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New Era for Hockey Headlines Changes for Winter Games

As always, the world’s best hockey teams will battle out for gold at the PyeongChang Games. This time, however, the sport will stage competition without the services of professional players from the National Hockey League.

As always, the world’s best hockey teams will battle out for gold at the PyeongChang Games. This time, however, the sport will stage competition without the services of professional players from the National Hockey League.

Photo courtesy of USA Hockey

Unless you’re a hardcore hockey fan, you likely won’t know the names of the guys on Team USA taking slap shots and doling out checks at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Feb. 9-25 in the South Korean village of PyeongChang.

That’s because for the first time since the 1994 Games in Norway, only players not under professional contracts with National Hockey League teams are eligible to compete, setting the path for the unknowns of today to evolve into stars in our living rooms.

The Olympics usually do a good job at that.

“This is the new landscape, and it’ll be fun for fans to watch,” says Dave Fischer, director of communications for Colorado Springs-based USA Hockey. “The fans will not be as familiar with the names that populate our roster. That said, we will showcase the depth of hockey in our country. We have more Americans playing hockey than ever before. We’ll have 25 great players on the ice, and they’ll represent our country really well.”

That change is the biggest, but far from the only one that fans will see this time around, and although it’s impossible at this stage to add a sport from scratch, four variations on existing events were added by the International Olympic Committee.

It should be fun to watch on the NBC family of networks, where the athletes in South Korea will compete in seven sports – biathlon, bobsleigh, curling, ice hockey, luge, skating and skiing – with 15 different disciplines across the sports. There will be 102 medals awarded.

Short-track speed skating already exhibits its share of thrills, on top of chills, with its tight turns and inevitable crashes. Apparently, the original wasn’t quite tough enough.

Just wait until you see the mass-start event, where six teams of four skaters all get going at once. It’s been described as one part Tour de France peloton, another part NASCAR with strategy and positioning taking place where there’s virtually no room for error.

It’s called big air for a reason, but standing at the top of a ramp some 14 stories high perhaps redefines this new take on snowboarding, where the main objective is to perform the toughest maneuvers and try to land as clean as possible. Starting from 14 stories high, remember?

Staying on the snow but moving way down in altitude, alpine skiing is set to debut its team slalom event, with side-by-side elimination events injecting all kinds of excitement to this already thrilling sport. Athletes from the past couldn’t have imagined a head-to-head event, where you can throw the clock away. Just win and advance in this 16-nation, bracket-style tournament to determine gold.

And back to the ice, the ancient sport of curling gets an addition with a mixed-doubles discipline. Fundamentally, it’s still a game of finesse and precision but updated with a faster pace where co-ed teams of two throw and sweep their way to victory.

And Olympic victory, of course, is everyone’s dream. It’s quite simply the pinnacle of being an athlete and humming the Olympic fanfare along the way. Don’t say you haven’t done that.

As always, the Olympics mark a crossroads between the stars from the past and those who might adorn a Wheaties box not long from now.

From the past, we certainly know the names Lindsey Vonn and Shaun “The Flying Tomato” White.

Vonn, the 2010 women’s downhill gold medalist at the 2010 Vancouver Games, suffered her share of serious injuries since then, missing most of the 2013 season and all of 2014 and wasn’t able to defend her title in Sochi.

For one last time in PyeongChang, she’s back.

“Once you’re injured and miss the opportunity, you have to wait so long,” Vonn says. “The anticipation for me is pretty big, the most anticipated Olympics of my life and hopefully the most rewarding. I’m more motivated now than when I was younger. I want to finish my career strong and want to win another Olympic gold medal.”

White, who earned Olympic gold in the men’s halfpipe in Torino in 2006 and Vancouver four years later, didn’t have his best stuff in Sochi, finishing fourth. He has his sights set on PyeongChang and, at 31, will seek to reclaim his throne.

If you’re looking for a fresh, new face, look no further than reigning men’s figure skating champion Nathan Chen.

He was landing quads when he was 10 and was too young to compete in Sochi, so in South Korea the 18-year-old will look to become the first American gold medalist in his event since Evan Lysacek in 2010.

But as we all know, the Olympics play no favorites. Anything can, and does, happen when this spectacle plays itself out over 16 days and nights.

“It’s going to be fun to watch things unfold,” Fischer says. “It’ll be terrific. The Olympics always are. No matter the sport, the Olympics are the biggest stage athletes are ever in. When they’re on, everyone is watching on TV. It’s all people can talk about.”