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Marit Bjørgen, most decorated Winter Olympian, retires

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Marit Bjørgen, the most decorated Winter Olympian with 15 medals, is retiring from cross-country skiing, one month after her fifth Olympics.

“I don’t have the motivation needed to give 100 percent for another season, and that’s why I choose to retire,” the 38-year-old mother told Norwegian TV, according to The Associated Press. “It’s been an era in my life, more than 20 years. So it’s special thing to say that this is my last season as a top athlete.”

Bjørgen capped her career with five medals, including two golds, in PyeongChang to break countryman Ole Einar Bjørndalen‘s record for most Winter Olympic medals. She was the most decorated athlete in any sport in PyeongChang.

She also tied Bjørndalen, who announced his retirement Tuesday, and 1990s Norwegian cross-country star Bjørn Daehlie for the Winter Games gold medal record of eight.

“She’s the greatest female skier of all time,” five-time U.S. Olympian Kikkan Randall said last year. Bjørgen and Randall both took the 2015-16 season off to have baby boys. When they returned, Randall noticed Bjørgen more open. They conversed about their children.

Bjørgen was most dominant in her Olympic farewell, winning the last event of the PyeongChang Games, the 30km, by 109 seconds, the largest Olympic cross-country margin of victory in 38 years.

Bjørgen also earned 26 world championships medals, including 18 golds, from 2003 through 2017, and won a record 114 individual World Cup races in 303 starts since 1999, with four overall season titles.

The next-highest athlete, longtime rival Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland, won 50 World Cups.

(In 2010, Kowalczyk made news by telling Polish media after Norway’s Olympic relay win that “[Bjørgen] wouldn’t have won without her medicine,” referring to Bjørgen’s use of an inhaler for asthma. Kowalczyk later backtracked. “I’m really sorry, because this was not a good time to have this conversation. This was not an attack on Marit. Marit to me is a very good athlete.” There has never been a report of Bjørgen failing a drug test, and she is respected on the international circuit, namely by U.S. veterans.)

Like Jessie Diggins, who won the first U.S. Olympic cross-country title with Randall in the team sprint in PyeongChang. Diggins remembered winning a World Cup over Bjørgen for the first time in 2016. Bjørgen congratulated her by name. Diggins was impressed that Bjørgen even knew her name.

“She embodies professionalism more than anyone I’ve ever met,” Diggins said. “She notices what other people do well.”

Bjørgen, who grew up on a farm outside Trondheim in Central Norway, made her Olympic debut at Salt Lake City in 2002, without a World Cup top-10 finish to her name.

She was 50th in her first Olympic event. She left those Games with a silver medal in the relay, though she skied the slowest leg of any of the 12 women on the podium.

Bjørgen made her rise between Salt Lake City and Torino 2006, winning World Cup overall titles in 2004-05 and 2005-06 with individual gold medals at both world championships in that Olympic cycle, too.

But Bjørgen left Torino with just a single silver medal, plagued by illness.

She struggled between the 2006 and 2010 Olympics, with a best individual finish of ninth at the world championships in 2007 and 2009. She didn’t win any individual World Cup races in the 2008-09 season.

But Bjørgen stormed back at the Vancouver Olympics, earning medals in all five of her events, including three golds. After earning four world titles each in 2011 and 2013, Bjørgen won another three golds in Sochi, setting herself up for the possibility of passing Bjørndalen in PyeongChang.

She and four-time 1990s Olympic Nordic combined medalist Fred Børre Lundberg have dated since 2005. She gave birth to son Marius in December 2015, then came back the following season to earn four gold medals at worlds for a third time.

With the retirements of Bjørgen and Bjørndalen this week, the most decorated active Olympians are swimmer Ryan Lochte with 12 medals and Dutch speed skater Ireen Wüst with 11.

Wüst, 31, earned five medals in Sochi and three in PyeongChang, which gives her a shot at Bjørgen’s record of 15 if she competes in Beijing in 2022. However, Wüst was quoted in Dutch media in PyeongChang saying she was only committing to skating through the 2019-20 season.

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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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.

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