The National Hockey League has confirmed its players will not take part in the Beijing Olympics in February, but the league expects a return to the Games in 2026, Deadline reports.
COVID concerns have mounted significantly in recent weeks, and multiple media reports suggested on Tuesday that the NHL would likely pull the plug. The angst level has been heightened by worries about the “COVID zero” strategy employed by Chinese officials in their fight against the virus. That means a player who tests positive during the already two-week-plus trip would have to self-isolate and quarantine for two weeks, potentially turning an Olympics trip into more than a month-long proposition.
The league has already had to postpone 50 games and has even played contests in front of no fans amid rising infection rates and the now-dominant omicron variant. It opted to pause its season early for Christmas in an effort to regroup. Instead of taking part in the Olympic tournament from Feb. 6-22, the NHL now plans to fill that period with rescheduled games, hoping to keep its season on track.
“The National Hockey League respects and admires the desire of NHL players to represent their countries and participate in a ‘best on best’ tournament. 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,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Unfortunately, given the profound disruption to the NHL’s regular-season schedule caused by recent COVID-related events … Olympic participation is no longer feasible.”
Despite “everyone’s best efforts,” he continued, “current circumstances have made it impossible for us to proceed. … We look forward to Olympic participation in 2026.”
Cleared by Olympics organizers to play since 1988, the NHL sent players to the Games from 1998 to 2014, opting out in other years because the event posed too great of an interruption to its regular season. For NBA players, who have competed in the Summer Olympics since 1992, the dynamics are different because the tournament coincides with their offseason. While many basketball stars have passed on playing in the Olympics, a professional presence has nevertheless remained fairly constant over the past three decades.
National Hockey League Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr said in a statement that players had been looking forward “with great anticipation” to the 2022 Games. “Until very recently, we seemed to be on a clear path to go to Beijing,” he added. “COVID-19 has unfortunately intervened, forcing dozens of games to be postponed this month alone. No matter how much we wish it were not the case, we need to utilize the Olympic period to reschedule these games.”
He acknowledged both players and fans “are quite disappointed” by the move. But being able to complete a full 82-game season remains the priority.