All you need to know about what the Olympic experience means to the world’s best male hockey players is that many were still eager to head to Beijing in February.
Even in the midst of a coming to life pandemic, with uncertain quarantine protocols and unprecedented controls over their movements during the Games, there was a strong collective desire to do what was necessary to organize a better versus better tournament.
Those being considered for the Olympic selection were told over the course of three internal calls with the NHL Players Association last week that there was only so much that could be done once they boarded the plane to China. That if they contracted COVID-19 and the Chinese authorities required a three to five week quarantine period, it would be beyond the scope of the NHL to intervene or find another solution.
Still, the stars wanted to play.
That dream is now dead: The NHL and NHLPA reached the joint decision Tuesday to withdraw their participation and in the process of finalizing it with the International Olympic Committee.
They made that call for business reasons above all else.
They’re scrambling to try and save an entire season, frankly, after the rapid spread of the Omicron variant forced a wave of game postponements and sent the league into its early vacation break.
Skipping out of the Beijing Games removes any existential concerns about the possibility of star players getting stuck in China as the NHL schedule resumes at home. It also opens nearly three previously removed weeks from the calendar, Feb.3-22, where the league may attempt to ease some of the congestion caused by 50 postponed games (and counting).
The tenor around the Olympic discussions was different this time from Pyeongchang 2018, when the NHL chose not to go, and even in previous tournaments where it did.
The league’s owners were still overwhelmingly against pausing the schedule for an event where they received little or no direct financial benefit, but had given up the right to get in the way of the players as part of a renegotiated collective bargaining agreement. in the early stages of the pandemic.
By all accounts, the NHL fulfilled its end of the deal after negotiating that deal in good faith.
Ultimately, it was the significant disruption to the schedule that triggered the decision to withdraw from the Olympics. Several teams, including the Maple Leafs, Senators, Canadiens and Oilers, were completely shut down over the weekend and remain in jeopardy of losing games on the other side of Christmas.
And there is cause for concern about the future of cross-border travel, as the variant is spreading aggressively across the continent.
There are huge logistical challenges ahead, and games are not expected to begin being rescheduled until the league has a better understanding of the situation in January.
NHL owners and players share a common interest in seeing this season organized as effectively as possible by virtue of their revenue split agreement. They have all lost money since March 2020 and are struggling not to lose more.
Yet it’s the players doing the most to boost the business that are losing something even bigger here. An experience. One that Canadians, Americans, Swedes, Finns, and Russians alike longed for.
Sidney Crosby has two Olympic gold medals, but is said to have been pushing hard behind the scenes to try to get one last trip to the Games. You may never get a chance to skate alongside Connor McDavid and his good friend Nathan MacKinnon in a game that now has a lot on the line.
Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos lifted the Stanley Cup twice during this pandemic with the Tampa Bay Lightning, but neither has represented their national team on the Olympic stage. It stands out as a professional wish list item.
“For me, it’s obviously something I’ve been dreaming of my whole life and something I want to do before I hang up my skates,” Hedman said in July.
When the Olympics happen again in 2026, when I’m 35 and Stamkos 36, the opportunity could have left them behind forever.
You could go through the projected roster for each national team and find similar stories. And Morgan Rielly? Or Brad Marchand? Or Alex Ovechkin? Will they get another Olympic shot?
We’ve basically entered an ice age for international hockey since the Sochi Games in 2014. There was the Hockey World Cup in 2016, sure, but it didn’t completely replicate or replace the feel of the Olympics.
Since then nothing.
Unless the Beijing Games are fully rescheduled for 2023, players like McDavid, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are now destined to reach the middle of their careers before they have a chance to don their country’s sweater in a format of best over best.
The next available opportunity for that won’t come before a World Cup is contemplated in 2024, although plans for that tournament have not advanced beyond the idea stage, with the NHL and NHLPA so wrapped up in trying to navigate. through the myriad pressure. problems right now.
“When we can get out for air, I think it’s something we would pursue together,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently said of the World Cup revival.
With so little certainty, it’s easier to understand why so many players were willing to take the risk of a trip to China to get their Olympic experience now.
There is no blame or fault to assign why it won’t happen, these are simply the times we live in, but there’s also no denying that something important has probably been lost forever.
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