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Sabrina Ionescu? Maya Moore? U.S. women’s basketball team faces Olympic roster unknowns

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When the coronavirus halted sports two months ago, the U.S. women’s basketball program was three-fifths of the way through Olympic selection season. The 12-player roster was due to be named by early June.

“It wasn’t like we were all of a sudden putting names on the board that said, OK, these people have made the team, and now we’re looking at these two or three remaining positions,” said U.S. national team director Carol Callan, chair of the selection committee. “We didn’t have to do that [as early as March], so we didn’t do that.”

Callan calls the selection process “a long-running movie.” Sure, a player’s most recent performances can be the climax, but the plot can date back years, to the college stage and past Olympics.

“Now we’re all sitting back going, OK, are we going to have a 2020 WNBA season to be able to watch players?” Callan said. “If not, then what? How will we put together some training next year? There’s so much unknown and uncertain right now, we’re all trying to figure it out together.”

Callan discussed a range of pertinent topics in a phone interview this week.

Perhaps the most talked-about player over the last year has been Sabrina Ionescu, the Oregon guard who was taken No. 1 in last month’s WNBA Draft by the New York Liberty. Ionescu is a unique case for the Olympics.

She appeared a prime prospect for the first Olympic 3×3 team, had the Games been held this summer. She played that half-court event at the Pan American Games in August, when she reportedly said that she would pick 3×3 over the traditional five-on-five format if she had to choose one or the other.

But now, Ionescu goes into the Olympic year as a professional and, perhaps, a more enticing asset to Dawn Staley‘s 12-player roster.

Callan, who is also on the 3×3 selection committee, said that a conversation is merited with any player who has an opportunity to play on either Olympic team. She noted that anybody on the Olympic 3×3 team would be guaranteed significant playing time since the roster is four players, with a substitution planned at every dead ball. Given the schedule, it’s not feasible for somebody to play both 3×3 and five-on-five at the Olympics.

“I have no idea what a player would think through that process because most players are pretty confident in their abilities, but if you thought you were going to be a role player for a five-on-five team, but you had a chance to be on 3×3, you might choose that,” Callan said.

Ionescu was unavailable for an interview.

Callan said she hasn’t heard about 2021 availability from Maya Moore, a 2012 and 2016 Olympian who hasn’t played professionally since 2018 to focus on criminal justice reform. Moore spent time on the case of friend Jonathan Irons, whose 50-year prison sentence for burglary and assault was overturned in March. Later in March, an appeal was filed to reverse that ruling.

It’s too early to project Moore’s 2021 plans, her agent said this week. Callan said she had positive conversations with Moore when she first decided to take a year off in 2019, then again in February after she decided she would not play in 2020.

“We’d be happy to hear from her one way or the other,” Callan said. “But I do think, if you want to be an Olympian, you have to play basketball at some point leading up to it. You can’t just say, OK, next year, March, I’m ready to play again. That’s tough. Not just tough to make a team, but it’s just tough to be a basketball player.

“So, playing basketball is huge. However, if she can do all of that, we’re open to our best players wanting to play on our Olympic team, and we would certainly welcome her back into our national team pool and then go from there.”

Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are two national team stalwarts bidding to become the oldest U.S. Olympic basketball players in history. Four years ago, both players said that Rio would likely be their last Olympics, but Callan, who has overseen the program since before the 1996 Olympics, never ruled them out.

“When we landed back at the airport after the Rio Olympics, I purposely didn’t want to ask them anything about it being the last Olympics,” Callan said, “but made just the quick comment, ‘I’ll give you a little bit of time, and then I’m going to call you.’ They both didn’t say, ‘No, don’t call.’ Right then and there — I don’t want to act like I was a prophet, but I felt like there was definitely an opening to it. … Until they can’t walk anymore, they’re going to play.”

Bird and Taurasi publicly announced Tokyo Olympic ambitions after Dawn Staley was named Geno Auriemma‘s successor in 2017.

Bird, Taurasi and other top U.S. players often spend WNBA offseasons playing for more lucrative contracts overseas. This break, even if just a few months, is unusual.

“You never want silver linings to an awful situation, but in women’s basketball, players play year-round, a lot of the elite players do,” Callan said. “The fact that the very elite basketball players have had to rest their bodies now, try to stay somewhat in shape, but they’ve had some time off, is really a good thing for our Olympic team and our national team and for the players themselves.”

MORE: USA Basketball career Olympic points leaders

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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.”

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

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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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