Bob Sparks - SaintPetersBlog

Bob Sparks

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

Despite loss to Wildcats, Gators still can win SEC Tournament

Although the Florida Gators lost to the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington on Saturday, they still have a good opportunity to gain the automatic NCAA Tournament bid in two weeks. Kentucky overcame a 12-point first half deficit to beat Florida, 76-66, snapping the Gators’ nine-game winning streak.

Florida’s defense is often good enough to get them a victory when they shoot poorly, but not on Saturday. Very few come into Rupp Arena and leave with a win, especially those who can shoot only 37 percent from the field, which the Gators did on Saturday.

When Florida makes a respectable amount of their shots, they are extremely difficult to beat. On February 4, they shot 48 percent and throttled the Wildcats 88-66 in Gainesville.

Kasey Hill shot lights out at home against Kentucky, but scored only four points on Saturday. Canyon Barry had 14 points three weeks ago, but only three on Saturday.

As a team, the Gators were more impressive on their home floor than the Wildcats were on theirs. With the SEC Tournament set to be played on a neutral court in Nashville, Tenn., Florida would have every opportunity to beat Kentucky should they meet.

Of course they will have to do a better job of containing prized freshman Malik Monk, who exploded for 30 points in the second half to almost singlehandedly lead his team to the victory. He finished with 33.

“He took the game over. He was amazing,” said Florida Coach Mike White. “It was probably the best performance against us all year.”

Kentucky (14-2 SEC) has all-but-clinched the top seed in the tournament and the Gators (13-3 SEC) are in good shape to earn the second seed. Make no mistake that Big Blue Nation will be well represented at the Bridgestone Arena, but nowhere near the 23,000-plus that crams into Rupp Arena for Wildcat home games.

A UF/Kentucky matchup is no certainty. South Carolina or Arkansas, Florida’s next opponent, will have something to say about it. Georgia played the Gators tough both times they squared off this year.

One thing Florida or Kentucky would wish to avoid is a matchup with the tournament host, Vanderbilt. If the season ended today, Vanderbilt would have the seventh seed, meaning a potential quarterfinal matchup with the Gators. Both teams have road dates with Vandy still remaining before the regular season ends.

While the Gators certainly miss the presence of big man John Egbunu, out for the season with a knee injury, their good defense has seemed to get even better. It needs to stay at this high level for them to have a chance to win the tournament, and earn the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament that comes with it.

Many questions remain to be answered, but not matter what happens this week, Florida and Kentucky will be favored to meet again in two weeks.

March Madness is almost upon us.

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Clemson’s 46-point improvement not enough to beat Florida State

Any team would be pleased to make a 46-point improvement in the span of three weeks. On Saturday, the Clemson Tigers did just that, but still lost to the Florida State Seminoles.

Saturday’s 76-74 FSU victory was a far cry from the 109-61 pasting administered on Clemson three weeks ago, on February, but the Seminoles were still able to escape with a vital road win. The victory was only the second win for the Seminoles away from home in their last seven road games.

The problems befalling FSU during road games did not occur on Saturday. The team lost its poise before, but they withstood multiple Clemson runs throughout the game. In fact, the Seminoles trailed by three points with 2:24 remaining, but closed the game on a 7-2 run.

Florida State also suffered from free throw woes during their road skid, but that was not a problem on Saturday. The Seminoles converted 23 of 28 attempts from the line.

During the bad old days, the turnovers mounted, leading to several easy baskets by opponents. On Saturday, they turned the ball over only 10 times.

They clearly did not shoot as well as they did during the February 5 romp, but that was a once-in-a-season type of effort. They did the little things well and did just enough to win.

Xavier Rathan-Mayes played with poise, leading the team with 15 points and seven assists while committing only one turnover. Jonathan Isaac had 14 points and Dwayne Bacon 12.

“Knowing we can get down on the road and win in tough situations and play the way we did is definitely optimistic for us,” said Rathan-Mayes.

