NHL skipping Olympics because of COVID surge

NHL

The NHL and NHL Players’ Association have come to an agreement to not participate in the 2022 Winter Olympic men’s hockey tournament in Beijing, multiple sources told ESPN.

The NHL and NHLPA had negotiated Olympic participation in 2022 and 2026 into the newest collective bargaining agreement after NHL players did not participate in the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The only caveat for the Beijing Olympics, scheduled for February 2022, was if the current NHL regular season was “materially impacted” by COVID-19 postponements. As of Dec. 21, the NHL has postponed 50 games because of outbreaks on teams and has paused its season through Christmas, apparently meeting that threshold.

The NHL had until Jan. 10 to opt out of Olympic participation without financial penalty and the NHLPA said it expected a decision on participation to be made before that date.

A formal announcement on opting out of the Games is expected within the next 24 hours.

Attention will now turn to using the scheduled break for the Olympics — Feb. 6-22 — to reschedule games. The NHL All-Star Game is still scheduled for Feb. 5.

Sources said that rescheduling could include currently postponed games or potentially moving up games that are scheduled for later in the season, but there could be a lack of arena availability during the break. While the NHL asked arenas not to book events during the break in case players didn’t participate in the Olympics, many buildings booked concerts and other events, seeking to make up for lost revenue during the pandemic.

It’s expected there will still be some semblance of a break in the schedule. Predators general manager David Poile told ESPN 102.5 The Game in Nashville that he believed there would be a “compromise” for the amount of time players will have off, with games being crammed into the final week of that break. He also floated the idea that the regular season could be extended by a week.

News of the expected Olympic decision was met with frustration and sadness from players who would have played in the Beijing Games.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of two [Olympics],” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “I definitely feel for the the guys who have missed numerous opportunities. It’s not something where it’s the next year or you push it a couple of months. These are experiences of a lifetime that you don’t get very many of as an athlete.”

Two Winnipeg Jets players who appeared headed for Team USA expressed their regret on Tuesday.

“Yeah, that sucks. I think everyone was looking forward to this,” Kyle Connor said. “We made it a big part of our collective bargaining agreement as the players, to bring the Olympics back. Whether it’s about different circumstances about going to China with COVID and everything, I think it would have been a great tournament.”

Goalie Connor Hellebuyck, a potential starter for the Americans, was worried about his status for the 2026 Olympics in Italy.

“If the next one’s in four years, I’ll be 32,” he said. “I know I’ll be playing my best hockey, but it’s going to be a different story.”

The Olympic rosters will now be filled by a combination of amateur players and professionals playing in leagues outside of the NHL. That could include North American minor leagues and overseas professional leagues like Russia’s KHL. This was the setup for teams in the Pyeongchang Olympics, where the Olympic Athletes from Russia won gold.

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