• REUTERS

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NHL players said they were disappointed at not having the chance to compete at the Beijing Olympic Games, as national governing bodies began the hectic work of filling out their Olympic rosters without the league’s top stars.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday that the league’s players would not compete in the men’s ice hockey tournament at the Games due to COVID-19 concerns.

“I’ve dreamed of that for a long time, so (it’s) disappointing,” Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy told reporters on Thursday. “I honestly think it was unanimous that every single guy was going to go if given the opportunity.”

Beijing organizers were also disappointed by the news.

“We express regret that they cannot take part in the Games because of COVID,” Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) official Huang Chun told a news conference.

With NHL players representing 11 of the 12 nations competing in the men’s ice hockey tournament at the Beijing Games, the global impact of the league’s withdrawal is substantial, with Canada and the United States likely feeling the biggest impact.

The league ended a run of taking part in five straight Olympics when it elected not to go to Pyeongchang 2018. The U.S. filled its 23-man roster with 15 who competed professionally in Europe, three who played in the American Hockey League and four collegiate players.

“I’m sure there’ll be a couple college players, I’m sure there will be a lot of KHL (Kontinental Hockey League) … the professionals from over in Europe, so I assume I’ll know some people on the team,” McAvoy said.

USA Hockey is expected to name its head coach and general manager on Monday, with NHL personnel no longer available and little time left before the Games start on Feb. 4.

“In some ways it reflects the process for most world championships, where most of those teams aren’t named until the weeks before,” said Angela Ruggiero, a four-time Olympian who brought home gold with the U.S. women’s ice hockey team at the 1998 Games in Nagano.

USA Hockey previously said its roster would likely be announced by mid-January.

Other countries, such as Sweden, Finland, Russia, Germany and Czech Republic, will also have big holes to fill.

“We are prepared for a situation where the NHL players don’t take part in the Olympics,” said Johan Hemline of the Swedish Hockey League.

For Bruins winger David Pastrnak, the Czech Republic’s 2020 sportsperson of the year, watching and waiting as his country fields a team could prove agonizing.

“For European players, growing up as a kid, that’s your dream, right, to make it,” he told reporters.

“This is technically the second Olympics in a row that you’re missing as a player. It’s obviously nobody’s fault … It’s the world we’re living in.”

Huang, the deputy director general of the Pandemic Prevention and Control Office for the organizing committee, said he was confident the COVID-19 prevention measures would be effective in protecting athletes at the Games in Beijing. ]

“We firmly believe these COVID-prevention measures can reduce the risk of infection spreading, and can ensure the health of the athletes and other games personnel while ensuring the games go on and that the Chinese people are safe,” he said.

NHL players negotiated a return to the Olympics for the first time since the 2014 Sochi Games into their current Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) expressed disappointment for the athletes.

“We know that the players were desperately keen to participate in the Beijing Games,” a spokesperson said.

While the announcement sent shockwaves through the sport, Ruggiero told Reuters few athletes were likely to follow suit.

“This isn’t just another tournament,” she said. “(It’s) a buildup of your life’s work, so if you trust Beijing organizing committee and the IOC and that everyone is doing as much as they’re in control of, as an athlete, you know, I think most will put their hand up.”

Ruggiero said the decision from the league and its players’ association was understandable, with the pandemic forcing a “different phase in sports.”

“I don’t think you’ll get another announcement like this — but maybe it gives permission to other athletes that are uncomfortable,” said Ruggiero, the CEO of sports and technology firm Sports Innovation Lab.

“If you’ve been training during the pandemic and all of that … At this point you’re used to the hurdles to compete.”

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