A vital defensive effort came in the final eight seconds, when Clemson had a chance to tie or win. The Seminoles were able to keep the ball out of the hands Tigers’ star Jaron Blossongame, who led all scorers with 24 points. Instead, Marcquise Reed missed the final shot at the buzzer.

With the win, Florida State temporarily moved into second place in the ACC with an 11-15 conference record. They are 23-6 overall.

This is a very important win for us,” said FSU Coach Leonard Hamilton. “It keeps pace and gives us the opportunity to control our destiny.”

On Tuesday, they travel to Duke to take on a Blue Devils team intent on revenge. Florida State blitzed Duke 88-72 last month in Tallahassee.

If the Blue Devils can improve on their performance by 15 points, Seminole Nation will be pleased.

 

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Gators, Seminoles to face teams seeking revenge for earlier blowouts

The Florida Gators and Florida State Seminoles men’s basketball teams face somewhat similar challenges on Saturday. Both will be on the road to face teams they hammered at home just a few weeks ago.

Let’s be honest; the 13th-ranked Gators have the more difficult task, but the way FSU has played on the road over the last month, they will have their hands full as well.

Florida heads to Lexington, Ky. for a 2:00 p.m. tipoff to face a Wildcat team itching at the chance to get at them. The Gators humiliated Kentucky 88-66 on February 4 at the O’Connell Center.

Florida, especially Kasey Hill, shot lights out during the game prompting Kentucky Coach John Calipari to comment about guys like Hill “being better than they are.” Hill, his teammates and Coach Mike White know the challenge before them.

“I think we can go up there, and if we play really well, have a chance to win,” said White after Tuesday night’s victory over South Carolina. “I do. I think that. I think our guys think that, but everybody has got to be a little bit better.”

Few teams come into Rupp Arena and escape with a victory. The 11th-ranked Wildcats have lost two home games this year, but both were to top-10 teams UCLA and Kansas.

The stakes could not be higher. Both have identical 23-5 records and both are 13-2 in the conference. With only three SEC games remaining, the winner will likely become the league’s top seed in the SEC tournament.

“It will be difficult, and everybody’s better at home,” said White. “It’s a difficult challenge.”

For 19th-ranked Florida State, any road game is a monstrous challenge. At noon, they will face a Clemson squad they defeated by 48 points in Tallahassee just three weeks ago.

FSU was raining three-pointers on the Tigers in that game, but the shots have not been falling away from the Tucker Center for the Seminoles. Making free throws has also been a challenge.

While the crowd at Littlejohn Coliseum at Clemson is not Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium (FSU’s next stop next week), they can make it a tough place to play. This Clemson team has beaten a good Wake Forest team twice, won at South Carolina and lost a heart breaker at Duke just days after the debacle in Tallahassee.

“I’m glad we’re playing a game on the road this Saturday,” said Seminoles Coach Leonard Hamilton. “Let’s see if we can go on the road and play with that same level of confidence that we did (Monday).”

Hamilton was referring to Florida State’s last game, a 104-72 rout of Boston College in Tallahassee.

Because of their road woes, FSU has fallen into a four-way tie for second place in the ACC after once sharing the lead with North Carolina. Now standing at two games behind the Tar Heels, a regular season ACC title now seems highly unlikely.

“We’ve kinda dug a hole for ourselves,” said Hamilton. “Now we have to go on the road Saturday to see if we can duplicate (Monday’s) game.”

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Headaches and money drain of “Water Wars” nearly avoided a decade ago

An old issue returned to the news last week when a U.S. Supreme Court-appointed special master recommended the Court rule against Florida in the ongoing Water Wars saga. Ralph Lancaster said Florida has not “met its burden” in proving reduced water flows from Georgia into the Apalachicola River are the cause for the harm befalling the region’s seafood industry.

For nearly three decades Florida has tried to ensure sufficient water comes into the panhandle region that houses a good portion of this state’s seafood industry. While the Apalachicola region will suffer the most, Florida taxpayers have a stake in all of this as well.

Since 2001, Florida has shelled out $72 million in legal costs to fight this battle. Of that total, as much as $41 million is coming out of this year’s coffers. Much of this money drain is going to outside law firms.

