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Russian Olympians adapt to life in a neutral uniform

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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — Nadezhda Sergeeva’s bobsled training outfit says a lot about what life will be like for an “Olympic Athlete from Russia.”

There is an old, anonymous black race suit with tape over several logos. Underneath, a white T-shirt with a simple message — “I Don’t Do Doping.”

As punishment for doping offenses at the 2014 Sochi Games, the International Olympic Committee has forced Russian athletes competing in Pyeongchang to do so as OARs in neutral uniforms and with no national insignia.

Sergeeva told The Associated Press that she isn’t training with her doping-themed shirt as a protest, but because her usual Russia uniform would break the new IOC rules. Wearing the shirt — sold by a popular Russian sportswear brand — is just a way to keep warm, she said.

“There just wasn’t enough time (to get a neutral uniform),” Sergeeva said at Wednesday’s training session. “To start with, we had a lot of equipment intended for us with the flag, a really big assortment, but we weren’t issued it.”

For Friday’s opening ceremony, Russia will march under the Olympic flag in red and gray tracksuits with an “Olympic Athlete from Russia” emblem.

To get to the Olympics, Sergeeva had to pass an IOC vetting process, with athletes’ names checked against data of possible past Russian drug use and cover-ups. Dozens of Russians weren’t invited by the IOC, including some top bobsledders, but Sergeeva said athletes from the United States and Canada have warmed to her because she was approved.

“I don’t know why, but they’ve started talking to us more than ever before. I feel it. Maybe it’s a sign to them that we’re clean,” she said. “There’s a lot of people coming up and saying ‘we’re happy you’re here.'”

As a result of the IOC ruling, a 168-person not quite-Russian team, still one of the biggest in Pyeongchang, will wear hastily redesigned or repurposed uniforms. When the IOC decision came in December, it was too late to make new team bags for everyone, so many have traveled with electrical tape over the word “Russia” on their luggage.

Russian athletes have flown to South Korea in small groups, not the traditional “Olympic flight” on Aeroflot which usually sees teams depart as a unit and with much pageantry. Most national teams have a flag-raising ceremony when they arrive at the Olympic Village. None is scheduled for Russia because officially it isn’t competing.

The only Russians to turn up with some swagger are the men’s hockey team, the favorite for gold since the NHL is not participating.

The hockey players were greeted at the airport Tuesday by crowd of about 50 Russians and South Koreans waving flags and singing patriotic songs. A week earlier, the players attended a reception for athletes with President Vladimir Putin, the only OARs there wearing Russian uniforms instead of the IOC-approved neutral tracksuits in red and gray.

They then handed Putin a signed jersey emblazoned with the slogan “Russia is in my heart.” But in Pyeongchang, patriotic displays could land Russian athletes in trouble.

The IOC ruling bans them from defiant statements on social media, or flying the flag in the Olympic Village. Maxim Andrianov, another Russian bobsledder, said he doesn’t even have a flag inside his room “in case it’s visible from outside.”

If Russian athletes win gold, they can’t celebrate by taking a Russian flag from a fan. On the podium, they’ll stand under the Olympic flag as the Olympic anthem plays.

Breaking the rules could mean the IOC scraps its plan for Russia to march under its own flag at the closing ceremony on Feb. 25 — a symbolic return to the Olympic movement after nearly three months.

Officially, the Russian Olympic Committee is suspended and the OARs are just a collection of individual athletes invited by the IOC. In practice, they’re one of the biggest teams in Pyeongchang, with an ROC vice president as team leader and a fully staffed media office. IOC deputy director general Pere Miro said Tuesday running a team of this size “cannot be done without full cooperation of the Russian Olympic Committee.”

The team of 168 could swell yet further.

Forty-five Russian athletes refused invites by the IOC have launched a late barrage of appeals to sports arbiters and Swiss courts. The IOC argues it has new evidence which casts doubt on their claims to be clean — even in the cases of athletes whose bans for doping in Sochi were overturned — but hasn’t revealed any details of individual cases.

Successful appeals would be a blow to the IOC, which would have to accept athletes it deems suspicious. They could even result in other Russians being sent home. When top Russians in sports like figure skating and hockey were refused, others took their places on the team, and could lose out if the first choices are reinstated.

Besides a few Russian fans making the journey to South Korea, another group is waiting for the OARs — the drug testers.

“It’s just the height of rudeness,” women’s hockey coach Alexei Chistyakov told Russian state TV on Monday after drug testers interrupted his team’s first training session in Pyeongchang. “They’re ruining everything for us.”

For Sergeeva, there’s a silver lining to her neutral uniform. She hopes it finally marks the end of what she sees as a years-long plot by Russia’s foes.

“It has to end some time,” she said. “Maybe it was done specially for this Olympics, and then they will calm down.”

Can T.J. Oshie, other established Olympic hockey stars hold on for 2022?

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T.J. Oshie will be 35 years old during the next Winter Olympics. Jonathan Quick will be 36. Now that the NHL is one key step closer to returning to the Winter Games, the question surfaces: which 2014 Olympians will have a difficult time returning to rosters in 2022?

Oshie was the last of the 14 forwards chosen for the U.S. Olympic team for Sochi, beating out Bobby Ryan and Brandon Saad, in part for his shootout prowess.

In group play against Russia, Oshie was memorably tapped by U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma six times in a shootout, including all five in the sudden-death rounds. Oshie beat Sergei Bobrovsky four times, including the game winner.

“After I went out for my third attempt, I figured I was going to keep going,” Oshie said, according to USA Hockey. “Each time I would look up to see what [Bylsma] had to say, and he would just give me a nod every time. I kind of started laughing toward shot five and six because it was getting kind of ridiculous.”

