The NHL Reportedly Will Not Send Players to Beijing Olympics Over COVID-19 Delays to Season

The NHL is not sending players to the Beijing Olympics over concerns that the pandemic will disrupt the league’s ability to complete a full season.

Two people with direct knowledge of discussions told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the league informed the NHL Players’ Association it was exercising its right to withdraw from the Beijing Games because there was a material disruption to the season.

The people talked to The AP in confidence because no announcement was made. A decision was expected to be made Wednesday.

The decision is an abrupt turnaround from September, when the NHL, union, International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation struck a deal to put the best players in the world back on sports’ biggest stage after they skipped the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. These plans were canceled due to the rapid spread of the omicron coronavirus variant.
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One week ago, NHL sought to stop the spread the omicron version by reintroducing restrictive COVID-19 protocols. This included daily testing and restricting player gatherings on the road.

A sudden surge in postponements increased the number of games to 50. This is a huge amount to schedule and complete an entire 82-game season. In addition, it was difficult to take an Olympic vacation for longer than two weeks. The NHL’s bottom line is at stake, with the league and players drawing no direct money from competing at the Winter Games.

This decision came long before the league had to withdraw without any financial penalties. As a result, the men’s Olympic hockey tournament will go on without NHL players for the second consecutive time.

Connor Hellebuyck from the Winnipeg Jets was upset Tuesday at the U.S. Olympic decision and called the rash number of postponements unnecessary.

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins’ captain, was already preparing for the NHL’s withdrawal and at 34, he could lose his chance at representing Canada in the Olympics.

“These are opportunities and experiences of a lifetime that you don’t get very many of as an athlete, and you might only get one,” said Crosby, who won Olympic gold with Canada in 2010 and 2014. “It just might happen to fall in your window and if it doesn’t happen to work out, it’s unfortunate.”

Although the NHLPA and NHLPA had agreed to Olympic participation in the last year’s collective bargaining extension, Beijing is only allowed if pandemic conditions do not worsen.

Unless the Beijing Games are postponed a year like Tokyo’s, a generation of stars including American Auston Matthews, Canadians Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, German Leon Draisaitl and Swede Victor Hedman will need to wait until 2026 to play in the Olympic men’s hockey tournament for the first time.

“It’s a thing you’ve been looking forward to for a very long time,” Hedman said. “For us to not be able to go, it’s going to hurt for a while.”

The NHL had been full-throttle on the Olympics when the delta coronavirus and the omicron virus variants spread around North America earlier in the month. Before Calgary’s outbreak in the first half of December, only five games needed to be rescheduled and one was already made up.

The NHL didn’t participate in the Olympics till 1998. In 2014, Sochi saw five Olympics in succession. 2018 was the last season of the Olympics. The NHL was represented in Europe by professionals, while college athletes were selected to fill the South Korean national teams.

Russia’s gold medal win at Pyeongchang Games has made it the preferred team without NHL players. Thanks to the Kontintental Hockey League, Russia is quickly becoming the most popular country with NHL players.

Many NHL players had already expressed reservations about their participation, such as Robin Lehner from Vegas, who withdrew his name from consideration to represent Sweden. Lehner stated that he had mental health concerns in noting the potential lengthy quarantines of athletes who have tested positive while competing.

“I’m very disappointed and it was a tough decision for me as it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Reality is that what have been said about how it’s going to be is not ideal for my mental health,” Lehner wrote in a text.

McDavid referred to the potential five-week quarantine requirement as “unsettling.”

“I’m still a guy that’s wanting to go play in the Olympics,” McDavid said. “But we also want to make sure it’s safe for everybody. For all the athletes, not just for hockey players.”

Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan will be missing his first opportunity to serve as coach of the U.S. national team. On Tuesday, he had expressed hope that a NHL team would be involved.

“We’re all human beings right. All emotions are part of this. My hope is that we all have a chance to participate,” said Sullivan, who served as an assistant coach on Peter Laviolette’s staff at the 2006 Olympics. “It’s an unbelievable honor to represent your nation in the Olympics, it’s the honor of a lifetime quite honestly. And so I know I don’t feel differently than a lot of people that pull their nation’s sweaters over their heads.”


This report was contributed by Will Graves, AP Sports Editor.


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