The price tag is not lost on state lawmakers. It is certainly front and center with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), who reported a $17 million shortfall in covering current and pending bills.

“I think the price tag is what is raising some eyebrows,” said House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican. “We really want to dive down into the bills, the action items and the cost.”

The litigation, originally begun in 1990, picked up steam in 2004 following the failure of the three states to achieve a negotiated settlement on river flows and consumption. Metro Atlanta’s increased desire/need to tap into Lake Lanier in north Georgia was also a major issue.

Both Florida and Alabama have long argued that Atlanta’s booming growth came without responsible water management. That has left all three states susceptible to catastrophic damage when droughts occur.

Anyone remember the 2006-2008 drought in the south? Apalachicola certainly does.

There was one huge opportunity to reach that cherished negotiated settlement which would have saved all of these millions along with the oysters. The Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Compact, established in 1997, appeared as though it would achieve its goal of preventing more litigation.

Governor Jeb Bush was personally involved in working out an agreement with his counterparts, Gov. Don Siegelman of Alabama and Gov. Roy Barnes of Georgia. Then-DEP Secretary David Struhs and his team were involved in the nuts and bolts.

The compact was extended numerous times, but shortly before it would finally expire in 2003, a tentative understanding was reached between the states. Florida negotiators indicated all that remained was literally putting the final details on paper.

But it was not to be. At the last moment, Florida negotiators said Georgia blew up the agreement.

Teri Donaldson certainly remembers it. As DEP’s General Counsel from 1999-2004 and a former federal prosecutor, she was significantly involved in the negotiations with Georgia and Alabama.

I remember being in her office the next day. As DEP’s spokesman, I had to ask the inevitable question of “what happened?” I won’t forget her response.

“Georgia moved the goal posts,” she said.

Georgia’s decision to back away effectively, but not officially, marked the end of sitting around the table to make a deal. After 2004, the parties would still be seated at tables, but on opposite sides in courtrooms.

More than a decade and $72 million later, this is where the water wars stand. Florida, especially Apalachicola, is worse off since the day the tentative agreement collapsed.

It is tough to see how things get better.

Florida lawmakers may be asking for some of that money back. At issue is the presentation of Florida’s case, which did not include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Lancaster prominently mentioned this in his recommendation to the Court.

The Corps controls water flows coming from Georgia and has basically taken Georgia’s position. How could they not be named as a defendant?

That’s exactly what House Speaker Richard Corcoran wants to know. According to a report in the News Service of Florida, the legislature may “aggressively” seek refunds for this “failure to include an indispensable party.”

The water wars will continue and apparently the legal wars will soon begin. Legal wars are not cheap either.

We were so close to avoiding all of this.

 

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Gators up to 13th, FSU down to 19th in AP Top 25 poll

Both Florida and Florida State remained in the top 20 in this week’s AP Top 25 college basketball poll. But they are heading in opposite directions.

The Gators (22-5) won their seventh and eighth consecutive games during the week to climb into the 13th position in the poll. They were 15th a week ago. Both of Florida’s wins against Auburn and Mississippi State during the past week were on the road.

The Seminoles, on the other hand played only one game last week and that was a double-digit loss at Pittsburgh. Despite losing their last five road games by at least 10 points, FSU (21-6) managed to claim the 19th position in the poll. They were 17th a week ago.

Florida again demonstrated mental toughness over the past week. Auburn gave them a strong effort, but the Gators wound up scoring the most points ever in an SEC game, posting a 114-95 victory.

After senior center John Egbunu went down with a season-ending injury in the Auburn game, Florida was ripe for an upset on Saturday. They shot only 38 percent against Mississippi State, but the Gator defense rallied together to pull out a 57-52 win.

“We’ve been able to find different ways to win different games,” said Florida Coach Mike White. “It’s been different guys night in and night out and (Saturday) is just another example.”

While White is pushing buttons to compensate for the loss of Egbunu, FSU Coach Leonard Hamilton has a different problem. His team is healthy, but they fail to show up on the road. They have two road games remaining, including a rematch at No. 10 Duke on Feb. 28.

