QUEBEC (REUTERS) - The National Hockey League will not send its players to compete in the men's ice hockey tournament at the Beijing Winter Olympics due to Covid-19 concerns, commissioner Gary Bettman said on Wednesday (Dec 22) as the league entered a pause following an outbreak of the Omicron variant.
"Unfortunately, given the profound disruption to the NHL's regular-season schedule caused by recent Covid-related events - 50 games already have been postponed through Dec 23 - Olympic participation is no longer feasible," said Bettman in a statement.
The NHL agreed last September to pause its regular season so the world's top players could compete in Beijing but could withdraw from the agreement if Covid-19 disruptions forced games to be rescheduled during the Olympics window.
With Covid-19 spreading through team locker rooms, the NHL, in an attempt to combat the outbreak, brought its Christmas break forward to shut down operations from Wednesday through to Dec 27.
The NHL had until Jan 10 to withdraw from the Feb 4-20 Olympics without financial penalty.
"Although we are disappointed to receive this decision by the NHL and NHLPA, we nevertheless fully understand the circumstances that forced this action to be taken," IIHF President Luc Tardif said in a statement.
"It was a shock to see how Covid-19 affected the NHL schedule almost overnight, and we understand the NHL's decision is in the best interest of the health and safety of its players." The decision also comes as a huge disappointment for players, who had negotiated a return to the Olympics into the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).
"Since the CBA extension was reached 17 months ago, NHL players have looked forward with great anticipation to once again participating in the Winter Olympics," said NHL Players' Association (NHLPA) Executive Director Don Fehr in a statement.
"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. No matter how much we wish it were not the case, we need to utilize the Olympic period to reschedule these games." The NHL said it will use the Olympic window to reschedule postponed games.
Olympic plan B
Unhappy over the prospect of interrupting a season to send their most valuable assets overseas where they could get hurt, the NHL ended a run of participation in five consecutive Winter Olympics when it decided not to go to Pyeongchang in 2018.
The presence of NHL players at the Olympics made the men's ice hockey tournament one of the marquee events of the global sporting showcase.
"These are experiences of a lifetime that you don't get very many of as an athlete, and you might only get one," said Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby, a twice gold medal winner for Canada. "It just might happen to kind of fall into your window, and if that doesn't work out, that's unfortunate." Countries will now have to quickly put a Plan B in place.
For Canada and the United States, which would have sent teams stocked completely with NHL players, that will mean a top to bottom overhaul cobbling together a roster from other leagues.
USA Hockey said it would announce new people to fill coaching and management roles after NHL personnel were no longer available, and would name its final roster by mid-January.
"While we're disappointed, we certainly respect the decision of the NHL and NHLPA," USA Hockey said in a statement."Regardless, we remain excited about the upcoming Olympic Winter Games and look forward to putting a team together that gives us the best chance to win a gold medal in Beijing."
Without NHL players both Canada and the US have struggled to reach the Olympic podium.
In Pyeongchang, Russia took gold, Germany silver and Canada bronze.
Since NHL players were welcomed into the Olympic programme at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, Canada has won gold three times.
"There is an extraordinarily deep talent pool in Canadian hockey," said David Shoemaker, CEO and Secretary General, Canadian Olympic Committee in a statement. "We know that the top Canadian NHL players were excited to wear the Team Canada jersey, and we hope to see them get that opportunity once again in 2026." Other countries, such as Sweden, Finland, Russia, Germany and Czech Republic, will also have big holes to fill with many of their best players also in the NHL.
"We are prepared for a situation where the NHL players don't take part in the Olympics," Johan Hemline, head of hockey operations at the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), told Reuters in an interview. "It has been a possible scenario for some time, and we are prepared."