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U.S. women’s hockey players in tears after legend’s surprise

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About three months ago, the U.S. women’s hockey team took a bonding trip to Nike’s headquarters.

One of those nights in Oregon, after a day full of training and meetings, players had just finished dinner and gathered in the team hotel for what they thought was one last debrief before bed.

Some staff members started talking generally about legacy. Cammi Granato entered the room.

No introduction was necessary. Granato received a standing ovation.

“I was in tears, actually,” said Meghan Duggan, one of four women who have captained the U.S. at the Olympics (Granato, Krissy Wendell and Natalie Darwitz are the others).

Duggan, who has been on the national team for a decade, had never met Granato.

“It wasn’t like she stood up at a podium and delivered a speech to us,” Duggan said. “She just kind of sat and talked to us about her experience.”

The surprise appearance was the latest motivational move from the mind of Reagan Carey, director of the U.S. women’s program since 2010.

It was Carey who in 2013 put together a reported 90-page hardcover book with contributed words and photos from all 41 previous U.S. Olympic players. Carey had three of the 41 hand copies to every 2014 Olympic team member the day they left for Sochi.

Carey has brought in several guest speakers — from Julie Foudy to retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, one of five soldiers from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to survive a quadruple amputation.

“We’re really lucky to have a woman like Reagan at the helm of the ship,” forward Hilary Knight said.

Granato has delivered video messages to the team before, but this was her first in-person address. Now 46, Granato lives with her family in Vancouver. (One of Granato’s four brothers, retired NHL All-Star Tony Granatowill coach the U.S. men in PyeongChang.)

“One of the things that stuck with me the most she said was, when you think about the Olympics and the gold-medal game, how big that is and you’re on the world stage, nerves come into play,” said Duggan, a member of the teams that lost gold-medal games to Canada in 2010 and 2014. “You think, oh my gosh, I have to play the best game of my life. Really, what she said was you have to play the team game. Play like you’ve played all year. Play the systems. Play the way that you need to play. Bring your role to the team. Not every single person on the team has to have the best game of their lives.”

Granato spent an hour with women who idolized her that night and joined them for team activities the next day.

“It was almost like she was back in the locker room,” Carey said. “Just a different team.”

Knight, arguably the world’s best player, wears No. 21 in honor of Granato. They are the only U.S. women to wear No. 21 at the Olympics.

Knight has a hockey stick autographed by Granato from when she attended a youth camp. This time, she had Granato sign her journal.

“So I have to hold it pretty closely now,” Knight said.

Forward Brianna Decker had not seen the Hall of Famer since Granato was her coach at an early teen development camp.

“I got the chills,” Decker said. “The greatest player in women’s hockey, I believe, of all time. She was there, right in front of us, sharing her experience.”

As Knight summarized, Granato told the team “this is how we did it” in 1998.

The U.S. won the first Olympic women’s hockey gold medal in Nagano, with Granato the captain and face of the program. They haven’t won any since, losing three times to Canada in the final.

“[Granato] talked about team chemistry, team bonding, generally enjoying the moments together,” Decker said. “She could tell with our group, just by talking to us, that we have that bond and that special unique bond between all of us that can’t be really broken.”

This year’s national team has lived together in residency in Wesley Chapel, Fla, for the last few months. Their next game is Sunday against Canada (NBCSN, 4 p.m. ET), one of eight matchups with their rivals before PyeongChang.

The U.S. has to be considered the Olympic favorite, having won all three world championships since a gut-wrenching overtime loss in the Sochi final.

Maybe that’s why Granato chose not to bring her gold medal to that meeting in Oregon.

“I don’t think any of us would have touched it anyways,” defenseman Monique Lamoureux-Morando said.

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40 years ago today: Jimmy Carter lays plan for Olympic boycott

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On Jan. 20, 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter said he would not support sending a U.S. team to the Moscow Olympics later that summer if the Soviet Union did not withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

Carter detailed his stance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” airing that Sunday. A transcript:

Bill Monroe: Assuming the Soviets do not pull out of Afghanistan any time soon, do you favor the U.S. participating in the Moscow Olympics, and if not, what are the alternatives?