Gonzaga, Villanova and Kansas claimed the top three spots for another week. The ACC and Pac 12 showed their strength with each conference having three schools in the top 10.

Arizona, UCLA and Oregon claimed positions 4-6 while Louisville, North Carolina and Duke were ranked seventh, eighth and 10th, respectively.

Virginia and Notre Dame joined FSU to make it six ACC teams in the top 25. Kentucky and Florida were the only two SEC schools to be ranked.

 

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Leonard Hamilton has some work to do to save FSU’s season

The Florida State men’s basketball team reached new heights in January. That is why February has brought about a long fall.

What happened on Saturday, an 80-66 embarrassment at Pittsburgh, demonstrates some of the reasons why a once highly promising season could continue to go further south. It involves the two most talented Seminoles, Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac.

It also, of course, involves Head Coach Leonard Hamilton.

Bacon, a sophomore, was held scoreless for the first time in his Florida State career. In the first half, he took the grand total of zero shots. That’s zero with a “z.”

For those who have seen the future NBA first-round pick, that does not happen. Bacon can get his shots almost at will. Pitt, who was 3-10 coming into Saturday’s game, is not to be confused with a defensive juggernaut.

No one questions the defense played by ACC foes like Virginia and North Carolina, but Bacon personally destroyed the Cavaliers on the road on New Year’s Day. He also led the team in scoring at North Carolina on January 14 in a 96-83 loss.

Bacon got a bit more aggressive after intermission, getting off four misfires in the early part of the second half. After his turnover led to a transition three-pointer, Hamilton took a timeout with 16:24 remaining.

Bacon got off another futile three-pointer less than two minutes later, after which he was removed by Hamilton. Bacon remained on the bench for the remainder of the game.

Is there a problem with this team’s go-to guy?

“Every one of our guys will go through one of those nights when they don’t play particularly well,” said Hamilton. “This just happened to be his night.”

He’s the coach, but those watching the game did not see the Dwayne Bacon that we are used to seeing. Did I mention Pitt was 3-10 coming into the game?

Later in the second half, Xavier Rathan-Mayes could be seen in a “conversation” with the freshman Isaac during a timeout. Isaac’s reaction showed he had little interest in what the more experienced XRM had to say.

These are unmistakable signs that Hamilton needs to perform some basketball triage quickly. Comments coming via Twitter world talk about the Seminoles having lots of talent and zero heart.

While those are understandable, it is wise to remember we are dealing with teenagers. In basketball and life itself, “heart” is developed through experience.

This is where Hamilton can help them get through an important learning curve. Perhaps he was doing just that by sitting Bacon on the bench for most of the second half.

To be sure, the entire team is not handling adversity very well. To be kind, over the past few weeks they are simply not showing up for road games. To be fair, their opponents are playing their guts out against them.

As the double-digit defeats away from Tallahassee continue to mount (now at five in a row), Hamilton needs to step up himself. He needs to be the guy that youngsters like Bacon and Isaac will fondly remember once they are playing in the NBA.

Hopefully they will recall him as being a significant influence in building their character. Tough love builds mental toughness.

FSU (21-6) does not have long to regroup from Saturday’s fiasco. Boston College comes to the Tucker Center on Monday, before FSU hits the road again next weekend.

This team’s earlier 12-game winning streak seems so long ago.

 

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Bill Nelson again talking the ‘centrist’ talk regarding Supreme Court nominee

Senator Bill Nelson does a good job of talking the moderate, bipartisan approach in the U.S. Senate. In the end, he nearly always votes with the liberals in his party.

To be sure, Sen. Marco Rubio votes primarily the same way as his Republican colleagues. The difference is Rubio makes no statements about being a centrist. He makes it clear he is a conservative and votes that way.

Nelson, who is up for re-election in 2018, has a high-profile vote coming his way. In the not-too-distant future, the Senate will conduct hearings involving Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court.

No credible person can argue that Gorsuch is not qualified to be on the Court. Nelson and some of his colleagues will want to know where the judge stands on certain issues.

