The NHL is pulling out of the Beijing Olympics.
The joint decision by the league and NHL Players’ Association comes amid COVID-19 concerns that have seen an explosion of cases and 45 games postponed since Dec. 13, a source told The Canadian Press on Tuesday.
The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because a formal announcement had yet to be made.
The NHL and NHLPA officially committed to sending players to China for the 2022 Games back in September, but that agreement with the International Ice Hockey Federation allowed either party to withdraw if COVID-19 conditions rendered participation “impractical or unsafe.”
More than one-third of NHL clubs — including the Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Edmonton Oilers and Ottawa Senators — have either been recently shut down or voluntarily suspended activities due to the coronavirus. The league currently has more than 15 per cent of its players in virus protocol, forcing a string of postponements.
The Senators and New York Islanders were both also shut down earlier this season, with a total of five contests scratched from their schedules.
The NHL, which moved up the start of its holiday break this week from Friday to Wednesday in response to the coronavirus-related postponements fuelled by the fast-spreading Omicron variant, has rescheduled just two of the 50 contests impacted to date.
The league also previously announced there would be a halt to cross-border travel until after the Christmas pause.
The NHL went to five straight Olympics from 1998 through 2014 before skipping the 2018 tournament in South Korea. A team of Canadian non-NHLers won bronze four years ago after losing to Germany in the semifinals.
The opening ceremony in Beijing is set for Feb. 4.
The decision to pull out of the 2022 Games means young superstars like Canada’s Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews of the United States will have to wait until at least 2026 for the chance to compete on sports’ biggest stage.
And it also means the likes of Canada’s Sidney Crosby, 34, and Russia’s Alex Ovechkin, 36, might have just watched their last Olympic shots evaporate.
Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who appeared to be a lock for the U.S. roster in China, expressed his disappointment earlier Tuesday before turning his attention to 2026.
“I’ll be 32,” he said. “I know I’ll still be playing my best hockey, but we’ll see if it’s the same story.
“It was going to be an awesome opportunity to play, but I guess that’s just what we have to deal with.”
The NHL and NHLPA initially agreed to go to China as part of negotiations to extend the current collective bargaining agreement when the league restarted after the pandemic forced it to shutter operations in March 2020.
Owners have never been enamoured by the Olympics for a host of reasons, including disruption to the league calendar, but promised players they would do everything possible to get them to Beijing.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said at the recent 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.
But 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 time for an athlete that tests positive at the Olympics, worsening diplomatic relations between China and the West, restrictions on the ground, and allegations of human rights abuses in the host country.
“We have concerns, and we’ve expressed those to the players’ association,” Bettman said on Dec. 10. “We’ve seen that a number of players are now expressing concerns.
“We’ll have to see how this ultimately plays out.”
Vegas Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner — a likely inclusion on Sweden’s Olympic roster — was the first player to indicate publicly he wouldn’t be going to China over the quarantine question.
A number of other NHLers, including McDavid and Leafs captain John Tavares, who’s currently in the league’s protocol, said the potential for a long isolation period also made them wary.
Those concerns are now moot.
The NHL had until Jan. 10 to pull out of the Olympics for reasons related to COVID-19 without financial penalty, but also possessed the authority to nix the plan at any time.
Hockey Canada and other nations that were banking on rosters stocked with NHLers in Beijing will now have to pivot.
Canada iced the makings of a shadow team at the recent Channel One Cup in Russia using mostly European-based professionals — Claude Julien coached the group as he awaits his next NHL opportunity — but pulled out of the subsequent Spengler Cup in Switzerland over coronavirus worries.
Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who at age 31 has never played for Canada at the Olympics, lamented an opportunity missed.
“You grow up dreaming of winning a Stanley Cup and I’ve been able to accomplish that,” Stamkos said Tuesday ahead of his team’s game in Las Vegas against the Golden Knights. “You grow up wanting to represent your country and win a gold medal.
“That’s something I probably won’t have a chance to do now.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 21, 2021.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press