A path to USA Hockey through gas stations, concussions, 90-save epic

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Goalie Nicole Hensley did not think the Olympics were possible.

Not while growing up in Colorado, which has never produced a female Olympic hockey player.

Not when she started her freshman season opener for little Lindenwood University. Ohio State shelled her with 64 shots in Columbus. She saved 60 in a 4-0 defeat. Lindenwood lost Hensley’s next seven starts, too.

But now, as the U.S. plays its pre-Olympic tournament this week, Hensley is all but assured of making the 23-woman roster for PyeongChang expected to be named in about two months.

She got the start in both games against rival Canada at the world championship tournament last spring, winning each time.

Four weeks later, Hensley was called into a meeting with U.S. head coach Robb Stauber, assistant Brett Strot and general manager Reagan Carey.

You made the national team, they told her. The Olympics are in nine months.

“I was practically in tears,” Hensley, 23, said. “It’s hard to remember anything else. I just couldn’t believe it, I guess.”

Hensley fell in love with the sport as a girl in Lakewood, a city seven miles southwest of Denver. How could she not. The hometown Avalanche made the NHL playoffs every season from when Hensley was 1 until she was 10.

“Her entire room was completely decked out in Avalanche memorabilia,” mom Linda said. “Hockey sticks, posters, anything that they sold at the Pepsi Center she had.”

She adored Joe Sakic.

“We were on vacation on the Outer Banks the year they won the Stanley Cup,” in 2001, Linda said. “The beach is right there, but we had to come in and watch every game.”

Hensley’s parents drove her and little sister Brittany (not much of a hockey fan, now on the Colorado State rodeo team) around the metropolitan area to local Conoco gas stations, where players and coaches signed autographs.

“We went to every single one of those signings,” Linda said.

Sakic once visited her local rink.

“She got an autograph on a crumpled piece of paper that she still has,” Linda said. “When he retired we had some friends of friends who knew him. They had put out a commemorative hockey stick with all his lifetime stats, so he autographed that stick for her.”

Hensley started out as a skater. She became a goalie to continue playing with boys when they started checking at pee-wee ages of 11 and 12.

By her last years of high school, Hensley traveled with the Colorado Select girls club team. Her senior season ended with a concussion after another skater ran into her.

“I actually blacked out,” Hensley said. “I guess I stood up and fell back down, but I don’t remember doing that.”

“When we got home and to our doctor a few days later, she still wasn’t remembering things properly and wasn’t counting properly,” Linda said.

It was not significant enough to question Hensley’s decision to accept her only hockey scholarship offer to Lindenwood. Symptoms cleared after two or three weeks.

Hensley joined a Lindenwood team that had gone 8-21 the previous season, its first as an NCAA program. The returning No. 1 goalie took a shot off her clavicle two or three weeks before the season opener.

So coaches decided Hensley would open her freshman year in net at Ohio State, a school with five times the enrollment of Lindenwood’s 11,000 or so.

“The instant look on her face was oh crap,” Lindenwood goalie coach Cory Whitaker said. “Then, right after that, it was, this is my chance.

“From that point on, you knew that she was going to do anything possible to not give up that starting position.”

Hensley was praised for only giving up four goals as Lindenwood was outshot 64-19. There would be plenty more games like it during a freshman campaign that included another concussion and a few thousand bus miles, including an 18-hour ride to Bemidji State in Minnesota.

Then there’s the conference tournament game that everyone talks about.

Robert Morris University pelted Hensley with 92 shots over three regulation periods and three overtimes. Hensley stopped 90 of them, shattering the NCAA Division I single-game record by 12 saves, but Lindenwood lost 2-1.

A Robert Morris assistant saved the puck and gave it to Lindenwood.

“That’s what started to spark interest, I think people started to say maybe this kid is capable of something more,” said Hensley, who felt fine after that game — until she tried to roll out of bed the next morning.

USA Hockey invited Hensley to a camp for the nation’s top development goalies after her freshman and sophomore seasons.

“I would have put myself maybe middle of the pack for the 12 that were there,” she said. “I never really saw myself standing out or anything like that.”

After her sophomore year, Carey called Hensley to invite her to a more select camp of six to nine goalies. Then, Hensley made the world championship team as the third and final goalie — and third-youngest player on the roster — following her senior year in 2016.

But it wasn’t until later in 2016 at an August camp when Hensley felt like an Olympic prospect.

“Up until that time, I had been somewhat intimidated to even be on the ice with people like Hilary KnightBrianna Decker and Meghan Duggan,” Hensley said, naming star forwards on the 2014 Olympic silver-medal team. “At that camp, I just started to realize I had the ability to play with them and that [the Olympics] could be a possibility.”

Rather than join a club team after graduating in 2016, Hensley stayed in Missouri, where she had a job as a video coach for Lindenwood and a goalie coach in St. Louis.

She was the only member of the 2017 World Championship team who had not played in a league that season.

No matter, she got the start for the opener against Canada over Alex Rigsby, who had blanked the Canadians in the 2016 World final but was mending from a torn hip capsule.

Hensley stopped all 18 Canadian shots, a performance that led Stauber, a former NHL goalie, to call on her again for both medal-round games. 11-0 over Germany in the semifinals. 3-2 over Canada in overtime for a fourth straight world title.

Hensley usually plays with a Bible verse somewhere on her mask. Maddie Rooney, a fellow goalie and roommate, said Hensley’s defining characteristics are that she devotes at least an hour a day to scripture and owns about 25 pairs of Nikes.

There’s also a small ice cream cone drawn at the base of her glove, an inside joke shared with her post-grad coach, Luke Venker.

“She used to get kind of upset if she couldn’t do something right, extremely frustrated, and we would start bickering at each other,” Venker said. “I go, ‘What’s going to make you happy right now?’ She yelled out, ‘Ice cream!’ The running joke is, if she gets mad, just think about ice cream.”

Hensley said that at Lindenwood, she would play in front of 60 fans “on a good night.” The school has never had a Winter Olympian, though two-time Paralympic champion hockey player Josh Pauls studied there, along with recent Summer Olympians.

Space was recently prepared in the athletic office for a framed U.S. hockey jersey to display next to a few football jerseys from NFL alumni.

“Goalies, they develop a little bit later than younger players,” Stauber said. “They can develop quite frankly in any program. Just because a goalie goes to Wisconsin doesn’t necesarily mean that they’re a lot better than somebody that’s at Lindenwood.”

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MORE: Hilary Knight’s trip to historic Olympic ice rekindles love for hockey

Clarification: An earlier version of this post did not mention that two-time Paralympic champion Josh Pauls attended Lindenwood.

IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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