The NHL is officially out of the Olympics — now what?
They might return in 4 years, but this one hurts
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The NHL made it official today, announcing that its players won't participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing due to pandemic-related issues. Though the writing was on the wall for quite some time, the finality of it all is a huge blow to the players who were excited to compete for their countries, and to fans who were looking forward to watching one of the very best tournaments in all of sports.
So, where do we go from here? Let's try to answer some key questions in the wake of today's announcement:
Any chance the Beijing Olympics get postponed by a year?
That's what happened in March 2020 to the Tokyo Summer Olympics, and a lot of people have commented that this current wave of the pandemic feels a bit reminiscent of that time. But attitudes and approaches to COVID-19 have shifted over the past two years — especially since vaccines began rolling out about a year ago. Yes, the NHL extended its Christmas break in response to a surge in positive tests among its players, but the NFL and NBA have made it clear that pausing their seasons is no longer a viable option.
Whether right or wrong, there's a greater willingness these days to try and push through this rather than shut down. Neither the International Olympic Committee nor Chinese organizers have given any indication that the Beijing Games will not take place this February.
Can NHL players still go to the Olympics on their own?
No. Per Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman, this could have been a possibility if the NHL Players' Association had been the one to officially make the move to pull out. But it was the league that chose to exercise a clause allowing it to cancel Olympic participation if the pandemic caused a "material disruption to the schedule." With 50 games postponed so far this season (the vast majority of them in the last 10 days) and probably more to come, it was easy for the NHL to make the case that it can no longer afford to shut down for two and a half weeks to send its best players halfway around the world. The players signed off on this, making it a joint decision.
Either way, it's highly unlikely any player would go rogue and leave his NHL team to compete for his country. There was a lot of tough talk from guys claiming they'd do this in 2018, when the NHL and the IOC were squabbling over money. Alex Ovechkin vowed to play for Russia whether the NHL liked it or not. But everyone backed down after the league announced it wouldn't allow players to go to Pyeongchang.
Will there be NHL games during the Olympics?
That's the plan. Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league "will begin utilizing available dates during the Feb. 6-22 window… to reschedule games that have been, or may yet be, postponed." How many games, though, remains to be seen. Many NHL arenas are booked during that time for stuff like concerts and other sports. So the schedule might be lighter than usual. This is being sorted out as we speak.
Who will play for Canada?
A contingency plan was already in place in case the NHL bailed. General manager Doug Armstrong and his staff will step aside, leaving the job of filling out the roster to Hockey Canada executive Scott Salmond and replacement GM Shane Doan, the former Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes forward. Former Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins head coach Claude Julien will be behind the bench.
As for the players, expect something similar to 2018, when Canada's Olympic team was made up mostly of guys playing in the Russia-based KHL, plus some other European leagues. Salmond said players from the AHL (North America's top minor league) and the NCAA (U.S. colleges/universities) will also be considered.
In 2018, the leading scorers on Canada's bronze-winning team were Maxim Noreau, who was playing in the Swiss league, and Derek Roy, who'd moved to the Swedish league after a long career in the NHL. Canada's top goalie was former NHL journeyman Ben Scrivens.
This time, the recognizable ex-NHLers who are candidates to join Team Canada include forwards Eric Fehr, David Desharnais and Cory Conacher, defenceman Jason Demers and goalie Devan Dubnyk. Read more about who might play for Canada in this piece by CBC Sports contributor Vicki Hall.
Who's favoured to win gold now?
Online betting sites (at least the ones I use) took down their men's hockey markets once it became clear that NHL players weren't going. But last week, when it had just started looking like the NHL might pull out and tournament odds were still posted, Russia had been bet up to a slight favourite over Canada to win gold. Makes sense: the KHL is probably the best league outside of North America, and the Russians won gold in 2018 when NHLers were absent.
The MVP of that tournament was Ilya Kovalchuk, a 400-plus goal scorer in the NHL who was still good enough to play there at the time but had chosen to go home to the KHL. After the Olympics, he returned to the NHL for a few years, spent last season back in the KHL, and currently does not have a team. The top two scorers in the tournament were Russia's Nikita Gusev, who's back in the KHL again after a stint in the NHL, and Kirill Kaprizov, who scored the gold-medal winner in OT against surprising Germany before graduating to the NHL. He won the rookie of the year award with the Minnesota Wild last season.
Will NHL players ever go back to the Olympics?
Sounds like everyone is up for it in 2026, when the Winter Games will be held in northern Italy. In the NHL's statement today announcing the withdrawal from Beijing, Bettman said "we look forward to Olympic participation in 2026." In the NHLPA's statement, union head Don Fehr said "we expect that NHL players will return to the Olympics in 2026." By that time, it'll have been 12 years since they last appeared in the Games. And a lot can happen over the next four years. So we'll see.
Who's the biggest loser here?
The fans. There's nothing in sports quite like the excitement and drama of an Olympic hockey tournament filled with NHL stars. Without them, the men's event can still be entertaining (remember the 1994 gold-medal game between Canada and Sweden, featuring Peter Forsberg's iconic shootout goal?) But, to be honest, it's not the same. Especially now that we've had a taste of the best players on the planet facing off for national pride.
On the players' side, you have to feel for guys like Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Nikita Kucherov who were gearing up for their first Olympics. At least they're all on the right side of 30, so they'll probably get another chance in four years. But what about Steven Stamkos? He technically has a gold medal, from 2014, but he didn't play in the tournament due to injury. By the time the next Winter Olympics roll around, he'll be about to turn 36.
Ovechkin is in a similar boat. He has his Stanley Cup, but winning an Olympic gold for Russia might mean even more to him, and he hasn't been able to do it. He'll be 40 in 2026 — maybe still able to play, but perhaps over the hill. Then again, Ovechkin is such a machine (he ranks second in the NHL in goals this season) that he might still be going strong in four years. Read more about what fans will miss with NHLers out of the Olympics in this piece by Vicki Hall.
So what's a fan of international hockey to do?
Luckily, we still have a couple of high-stakes, "best-on-best" events coming up. The world junior championship starts Boxing Day in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alta., where spectator capacity has been cut to 50 per cent but the 10-team tournament looks ready to go ahead as scheduled. Canada's lone exhibition game is Thursday vs. Russia, before it plays its first game in the tournament proper on Sunday at 7 p.m. ET vs. the Czech Republic.
If it's Olympic hockey drama you're craving, the women's tournament always delivers. Canada vs. the United States is one of the most intense rivalries in all of sports, and they'll likely square off for the gold medal for the fourth consecutive time in Beijing. After the Canadians' epic overtime victory in 2014, the Americans dethroned them in a shootout in 2018. But Canada returned the favour at this year's world championship when Marie-Philip Poulin scored the sudden-death winner in the final in Calgary.
Poulin's overtime magic has continued this season in the Canada-U.S. Rivalry Series, which Canada leads 4-2 after its captain potted back-to-back OT winners in St. Louis last week. Monday's game in Minnesota was postponed due to COVID-19 concerns, but the teams are slated to meet for the final two times before the Olympics on Jan. 3 and 6 in Edmonton and Red Deer.