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NHL players will not participate in 2022 Beijing Olympics

Decision based on regular season being disrupted due to rise in COVID cases, League says

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

NHL players will not participate in the 2022 Beijing Olympics, the League announced Wednesday.

The NHL said the decision was made because the regular-season schedule has been disrupted as a result of increasing COVID-19 cases and a rising number of postponed games.

"The National Hockey League respects and admires the desire of NHL players to represent their countries and participate in a 'best on best' tournament," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. "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. 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."

 

[RELATED: NHL decision to not go to Olympics based on COVID-19 spread]

 

The NHL and NHL Players' Association reached an agreement with the IIHF in September for the players to return to the Olympics for the first time since the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the first best-on-best international tournament since the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in Toronto.

The NHL had scheduled a break in the regular season from Feb. 3-22 to accommodate the 2022 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas and the Olympics. All-Star weekend remains scheduled to be held as planned with the 2022 NHL All-Star Skills presented by DraftKings Sportsbook on Feb. 4 and the 2022 Honda NHL All-Star Game on Feb. 5.

"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," Commissioner Bettman said. "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."

Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews, who won a gold medal with Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, said he understood the decision to withdraw from the 2022 Games.

"I think it would have been a great thing for our game to have all the NHL players go," Toews said Tuesday. "But from what I'm hearing, and my personal opinion as well, is that the players are going to put their own health and their own families and their own clubs' situation as priorities ahead of going to Beijing and dealing with some very unpredictable scenarios. So to me, that's the right way to go about it. I think with the mess in our schedule right now, maybe there are ways we can rectify that, and it won't be as crazy of a schedule that goes late into the year as well."

NHL players participated in five straight Olympics from 1998-2014 and did not play at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. The NHL position has been that Olympic participation disrupts its season, particularly when the Games are not held in North America.

However, the players highly valued returning to the Olympics, and when the NHL/NHLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement was extended through the 2025-26 season, they agreed to go to the 2022 Beijing Olympics and 2026 Milano Cortina Olympics if they could reach an agreement with the IIHF. But that agreement said the NHL could withdraw from the Olympics if COVID-19 disruptions required games to be rescheduled during the planned break.

"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," NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said 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. 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."

IIHF president Luc Tardif said he was informed by Commissioner Bettman of the decision to withdraw from the Olympics following a meeting between the NHL and the NHLPA.

"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," Tardif said.

"Throughout the discussions with the IOC, [Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games], NHL and NHLPA, we always operated with the understanding that this was a scenario that might occur. 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."

Following the NHL Board of Governors meeting Dec. 10, Commissioner Bettman was asked for a scenario in which the NHL would withdraw from the 2002 Olympics on its own. He replied, "Let's assume a number of teams came down with major outbreaks and in effect we were missing lots and lots of games that had to be rescheduled, and it became clear that we couldn't reschedule without doing something else including using some portion of the break."

There was no deadline for the NHL to withdraw from the Olympics, but NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said there would have been financial costs had it happened after Jan. 10, 2022.

Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby said Tuesday he was looking forward to his third Olympics after winning a gold medal with Canada in 2010 and 2014. The 34-year-old said he is unsure if this was his last opportunity to play in the Games.

"It's difficult to kind of wrap your head around, given the fact that we thought we would have the opportunity this time," Crosby said. "I've been fortunate enough to be part of two. I definitely feel for the guys who have missed numerous opportunities. It's not something where it's the next year or you push it a couple months. These are opportunities and experiences of a lifetime that you don't get very many of as an athlete. You might only get one. It just might happen to fall kind of into your window. If it doesn't work out, it's unfortunate."

With NHL players unavailable, national federations will fill their rosters for the men's ice hockey competition with players from outside the NHL. USA Hockey assistant executive director John Vanbiesbrouck said Dec. 14 that the United States would use players from the American Hockey League, European leagues, the NCAA, and the player pool for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

"While we're disappointed, we certainly respect the decision of the NHL and the 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. With the NHL personnel we previously announced as part of our management team and coaching staff no longer available, we'll shortly be announcing new people to fill those roles. Further, we expect to name our final roster by mid-January."

Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, who played for the United States at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics and had been named to the U.S. team for 2022, said this was a "tough situation for everybody."

"You're excited to be able to get the chance to represent your country," Kane said. "Obviously, I'm 33 right now, so you're hoping you can play as many as possible, but I don't know if it really would have been a true Olympics experience this year with being in a bubble and all the worries going over there."

NHL.com staff writer Tracey Myers and independent correspondent Wes Crosby contributed to this report

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