With 50 games already postponed, there was a fear the NHL would be unable to complete a full 82-game season while also taking a break of more than two weeks in February for the Olympics. The NHL’s bottom line is at stake with the league and players drawing no direct money from competing at the Winter Games.
While the NHL and NHLPA agreed on Olympic participation last year as part of a collective bargaining agreement extension, the deal to go to Beijing was contingent on pandemic conditions not worsening. A material interruption of the schedule allowed the league to pull out, and the delta and omicron variants spreading across North America not only caused games to be pushed off but made some players hesitant about going to China.
As a result, men’s hockey tournament at the Olympics will go on without NHL players for the second consecutive time.
“These are opportunities and experiences of a lifetime that you don’t get very many of as an athlete, and you might only get one,” said Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby, who won Olympic gold with Canada in 2010 and 2014. “It just might happen to fall in your window and if it doesn’t happen to work out, it’s unfortunate.”
Unless the Beijing Games are postponed a year like Tokyo, a generation of stars including American Auston Matthews, Canadians Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, German Leon Draisaitl and Swede Victor Hedman will need to wait until 2026 to play in the Olympic men’s hockey tournament for the first time.
“It’s a thing you’ve been looking forward to for a very long time,” Hedman said. “For us to not be able to go, it’s going to hurt for a while.”
The NHL was full go on the Olympics until the delta and omicron coronavirus variants began spreading around North America earlier this month and caused a rash of postponements. Before Calgary’s outbreak in the first half of December, only five games needed to be rescheduled and one was already made up.
Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, the likely U.S. Olympic starter, expressed displeasure Tuesday with the decision not to go and called the rash of postponements overkill.
The NHL did not participate in the Olympics until 1998, which started a string of five in a row through Sochi in 2014. The season was not stopped in 2018, leaving mostly professionals playing in Europe and some college players to make up the rosters in South Korea.
Russia, which won gold at the Pyeongchang Games, immediately becomes the favorite without the NHL thanks to an influx of homegrown talent playing in the Kontintental Hockey League.