The NHL and NHLPA have agreed to withdraw from participating in the 2022 Winter Olympics.
The decision comes as COVID-19 cases around the league have surged, forcing the NHL to pause its season from Dec. 22 through Dec. 26.
“The National Hockey League respects and admires the desire of NHL Players to represent their countries and participate in a ‘best on best’ tournament. Accordingly, we have waited as long as possible to make this decision while exploring every available option to enable our Players to participate in the 2022 Winter Olympic Games,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “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. We certainly acknowledge and appreciate the efforts made by the International Olympic Committee, the International Ice Hockey Federation and the Beijing Organizing Committee to host NHL Players but current circumstances have made it impossible for us to proceed despite everyone’s best efforts. We look forward to Olympic participation in 2026.
“Our focus and goal have been and must remain to responsibly and safely complete the entirety of the NHL regular season and Stanley Cup Playoffs in a timely manner. Therefore, with stringent health protocols once again in place, we will begin utilizing available dates during the Feb. 6-22 window (originally contemplated to accommodate Olympic participation) to reschedule games that have been, or may yet be, postponed.”
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“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 NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr. “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.
“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.”
It will now be two consecutive Olympics without NHL participation. The league and union could not reach a deal for the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, four years after Canada won gold in Sochi, Russia.
“That sucks. Everybody was looking forward to this,” said Kyle Connor, who summed up the general feeling among players. “We made this part of our collective bargaining agreement, as the players, to try and bring the Olympics back. It just creates so many memories. If NHL players can’t go, that’s pretty disappointing.”
NHL uses its opt-out clause
As part of the 2020 NHL/NHLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement, the league promised the union it would attempt to broker a deal with the IOC and IIHF. The NHL was looking for the IIHF and IOC to cover travel and insurance costs for players, which was agreed upon. One thing they did not get out of the deal was expanded media rights, allowing the league to use highlights from the Games on its platforms.
But because of the global COVID-19 situation, the NHL had an opt-out clause in the deal. If conditions reached a point where the regular season was disrupted, withdrawing was an option.
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This decision has been brewing for weeks. Disrupting the NHL regular season was one thing, but the IOC’s requirement of two negative tests 24 hours apart after testing positive or face a 3-5 week quarantine period was enough to give players pause.
“I’ve got four kids that are under the age of three-and-a-half. For me to be potentially locked up there for five weeks plus the Olympics, that’s a long time being away from my family,” Golden Knights defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said earlier this month. “I’m not going to make a decision until we get all the answers, because those are kind of hard to come by right now. So, we’re all kind of sitting and waiting.”
There was also a financial penalty at stake, too. Players who would have missed regular season games and practices after the Olympics would not be paid for the time they were out. While there was no COVID-19 insurance for players in Beijing, the IIHF had a $5 million fund for any lost salary due to the virus.
Even if NHL players did go, the Beijing Olympic experience would have been one with very strict protocols.
What do international federations do without access to NHL players? They will have to resort to Plan B, which would feature professional and amateur players playing outside of the NHL.
USA Hockey and Hockey Canada have been preparing for this since the fall. Jon Cooper and Mike Sullivan were originally hired to lead Canada and the U.S., respectively, but the Canadians had a backup plan in Claude Julien after hiring him to coach at the Channel One Cup and Spengler Cup. Chris Peters of Daily Faceoff reports that it is likely David Quinn takes over from Mike Sullivan in coaching the U.S. men. The former Rangers bench boss had been hired as one of Sullivan’s assistants.
What next internationally for NHL?
Two straight Olympics without NHL players and one World Cup of Hockey since 2004. Best-on-best international play remains a desire for NHL players, and if the IOC isn’t delaying the Beijing Games until 2023, the next opportunity for players to go would be 2026 in Milan, Italy. That might be too late for players like Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin, and Evgeni Malkin.
The World Cup is a desirable option for both the players and league because they can control it. They can control when and where it takes place and, most importantly, both can profit off the event by splitting the revenue.
All parties want it, it’s just a matter of making it happen. Now that Olympic participation is out for at least another four years, this option should be in play.
2022 Olympic men’s tournament groups
Group A: Canada, U.S., Germany, China
Group B: Russian Olympic Committee, Czechia, Switzerland, Denmark
Group C: Finland, Sweden, Slovakia, Latvia
• Men’s and women’s schedules can be found here
The 2022 Olympic Games from Beijing, China will air on the networks of NBC beginning February 4.
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.