The NHL 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 Wednesday, as the league halted its regular season 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," Bettman said in a statement.
In September 2020, the NHL agreed to pause its regular season so the world's top players could compete in Beijing, but the agreement included a stipulation that the league could withdraw if COVID-19 disruptions forced games to be rescheduled during the Olympic window.
With COVID-19 spreading throughout team locker rooms, the NHL, in an attempt to combat the outbreaks, moved up the start of its Christmas break to Wednesday, with plans to resume play Dec. 28.
The NHL had until Jan. 10 to withdraw from the Olympics, which begin in February, 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," Luc Tardif, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, 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," NHL Players’ Association 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."
The NHL said it will use the Olympic window to reschedule postponed games.
"We know that the players were desperately keen to participate in the Beijing Games," an International Olympic Committee spokesperson said.
"We are naturally disappointed for them."
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, South Korea, in 2018.
Since NHL players began participating at the 1998 Nagano Games, the men's ice hockey tournament has been one of the Winter Olympics' marquee events.
"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 center Sidney Crosby, who won two Olympic gold medals 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 fielded teams stocked entirely with NHL players, that will mean cobbling together their rosters with players from other leagues.
USA Hockey said it would announce new people to fill coaching and management roles, as NHL personnel are 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."
Both Canada and the United States have struggled to reach the Olympic podium without NHL players.
In Pyeongchang, Russia took gold, Germany earned silver and Canada claimed bronze.
"It is good to have a final decision on this in order to proceed with the overall planning around the team," Germany coach Toni Soderholm said. "Obviously it is a great pity for the German players in the NHL because they really wanted to be at the Olympics.
"With or without NHL players we are going into this Olympic ice hockey tournament with confidence and will use the coming weeks to prepare for the challenge in Beijing accordingly."
Canada has won gold three times since NHL players began competing in 1998.
"There is an extraordinarily deep talent pool in Canadian hockey," said David Shoemaker, CEO and secretary general of the Canadian Olympic Committee. "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, told Reuters in an interview. "It has been a possible scenario for some time, and we are prepared."
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