He mentions voter suppression and “unlimited money in campaigns” as two issues most important to him. Bewilderment over the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in the Hobby Lobby case, in which Gorsuch participated, clouds Nelson’s opinion of the judge.

As usual, he is saying the right things.

“Whatever the pressure is,” he told the Tampa Bay Times, “I’m going to make up my own mind as to what I think is in the best interest of our country and Florida.”

No one who is aware of Nelson’s record expects him to do anything other than vote against Gorsuch. While Gorsuch supporters are open to pleasant surprises, Nelson telegraphed his intentions when asked whether he supported a filibuster against the nomination.

“You bet I do,” he said. “The filibuster has always forced the political extremes to come to the middle to build consensus.”

There is that “centrist” dialogue masking a liberal position again.

In this case, Nelson and the Democratic minority are picking the wrong fight if they try to filibuster this nominee. He does not need or want any advice from a conservative Floridian, but perhaps one of his home state newspapers might have more clout.

“Democrats are expected to vote against the nominee, likely with the dilatory move of a filibuster. They shouldn’t,” wrote the Miami Herald in a February 2 editorial titled “Don’t filibuster Supreme Court nominee.”

The paper goes on to recommend Gorsuch’s confirmation. It is safe to say the Herald does not fall into the category of a conservative organ.

A true centrist will take into account comments from people who know Gorsuch best. Jessica Greenstone, a former Gorsuch law clerk who is now a high-ranking official with the World Wildlife Fund, lays out the centrist case in a USA Today column.

Even if a Senator plans to vote “no” on a nominee, a true centrist will not participate in a filibuster in this case. The Herald editorial rightly points out that Republicans did not filibuster former President Barrack Obama’s nominees of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

While the Democrats’ outrage over the blockage of Obama nominee Judge Merrick Garland is easy to understand, it does not mean the vacancy should remain indefinitely. It was exactly one year ago that Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly.

Trump could have picked a highly polarizing figure to put on the Court, but he didn’t. As a constitutional originalist like Scalia, Gorsuch will face stiff opposition from true liberals.

A true centrist can support this nominee, but at the very least allow for an up-or-down vote.

What say you, Senator Nelson?

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Gators playing the best basketball in the state right now

This week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll conveys a basic truth for basketball in the state of Florida. The Florida Gators are playing better as a team than the more talented Florida State Seminoles.

Following a tougher-than-expected challenge at home from Texas A&M, which Florida won 71-62, the Gators moved up two spots to No. 15. The Gators (20-5) also won on the road at Georgia during the week.

Amazingly, Florida State fell only three positions following a disastrous performance at Notre Dame on Saturday. One week ago the Seminoles (21-5) were feeling slighted after being ranked behind ACC teams they had defeated and who also possessed inferior records to Florida State.

The slip to No. 17 now seems justified.

Why does Florida appear to be the best team in the state? Saturday provided illustrative examples.

For most of the game, the Gators could not find the range. As baseball legend Tom Lasorda was fond of saying “they couldn’t fall out of a boat and hit water.”

But Florida’s intense effort on the defensive end kept them in the game. They shot only 39 percent, but forced 20 turnovers. This let them hang around until they started making enough shots at the end.

Florida State also could not make shots from anywhere, then lost their composure at Notre Dame in the first half and could never recover. Their normally intense defensive pressure was missing and the Irish took advantage. There were opportunities to stay close, but missing 15 of 22 free throw attempts sealed their fate.

While it is true Florida’s survival came at home, they also had to find something extra during their previous game at Georgia to prove they are among the top teams in the country. Florida State has now been deeply humbled in four of their last five road games.

When the preliminary seedings for the NCAA Tournament were revealed on Saturday, Florida State was seeded second in one region and Florida seeded third in another. ESPN’s Jay Bilas said before the Notre Dame game he did not believe the Seminoles warranted a two seed.

Plenty disagreed with him Saturday afternoon, but not Saturday night. Few can disagree with a three seed for the Gators, but they have a chance to earn a higher seed over the next month.