Carter: No. Neither I nor the American people would support the sending of an American team to Moscow with Soviet invasion troops in Afghanistan. I’ve sent a message today to the United States Olympic Committee spelling out my own position that unless the Soviets withdraw their troops within a month from Afghanistan that the Olympic Games be moved from Moscow to alternate site or multiple sites or postponed or canceled. If the Soviets do not withdraw their troops immediately from Afghanistan — within a month — I would not support the sending of an American team to the Olympics. It’s very important for the world to realize how serious a threat the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan is. I do not want to inject politics into the Olympics, and I would personally favor the establishment of a permanent Olympic site for both the Summer and the Winter Games. In my opinion, the most appropriate permanent site for the Summer Games would be Greece. This will be my own position, and I have asked the U.S. Olympic Committee to take this position to the International Olympic Committee, and I would hope that as many nations as possible would support this basic position. One hundred and four nations voted against the Soviet invasion and called for their immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan in the United Nations, and I would hope as many of those as possible would support the position I’ve just outlined to you.

Monroe: Mr. President, if a substantial number of nations does not support the U.S. position, would not that just put the U.S. in an isolated position without doing much damage to the Soviet Union?

Carter: Regardless of what other nations might do, I would not favor the sending of an American Olympic team to Moscow while the Soviet invasion troops are in Afghanistan.

Three days later, Carter said in his State of the Union address, “I have notified the Olympic Committee that with Soviet invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow.”

The Soviets did not withdraw troops.

Though Carter did not have the authority to order a boycott, the U.S. Olympic Committee did decide on April 12 not to send a team.

The U.S. was among more than 60 nations that were invited to the Moscow Games and did not participate (for various reasons). Other notable absences included Canada, West Germany, Japan and China.

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With four former champions in the mix, who can claim U.S. Championships pairs’ title?

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There have been four different U.S. pairs’ champions in the past four years. All four of those teams are in the field at this week’s U.S. Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. With that in mind, who could get the nod to compete at the world championships in March?

The U.S. has two spots to fill, thanks to the efforts of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who finished ninth at last year’s worlds.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had the best fall of any U.S. pair, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix Series. Denney and Frazier finished with silver medals at last year’s national championships, too. The team has previous experience at the world championships (2015: 12th; 2017: 20th).

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title last year after a season that was nearly sidelined by Cain-Gribble’s concussion in December 2018. As the solo U.S. representatives at the world championships, they succeeded in earning back two world berths for 2020.

This season, they won two B-level competitions and finished fourth and fifth at their Grand Prix assignments. LeDuc said last week that despite their win at Golden Spin in December, “there was a little bit of room for improvement, which is exactly what we want from a competition going into nationals.”

“We feel like we’ve improved a lot as far as what we’re able to take on mentally because we know that this is going to be an intense week,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re prepared for that. We’ve never had to do this before, where we’re coming in and we’re already the reigning champions. We’ve never come in with that title before. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about it and what that feeling is, but overall their main thing was, ‘Be prepared. Prepare yourself beyond what you can even imagine. When you get there, just go on autopilot and do your thing.’”

PyeongChang Olympic team event bronze medalists Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim haven’t been in top form since the Games. Later in 2018, they split from short-lived coach Aljona Savchenko in Germany and moved to California.

They finished an all-time low of seventh at last year’s nationals and were not assigned to any events later in the season. In their off-season, Chris underwent wrist surgery. The couple also added Rafael Arutunian to their coaching team to address their jumping abilities. Their season consisted of a silver medal at a B-level competition, followed by two Grand Prix assignments where they finished fourth and seventh.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said after finishing fourth at Skate Canada this fall. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

The last time the Knierims competed at a nationals in Greensboro, in 2015, they won the first of their two titles. That year, they notched their highest placement (seventh) across five total trips to the world championships.

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea won their national title in 2016 and were also sent on their only trip to the world championships where they finished 13th. In 2017, Kayne underwent knee surgery, but they returned to the national podium in 2018 and won silver. Last year, they finished fourth after a disastrous free skate.

This season, they collected a silver medals and a fourth place finish at two B-level competitions as well as a pair of sixth-place finishes on the Grand Prix.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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