The NHL was presented with little choice.
And its players — those holding onto dreams of competing at the Olympics for the first time or, in some cases, hoping for one last hurrah — are now left bitterly disappointed.
The COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down these last 19 months, and hockey has been no different.
There was still a belief, however, that despite the numerous challenges, the NHL would find its way to Beijing for the 2022 Winter Games.
But for the second time in as many quadrennials, the best of the league’s best won’t be stepping onto the sporting world’s biggest stage.
The NHL officially announced Wednesday it won’t be going to February’s Olympics amid stark coronavirus concerns across the league that has seen an explosion of cases and 45 games postponed since Dec. 13.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement that “profound disruption” to the schedule caused by COVID-19 meant Olympic participation was “no longer feasible.”
“We have waited as long as possible to make this decision while exploring every available option,” Bettman said. “Current circumstances have made it impossible for us to proceed despite everyone’s best efforts.”
The move to pull out of Beijing was confirmed Tuesday to The Canadian Press by a person with direct knowledge of the decision.
The league and NHL Players’ Association officially committed to going to China back in September, but that agreement with the International Ice Hockey Federation allowed either party to withdraw if COVID-19 rendered conditions “impractical or unsafe.”
Players desperately wanted to take part after the NHL skipped the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, but the league reserved the right to nix the plan if its schedule was materially disrupted by the coronavirus.
That’s precisely what’s happened in less than two weeks.
Fuelled by the fast-spreading Omicron variant, the pandemic’s fourth wave has battered a league that’s been unable to play a full season since 2018-19 and was hit hard by COVID-19’s crippling financial crunch.
NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said in a statement that while players are disappointed, completing an 82-game schedule in a campaign mired by coronavirus interruptions took precedence.
“We seemed to be on a clear path to go to Beijing,” said Fehr, who added he expects NHL players to be at the 2026 Olympics. “COVID-19 has unfortunately intervened.”
The Olympic break was to run from Feb. 6 to 22, but the league will now endeavour to shoehorn as many of its postponed games as possible into that stretch.
It will surely be a monumental task for the NHL’s schedule maker with arena availability varying widely as venues looked to fill dates originally left open by the Olympic pause.
And more COVID-19 disruptions are almost certain with the league scheduled to return to action Monday. More than one-third of clubs have either been shut down or voluntarily suspended activities until Sunday, while more than 15 per cent of players are currently in virus protocol.
The NHL, which moved up the start of its holiday break this week in response to the coronavirus-related postponements, has rescheduled just two of the 50 contests impacted to date.
“We always operated with the understanding that this was a scenario that might occur,” IIHF president Luc Tardif said in a statement. “It was a shock to see how COVID-19 affected the NHL schedule almost overnight.”
The league went to five straight Olympics from 1998 through 2014 before skipping the 2018 tournament. A team of Canadian non-NHLers beat the Czech Republic for bronze four years ago after getting upset by Germany in the semifinals.
“We are fortunate to have the opportunity to evaluate and select talented and hard-working players and personnel that play and work in various leagues around the world,” Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney and president/COO Scott Smith said in a joint statement. “We look forward to assembling a team of highly-skilled players and staff that have worked hard to earn the opportunity to the wear the Maple Leaf with pride on the world stage.”
The decision to back out of the 2022 event, however, means young superstars like Canada’s Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews of the United States and Germany’s Leon Draisaitl will have to wait for their time under the international spotlight.
Canada’s Sidney Crosby, 34, Russia’s Alex Ovechkin, 36, and a host of other veterans, meanwhile, might have just watched their last Olympic shots evaporate.
“Difficult to wrap your head around, given the fact that we thought we’d have the opportunity,” Crosby, who won gold with Canada in 2010 and 2014, said Tuesday before the Olympic news became official.
“Definitely feel for the guys who have missed numerous opportunities.”
Tampa Bay Lightning captain and Canadian hopeful Steven Stamkos, passed over in 2010 and injured in 2014, is one of those players.
“You grow up wanting to represent your country and win a gold medal,” said the 31-year-old. “That’s something I probably won’t have a chance to do now.”
Tampa defenceman Victor Hedman, who was left behind by Sweden in 2014 and then missed out when the NHL didn’t go to Pyeongchang the same year he won the Norris Trophy in 2018, also had an empty feeling.
“It’s going to hurt for a while,” said Hedman, who’s also 31.
While there’s a chance the NHL and NHLPA resurrects the league-run World Cup of Hockey in the next few years, Crosby added players understand and value the uniqueness of the Olympics.
“These are opportunities and experiences of a lifetime that you don’t get very many of as an athlete,” he said. “You might only get one.”
The NHL and NHLPA initially agreed to go to China as part of negotiations to extend the collective bargaining agreement when the league went back online after the pandemic forced it to shutter operations in March 2020.
Owners have never been enamoured by the Olympics for a host of reasons — it doesn’t make sense from a business perspective to pause proceedings in the middle of the season — but promised players they would do everything possible to get them to Beijing.
Bettman said at this month’s board of governors meeting in Florida the league had “real concerns” about these Games, but added the players would ultimately decide on participation if COVID-19 didn’t throw a wrench into its own schedule.
Less than two weeks later, that’s exactly what happened.
Apart from the risks of contracting the coronavirus, the NHL’s worries included uncertainty around quarantine times, worsening diplomatic relations with China, restrictions on the ground and allegations of human rights abuse by the host country.
“We’ve expressed those (concerns) to the players’ association,” Bettman said Dec. 10. “We’ll have to see how this ultimately plays out.”
Vegas Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner, a slam dunk for Sweden’s roster, was the first player to state publicly he wouldn’t be going over the quarantine question.
A number of other NHLers, including McDavid, said the potential for a long isolation period also made them wary.
COVID-19’s latest surge now means those concerns can be tossed aside.
The NHL had until Jan. 10 to bow out of the Olympics for pandemic reasons without financial penalty, but also possessed the authority to scrap the plan at any time.
Countries banking on Beijing rosters stocked with NHLers now have to quickly pivot.
Canada iced the makings of a shadow Olympic team at this month’s Channel One Cup in Russia using mostly European-based professionals — former Montreal Canadiens head coach Claude Julien led the group — but pulled out of the subsequent Spengler Cup in Switzerland.
Some of the names on that roster included former NHLers Jordan Weal, Ryan Spooner, Tyler Graovac, Landon Ferraro, Eric Fehr, Jason Demers and Justin Pogge.
The Russians, meanwhile, are now tournament favourites in China thanks to the availability of players from their domestic Kontinental Hockey League.
Canada, however, remains confident in its podium aspirations.
“There is an extraordinarily deep talent pool in Canadian hockey,” David Shoemaker, the Canadian Olympic Committee’s CEO and general secretary, said in a statement. “We’re excited to rally behind the men’s team as it steps on to the ice for its first game on Feb. 10, attempting to win its fourth consecutive medal.”
It just won’t be with players anyone, including NHLers themselves, expected a few short weeks ago.