NHL players will not represent their respective homelands in the men’s hockey tournament at the Beijing Olympics, their participation in the Winter Games becoming the latest casualty of a COVID-19 resurgence that has ravaged rosters and scrambled schedules of sports teams and leagues around the world.
The NHL, NHL Players’ Association and International Ice Hockey Federation had agreed in September that NHL players would return to the Olympics after the parties couldn’t agree on terms for them to compete in the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, Korea. However, in that agreement the league and the union reserved the right to keep players home from China “in the event evolving COVID-19 conditions are deemed by the NHL/NHLPA to render participation by NHL Players to be impractical or unsafe.”
The NHL and players had until Jan. 10 to withdraw without incurring heavy financial penalties.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement, “Given the profound disruption to the NHL’s regular-season schedule caused by recent COVID-related events Olympic participation is no longer feasible.”
The NHL has been hit hard by the COVID-19 surge, postponing 50 games through Tuesday and extending its scheduled holiday break. Nine teams have recently shut down operations in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. The Olympic break previously incorporated into the 2021-22 schedule now likely will be used to make up games that have been postponed. The Olympic break was to have started Feb. 7 and to have run through Feb. 22.
“Until very recently, we seemed to be on a clear path to go to Beijing. COVID-19 has unfortunately intervened, forcing dozens of games to be postponed this month alone,” NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said in a statement. “No matter how much we wish it were not the case, we need to utilize the Olympic period to reschedule these games.
“Certainly, the players and hockey fans are quite disappointed. But playing a full 82-game season this year, something the pandemic has prevented us from doing since the 2018-19 season, is very important. We expect that NHL players will return to the Olympics in 2026.”
Without NHL players, the U.S. and Canadian teams are likely to consist of players under contract to European teams, possibly supplemented by some minor league players and a few college players. That was the formula used in the 2018 tournament. Teams such as Sweden, Finland and Germany called on players from their domestic leagues. The team known as Olympic Athletes from Russia, which was built around players from Russia’s strong Kontinental Hockey League, defeated Germany to win the gold medal at Pyeongchang.
The NHL’s decision does not affect the women’s Olympic hockey tournament. The U.S. women will go to Beijing as the defending champions. COVID-19 concerns led to the cancellation of one pre-Olympic exhibition between the U.S. and Canada that had been scheduled at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., earlier this week.
The NHLPA had strongly favored sending players to China with the idea that international exposure would enhance the sport’s profile and increase the NHL’s revenues. Players had represented their homelands at five straight Olympic tournaments, starting with the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan.
Bettman had been less enthusiastic about allowing players to return to Olympic play. He has contended that the league derives little financial benefit from their participation in a tournament that isn’t held during prime-time viewing hours in North America, and that club owners are concerned about losing star players to Olympic-related injuries.
Bettman also was eager to get the NHL back to a “normal” schedule after COVID had cut short the last two seasons. The 2019-20 regular season was near its end when the pandemic struck and the league suspended play March 11, 2020; when play resumed the playoffs were completed in bubbles set up in Edmonton and Toronto. The start of the 2020-21 season was delayed until Jan. 13, 2021, and each team’s schedule was reduced from 82 games to 56. A temporary realignment of divisions limited travel and confined the seven teams based in Canada to face only each other before the playoffs. The league returned to its previous alignment this season, with the addition of the expansion Seattle Kraken.
The absence of NHL players at Beijing means young stars such as Connor McDavid of Canada and the Edmonton Oilers and Auston Matthews of the U.S. and the Toronto Maple Leafs will have to wait to make their Olympic debut.
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