Both Florida’s Mike White and Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton still have some challenges ahead of them before their respective conference tournaments. FSU has a home date with Miami plus a trip to Duke (and two other road games) remaining, while the Gators face SEC leader South Carolina at home along with Kentucky and Vanderbilt on the road.

Both coaches and their fans will have a pretty good idea by then if their teams are ready for the March Madness spotlight.

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Winning elections best way to achieve favorable judiciary

If you are one of those who are sick and tired of judges ruling against your policy preferences, the Florida House of Representatives is offering an elixir for what ails you.

Judges are in the news a lot lately. From the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, to the drama in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, many Americans are paying attention to black robes.

Florida is now adding to the conversation on the judicial branch. If HJR 1 is enacted, Florida Supreme Court and appeals court judges could serve no more than 12 years. While several states have term limits on the executive and legislative branches, Florida would become the first state to impose limits on the judicial branch

If approved, the measure would go before voters in 2018 with 60 percent needed to amend the Florida Constitution. While there is a chance it could pass the House, there is no companion measure in the Florida Senate.

Clearing the House is not a slam dunk. The measure barely emerged from the House Civil Justice and Claims subcommittee. Republicans George Moraitis and committee vice-chair Jay Fant voted with the five Democrats to provide a razor-thin 8-7 vote to move the bill forward.

Judicial accountability is said to be a priority of Speaker Richard Corcoran. Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, a Republican from Mount Dora, makes the case for her bill and for Corcoran.

“An accountability system that does not hold people accountable is not truly accountable,” she told the subcommittee. “This bill seeks to correct that and give the people of Florida another opportunity to implement the accountability they originally intended to place upon our judicial branch of government.”

All of that is well and good, but perhaps it is time to pause and reflect on a couple of important facts.

First, haven’t the Republicans been in charge of judicial appointments for the past two decades? Governors have appointed the members of the Judicial Nomination Commissions, who have forwarded candidates generally palatable to the governor.

With the appointment of Judge C. Alan Lawson to the Supreme Court by Gov. Rick Scott, Florida is now only one justice away from a conservative majority. That will come to a head near the end of Scott’s term.

Second, perhaps the remedy is worse than the “disease.” Term limiting judges creates more problems than it solves. On this some conservatives are in agreement with liberals.

There are reasons judges and justices have lifetime appointments, or at least until the mandatory retirement age of 70. One of the best arguments against the bill comes from former Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, who also served with distinction in the Florida House.

“Our founding fathers believed deeply in the independence of the judiciary, making sure that we protected our judges from the winds of change, from politics and from worrying about making an unpopular decision,” he told the subcommittee.

The Florida Justice Reform Institute, who advocates conservative, originalist judicial thinking, has a sound argument against the measure. He believes fewer lawyers will want to become judges.

“We want judges that are knowledgeable, experienced, diligent, and who are texturalists and originalists,” said the institute’s director, William Large. “And judges who can say what the law is, not what it should be.”

The bill now heads to the full House Judiciary Committee.

It is true that no Florida judge or justice has been removed under the current system of merit retention. Instead of changing the constitution, conservatives should ensure they elect another conservative in 2018 to continue making judicial appointments.

That will primarily achieve the results conservatives seek from the judiciary.

 

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Hockey prepares Plan B if NHL players don’t go to Olympics

If the NHL doesn’t send its players to the 2018 Winter Olympics, the hockey tournament in Pyeongchang will look familiar.

It will look a lot like the Olympics in Lillehammer in 1994, Albertville in 1992 and Calgary in 1988.

Maybe even a little like 1980 in Lake Placid, site of the “Miracle On Ice.”

With a year before the opening ceremony, the league, players union, International Ice Hockey Federation and International Olympic Committee still don’t have an agreement to send NHL players to their sixth consecutive Olympics. There is still time – an agreement last time around came in July before the 2014 Games in Sochi – but everyone is forming a Plan B just in case.

Russia might have Alex Ovechkin if he makes good on his intention to go no matter what. But the United States, Canada and other countries are preparing for life without the best players in the world.