Oshie became known as “T.J. Sochi” on social media. President Barack Obama congratulated him on Twitter. The U.S. eventually lost to Canada in the semifinals and Finland in the bronze-medal game.

When the NHL chose not to send its players to the PyeongChang Winter Games, it may have spelled the end of Oshie’s Olympic career.

Consider that the oldest forward on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team was 29, six years younger than Oshie will be come 2022. A recent Olympic roster prediction from The Hockey Writers put Oshie in the “Just Missed Out” list.

NBC Sports NHL analyst Pierre McGuire has Oshie among the finalists for the last forward spots in his early U.S. roster prediction.

“I wouldn’t discount T.J. Oshie because shootout is still part of it,” McGuire said. “He still has his shootout moves, even though he’s not getting any younger.”

Quick, the unused third goalie in 2010, played 305 out of 365 minutes in net for the U.S. in Sochi. He was coming off a Stanley Cup in 2012 and en route to another one in 2014.

Since, he was sidelined by a knee injury that required surgery. He remains the Los Angeles Kings’ No. 1 goalie, which almost automatically puts an American in the Olympic roster discussion these days.

“Somebody like Jonathan definitely merits consideration just because of his achievement level over time, but I think he’d be the first person to tell you injuries have definitely affected him,” McGuire said of Quick, looking to become the second-oldest U.S. goalie to play in the Olympics after Tom Barrasso in 2002. “It’s not going to be easy for him.”

The U.S. could bypass Quick for three Olympic rookies in 2022. Connor Hellebuyck, John Gibson and Ben Bishop have superior save percentages and goals-against averages and more games played than Quick since the start of the 2018-19 season.

A wild card is Spencer Knight, the 19-year-old No. 1 from the world junior championships who last year became the highest-drafted goalie since 2010 (No. 13 to the Florida Panthers). Knight would break defenseman Bryan Berard‘s record as the youngest U.S. Olympic hockey player in the NHL era.

The Canadian roster has traditionally been deeper than the U.S. The talent is overwhelming at center, led by Sidney CrosbyConnor McDavidPatrice Bergeron and Nathan MacKinnon. The Canadians must get creative if the likes of veterans Jonathan Toews and John Tavares will join them in Beijing.

Toews, then 21, was the best forward at the 2010 Vancouver Games and Canada’s only one on the all-tournament team. While Toews’ last NHL All-Star selection was in 2017, his last two seasons have been his best in terms of points per game since 2011.

“The one thing that Canada is very good at, they do it extremely well, they select players that fit roles,” McGuire said, noting Mike Richards shifting to the wing during the 2010 Olympics. “When you look at the overwhelming depth that Canada has, that’s going to be the thing that’s going that’s going to be very interesting to watch to see how it plays out at center.”

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NHL closer to Olympic hockey return for 2022, 2026

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The NHL just took a major step to returning to the Olympics in 2022 and 2026 after skipping the 2018 Winter Games.

The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that includes Olympic participation at the next two Winter Games in Beijing and Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.

Should the NHL, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and the IOC agree, expect the world’s best players to compete for their nations during breaks in those NHL seasons.

Nine of the 12 nations have already qualified for the 2022 Olympic men’s hockey tournament. The groups and qualifiers are here.

The NHL participated in five straight Olympics from 1998-2014 before declining to pause its season for PyeongChang.

The 2018 Olympic men’s hockey rosters included players from every other major international league, led by Russia’s KHL, which made up the entire Olympic Athletes from Russia team that beat Germany in the final. The U.S. team included veterans in European leagues, the minor league AHL, collegians and captain Brian Gionta, a 2006 Olympian who had stepped away from the NHL.

In April 2017, the NHL announced it would not send its players to the 2018 Olympics due to a lack of concession from the IOC, IIHF or the NHLPA to entice owners and officials. At the time, the CBA did not include Olympic participation.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman then cited “fatigue” among team owners about taking an Olympic break every four seasons. Owners mentioned the risk of having their stars get injured, away from their teams in the middle of their seasons. South Korea, with its 14-hour time difference from New York, was also not as enticing a Winter Olympic host as, say, Canada or Russia.

Other issues Bettman and other league and team officials expressed included a lack of exposure and benefit for the NHL, the league’s inability to use the Olympics for marketing due to sponsorship rules and money.

MORE: 2014 Olympic stars on the 2022 Olympic roster bubble

Before and after the PyeongChang Olympics, Bettman doubted that the NHL would return for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

“I don’t want to sound like a broken record on the subject, but I think going to the Olympics is a challenge for us,” Bettman said last November after meetings with the IIHF. “I know the players love representing their countries. I know that the players like going. I know that the players that don’t go like having a break in the middle of the season. But from our standpoint, we have found going to the Olympics to be incredibly disruptive to our season.

“For us, at best, it’s a mixed bag.”

Canada came to dominate Olympic men’s hockey in the NHL era, taking gold in 2002, 2010 and 2014. Sidney Crosby, gold medalist in 2010 and 2014, will be 34 years old come the 2022 Olympics.

Alex Ovechkin, a three-time Olympian for Russia with zero medals, will be 36 years old. Only two Russian male Olympic hockey players have been older: Igor Larionov in 2002 and Sergei Fedorov in 2010, according to Olympedia.org.

Younger stars Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews (USA), Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy (Russia), Connor McDavid (Canada), David Pastrnak (Czech Republic) and Leon Draisaitl (Germany) could each play in their first Olympics in 2022.

MORE: NHL players vote on world’s best female hockey player

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