It’s now official. NHL players will not participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics.
The announcement from the league came Wednesday, as the amended four-day holiday break began.
Tuesday’s postponement of the Washington Capitals/Philadelphia Flyers contest marked the 50th game to be rescheduled in the 2021-22 season. The fact that the campaign has now been “materially disrupted” by Covid-19 allows the league to withdraw its support for Olympic participation.
“The National Hockey League respects and admires the desire of NHL players to represent their countries and participate in a ‘best on best’ tournament,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in a statement. “Accordingly, we have waited as long as possible to make this decision while exploring every available option to enable our players to participate in the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
“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.”
After getting through the first two months of the season with just a handful of postponements, the situation started to go south over the last 10 days. On Dec. 13, the Calgary Flames had “at least” three games postponed after six players and one staff member entered the NHL’s Covid protocol within a 24-hour period. At that time, the league said it was concerned about “continued spread, and the likelihood of additional positive cases in the coming days.”
MORE FOR YOU
That concern proved to be well-founded. Despite no team activity, three more Flames players entered protocol on Dec. 14, seven more on Dec. 15 and four more in subsequent days — most recently, backup goaltender Dan Vladar on Dec. 21.
Concurrently, a tidal wave of positive cases also swept over the rest of the league. By Dec. 19, with six teams completely shut down, the NHL announced that it was postponing all cross-border games between Canadian and U.S. teams up to the holiday break, which had originally been set for Dec. 24-26.
But the positive test results kept coming in, forcing even more postponements. Just two games were played after Sunday. On Monday, the league announced that it was scrubbing its slate of games on Thursday and moving the holiday break up to Dec. 22-25.
Under the new schedule, players and team staff will report back to their arenas for testing starting on Dec. 26, and will not be permitted to undertake any other activities until they have returned a negative test. At that point, travel and practices will be permitted. At that point, we’ll see if there are more positive tests, and how many of the 14 games scheduled for Dec. 27 will be able to be played.
The February Make-Up Window
By taking the Olympics out of the equation, the league now gives itself the opportunity to use the window of Feb. 6-22 to start making up postponed games.
In some cases, that will be challenging. For instance, the New York Rangers have had just one home date postponed, but concerts and other events have been scheduled at Madison Square Garden for 13 of the 17 days in the make-up window.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Flames are in better shape. They have lost four home dates, but just five events are booked into the Scotiabank Saddledome for that 17-day period in February.
The 2021-22 regular-season schedule is currently set to wrap up on Apr. 29, about three weeks later than usual. The NHL has made it clear that it hopes to get through this season, and playoffs, as close to a regular timeline as possible, with the goal of running the 2022-23 season as close to the regular calendar as possible.
Olympic Postponement Is Highly Unlikely
No matter what stage of their career they’re in, NHL players are hugely disappointed to be missing out on an Olympic opportunity.
At 36, and playing some of the best hockey of his career, Alex Ovechkin has yet to bring home a gold medal for Russia. And the Russian team would likely have boasted the best goaltending in this year’s tournament, with netminders like Andrei Vasilevskiy, Igor Shesterkin and Sergei Bobrovsky in the mix.
At 27, Vasilevskiy has never suited up at the Olympics. Neither have his 31-year-old Tampa Bay Lightning teammates Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, who were both sidelined by injuries in 2014 and will be long-in-the-tooth 35-year-olds by the time 2026 rolls around.
“Us to not be able to go, it’s going to hurt for a while,” Hedman said Tuesday.
“That was my third legitimate chance of playing in the Olympics, and here I am sitting (here) probably not even going to get to play a game,” said Stamkos. “It’s disappointing, but at the same time there’s not much that we can do.”
Younger stars who were hoping to make their Olympic debuts in 2022 include Connor McDavid (24, Canada), Auston Matthews (24, USA) and Leon Draisaitl (26, Germany).
But Covid-19 is not just a hockey issue. Could there be a chance that the Beijing Games get pushed back to 2023?
At this late date, it seems unlikely. The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo were postponed by one year on March 24, 2020 — just a couple of weeks after the virus first shut down the sporting world and four months before the Games were set to kick off.
The opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics, set to take place in a tightly controlled, fan-free bubble, is scheduled for Feb. 4, 2022 — just over six weeks away.
In early December, organizers kiboshed the possibility of postponement due to the Omicron variant.
“In all walks of life we have learned for the last two years in a Covid world you have to be flexible and adapt rapidly to changing conditions,” said the head of the IOC’s Beijing co-ordination commission, Juan Antonio Samaranch.
“We have that in Beijing. We have done all the rehearsals, all the possible situations, they have prepared for any possible contingency.”
Who Will Now Participate?
Like the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, national federations will now assemble their rosters from non-NHL ranks.
That makes the Olympic Athletes From Russia the favorites to defend their gold medal from 2018, as they have a large pool of talent available in their national league, the KHL.
The league’s current leading scorer is Vadim Shipachyov, the 34-year-old who played three games with the Vegas Golden Knights during their inaugural season before returning to Russia. He was part of the Russian gold-medal team in 2018.
Players from North America and other European countries also skate in the KHL and could be available. Forward Corban Knight, a 31-year-0ld Canadian, currently sits third in KHL scoring, and 32-year-old American Nick Bailen is the top-scoring defenseman.
Some eligible players took part in the five-team Channel One Cup last week in Moscow and Prague. Canada’s entry was coached by Claude Julien, most recently of the Montreal Canadiens, who is expected to take the reins in Beijing. Corban Knight was, indeed, on that roster.
Canada had also intended to use Switzerland’s late-December Spengler Cup as a second tune-up tournament, but withdrew on Monday due to Covid concerns.
After announcing on Dec. 14 that Bill Guerin would replace Stan Bowman as Team USA’s general manager, USA Hockey said Wednesday that a new coaching and management group would be named soon, with the a target of mid-January to set its roster.
While the U.S. team failed to capture a medal in Pyeongchang, that 2018 roster featured three young minor-league and college players who have since become NHL regulars: Troy Terry of the Anaheim Ducks, Jordan Greenway of the Minnesota Wild and Ryan Donato of the Seattle Kraken.