NHL players are not expected to participate in the 2022 Beijing Olympics, reversing plans announced in September and signaling fears that rising numbers of coronavirus cases and virus-related postponements will hurt the league’s ability to complete its season on schedule.
The decision about the Olympics is expected to be announced Wednesday, people familiar with the deliberations said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the NHL and its players’ union had not publicly disclosed their intentions, even as they had telegraphed them for weeks.
The NHL, which has had dozens of its games postponed this season, said Monday that it would pause its season for several days after a swelling number of players were ruled out of games after entering the league’s health and safety protocols.
The decision that NHL players would not go to Beijing reflected spiraling concerns among the league, its teams and their players about the possible effects of the pandemic on the rest of the season. The NHL’s retreat came weeks before the Games’ opening ceremony on Feb. 4, and less than four months after the league announced a plan to load the men’s tournament rosters in Beijing with the sport’s biggest stars.
The decision could give the league additional flexibility as it tries to reschedule games even as it braces for more postponements, since a three-week break planned to accommodate the Games can now potentially be used to make up NHL postponements instead.
But the absence of the sport’s best players will undercut the dazzle of the Olympic tournament, which now will most likely feature minor leaguers and overseas-based professionals instead of commanding figures such as NHL All-Stars Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid.
Organizers of the Beijing Olympics have vowed that the festivities will proceed as planned, but the NHL’s decision to opt out injected a new burst of uncertainty into the Games. The emergence of the omicron variant of the coronavirus had already unnerved sports officials worldwide, triggering postponements of games everywhere from the NFL and NBA to England’s Premier League, and the decision to keep dozens of high-profile athletes away from Beijing for health reasons seemed bound to fuel new doubts about a Games already deep in political and medical turmoil.
The NHL did not send its players to the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, a choice that angered players and left the Olympic tournament bereft of the star power to which it has grown accustomed over the previous two decades.
That decision, though, could be traced to traditional misgivings about injuries, revenue splits and the general aggravation of complicating the regular season. The move to skip the Beijing Games reflected a far more complex puzzle, layered with potentially lengthy quarantines and the losses of NHL paychecks for players who might miss league games because of virus issues after returning from the Olympics.
The disruptions to the regular season loomed especially large, and the NHL had spent recent weeks telegraphing mounting misgivings about the Olympic tournament. On Sunday, with the NHL already having announced 39 postponements of regular-season games, the league said that it had suspended cross-border travel for its games and was “actively discussing” the matter of the Olympics with the players and their union.
Individual players had also expressed worries. Robin Lehner, a goaltender for the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights, cited mental health concerns Dec. 6 when he announced that he would not play for Sweden in Beijing.
“My well being have too come first and being locked down and not knowing what happens if you test positive is to much of a risk for me,” Lehner wrote on Twitter.
Olympic officials and Chinese organizers recently released their latest health and safety plans for the Games, including stringent quarantine and isolation protocols for anyone who records a positive test while in Beijing for the Olympics.
Although players who are fully vaccinated will not have to quarantine before the Games — athletes who are not vaccinated would have to spend 21 days in isolation upon their arrival in Beijing — they and other visitors will face daily tests while in China. Interactions with the public will be forbidden, with athletes and other Games personnel cocooned in a “closed-loop management system” that is expected to resemble the so-called bubble that the NBA used last season. The NHL has said it has only one unvaccinated player, Tyler Bertuzzi of the Detroit Red Wings.
The Olympic hockey tournament is scheduled to begin Feb. 9, when the Russian team faces Switzerland. A Russian team, which benefited from a strong domestic league, won the gold in 2018 in Pyeongchang.
The NHL’s decision will not affect the women’s tournament, which is scheduled to start Feb. 3, one day before the official opening of the Games.
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