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NHL backs out of Beijing Olympics, citing Covid surge

It "is no longer feasible” for the world's best hockey players to go to China, National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman said.
Image: Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers skates with the puck during a game on Nov. 24, 2021 in Glendale, Ariz.
Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers skates with the puck during a game on Nov. 24, 2021 in Glendale, Ariz.Christian Petersen / Getty Images file

The recent world spike in Covid-19 prompted the NHL on Wednesday to back out the Beijing Olympics, removing the world's best hockey players from the one of the Games' showcase sports.

The National Hockey League had built in a Feb. 6-22 break from action to send its top players to Beijing, but Covid outbreaks throughout North America have put the sport on hold.

Fifty NHL games have already been postponed and Commissioner Gary Bettman said sending players to Beijing "is no longer feasible."

"We certainly acknowledge and appreciate the efforts made by the International Olympic Committee, the International Ice Hockey Federation and the Beijing Organizing Committee to host NHL Players but current circumstances have made it impossible for us to proceed despite everyone’s best efforts," Bettman said in a statement. "We look forward to Olympic participation in 2026."

The previously scheduled Olympic break will likely give NHL schedule makers valuable calendar space to pencil in postponed games.

"Until very recently, we seemed to be on a clear path to go to Beijing," Don Fehr, NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) Executive Director, said in a statement. "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," Fehr said.

“Certainly, the players and hockey fans are quite disappointed," he continued. "But playing a full 82-game season this year, something the pandemic has prevented us from doing since the 2018-19 season, is very important. We expect that NHL players will return to the Olympics in 2026.​”

Amateurs and professional players from outside the NHL will likely stock the rosters.

The United States, Canada, Germany, China, the Russian Olympic Committee, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Slovakia and Latvia are the 12 teams competing for men's hockey gold in Beijing.

Canadian Olympic Committee CEO and Secretary General David Shoemaker said Wednesday there's "an extraordinarily deep talent pool in Canadian hockey" and vowed to field a competitive team in hopes of bringing Canada its fourth consecutive men's hockey medal.

USA Hockey, the sport's national governing body, said it'll have a roster assembled by mid-January.

"While we're disappointed, we certainly respect the decision of the NHL and NHLPA," USA Hockey said.

Fielding a team of top professional athletes has always been a tricky proposition for Olympic hockey organizers, as the world’s top leagues are running at the time of winter games. 

It wasn’t until 1998 in Nagano when pros first took the Olympic ice and the world’s best hockey players had convened in 2002 (Salt Lake City), 2006 (Turin), 2010 (Vancouver) and 2014 (Sochi) thanks to complicated schedule making and deals with various international stakeholders.

Those hurdles led to the NHL skipping the 2018 games in Pyeongchang, but all parties reached a new deal to send the world’s best to Beijing. This most recent agreement included an option for the NHL to back out if circumstances, such as the pandemic, warranted.

Team USA's non-NHL squad in 2018 was comprised of a hodgepodge of college stars, minor leaguers and professionals playing in overseas leagues.

Harvard University's Ryan Donato, now a center with the Seattle Kraken, scored five goals for Team USA, which made it to the quarterfinals of the 2018 Olympics before being eliminated in a shootout thriller by the Czech Republic.

Team USA opens men's Olympic play on Feb. 10 against host China at 8:10 a.m. EST. The Americans then have two more group-play games against Canada at 11:10 p.m. EST on Feb. 11 and Germany at 8:10 a.m. EST on Feb. 13.

The Olympics are broadcast in the United States on NBC. NBC is owned by NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.

“We understand the decision, but the Olympics remain the greatest hockey tournament in the world regardless of whether the players are from the NHL or other elite leagues around the world," an NBC Sports representative said Wednesday.

"We are confident that hockey fans and Olympic viewers will once again enjoy the unique style of play that only happens once every four years when athletes compete for their countries at an Olympics.”