If the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Quick, Jack Eichel and Ryan Suter aren’t available, USA Hockey will look mostly to the college ranks. If Hockey Canada can’t take Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Drew Doughty or Carey Price, it will try to defend the gold medal with a mix of European-based professionals, North American minor leaguers and players from the Canadian junior leagues and NCAA.

“It’s a big world, and we’ve got to make sure that we’re ready to go,” Hockey Canada president Tom Renney said. “Should the NHL choose not to go, we’ll make sure we’re ready, willing and able a year from now.”

The U.S. has a fresh set of heroes after shootout star Troy Terry, defenseman Charlie McAvoy and goaltender Tyler Parsons won world junior gold last month. Mix them with top college players like Notre Dame’s Anders Bjork and Wisconsin’s Trent Frederic and ex-NHLers Keith Aucoin and Nathan Gerbe who are playing in Europe, and the Americans will have plenty of youth and experience.

Dave Starman, a former coach in the minors and now an analyst for CBS Sports, said USA Hockey’s priority should be scoring, scoring and more scoring.

“You can’t win unless you can score,” Starman said. “It’s got to have a ton of speed, it’s got to have a really high skill level, it’s got to have defensemen who can get in the play. You need a little bit of dog on bone in your lineup, but I don’t think you can sacrifice skill guys for toughness.”

No problem there for Canada, which has plenty of big, tough skill players and hasn’t waited for the IIHF to set any 2018 parameters as it prepares its contingency plan. Canada’s team for the December Spengler Cup in Switzerland could serve as a blueprint: minor leaguers Cory Conacher and Zach Fucale and European recent NHL players Daniel Paille and Nick Spaling.

While IIHF President Rene Fasel would like a final decision sooner than later to plan for South Korea, Renney said Hockey Canada could put a team together quickly. Like USA Hockey, Canada can pull from its national junior team but has more veteran talent in Europe and the American Hockey League to choose from. Former NHL goaltender Ben Scrivens in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey league is an option, for example, as is journeyman Michael Leighton, who is in the Carolina Hurricanes’ system.

Though Leighton firmly believes NHL players will go, the 35-year-old said he would “train as hard as I possibly can to get that job” if they don’t. AHL president and CEO David Andrews expects his league to be open to allowing players to go to the Olympics as long as NHL teams give individual minor leaguers permission.

“I think it’ll be an interesting question, though, for a lot of general managers because the player that is going to be asked for is going to be probably their No. 1 player outside the NHL club,” Andrews said. “They kind of face that question of, ‘Do we want our No. 1 call-up to be in South Korea for two or three weeks?'”

Some NHL owners might even give their elite players permission to go, and Ted Leonsis of the Washington Capitals has said repeatedly he’d let Ovechkin, Swede Nicklas Backstrom and Canadian Braden Holtby represent their countries, though Holtby said he would never leave the Capitals midseason. The IIHF might set roster parameters to prevent NHL players from participating, too.

“We want to have that opportunity,” two-time U.S. Olympian Justin Faulk said. “If that’s taken from us and we don’t have that right anymore, at least it gives other guys an opportunity.”

Hall of Fame defenseman Mark Howe would be fine with that. After winning a silver medal playing for the U.S. in 1972, he supports amateurs because he feels the 1980 “Miracle On Ice” victory over the Soviet Union had a greater impact on the sport than professionals playing in the Olympics.

“Probably the greatest victory I think I’ve ever seen in hockey was when the 1980 team beat the Russians,” Howe said. “There was some guys on that team that never had a chance to play in the NHL or impact the NHL. That was their two weeks of fame. A guy like Mike Eruzione, Jimmy Craig – they’re phenomenal stories.”

True, but 1998 and 2002 U.S. Olympian John LeClair is worried about a talent discrepancy next winter if Russia put Ovechkin and dominant KHL players Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk against American college kids.

“You get different variations of who’s playing and who’s not,” LeClair said. “You’re getting back to what it used to be where Russia had all their pros. You want everybody on an even (playing) field.”

Republished with permission from the Associated Press.

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