia 59 Semifinals
11 p.m. Australia 95, Canada 65 Third-Place Game
Sat., Oct. 1 2 a.m. USA 83, China 61 Gold-Medal Game