Sports·THE BUZZER

What happens if NHL players don't go to the Olympics?

CBC Sports' daily newsletter covers the latest developments around the 2022 Olympic hockey tournaments, including why it's still not a certainty that the world's best players will compete in the men's event.

It's still unlikely, but contingency plans are in place

As long as he's back in time, and back in form, Carey Price should have a chance to backstop Canada to another Olympic gold medal. (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP via Getty Images)

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports' daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what's happening in sports by subscribing here.

Olympic hockey is on the horizon

The 2022 Winter Olympics will feature a wide range of interesting and exciting competitions.  From figure skating and speed skating to freestyle skiing, snowboarding and curling, there's something for everyone — and Canadian medal contenders almost everywhere. But, if we're being honest, the average fan in this country is most pumped about one sport: hockey. So here are the latest developments you should know about for both the men's and women's tournaments in Beijing:

We can't be 100 per cent sure that NHL players are going.

That's still the plan, and still the most likely outcome. But the agreement reached by the NHL and NHL Players' Association with hockey's world governing body allows the league and the players to bail on the Olympics if COVID-19 conditions make going to Beijing "impractical or unsafe," as the NHL and NHLPA put it when the deal was announced in early September.

Right now, things seem mostly OK. The pandemic is relatively under control, nearly every NHL player is vaccinated, and teams are back playing in front of full arenas (at least where that many fans are willing to attend). But that language — "impractical or unsafe" — leaves plenty of room for interpretation, and the league has never seemed thrilled about the idea of going to Beijing (the players demanded it). If anyone is looking for an off-ramp, they can already point to a couple of ominous signs. The Ottawa Senators just experienced an outbreak that caused a week's worth of their games to be postponed, and COVID-19 cases are rising again in the United States, home to three quarters of the NHL's teams.

It's also fair to wonder whether all the controversy surrounding China could become a factor in the final decision — maybe something that tips the scales if the health situation is looking dicey. Human-rights groups are calling for a full boycott of the Beijing Games, and Joe Biden said last week that the U.S. is "considering" a diplomatic boycott — one in which a country sends its athletes but no dignitaries. Concerns spread deeper into the sports world last week after pro tennis player Peng Shuai went missing for a time in the wake of her allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government.

The key date is Jan. 10. A final decision on whether NHL players will compete in Beijing must be made by then. If the answer is yes, then great — we can start getting really excited for the Olympic debuts of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Auston Matthews and a bunch of other stars. If the answer is no, the men's tournament will revert to its lacklustre form of four years ago in Pyeongchang, where Canada's leading scorer was Maxim Noreau.

To prepare for that possibility, Hockey Canada is arranging a shadow team to replace the NHLers if necessary. In that case, current Team Canada general manager Doug Armstrong and his staff would hand over the reins to them. The NHL is ready too. It produced two regular-season schedules — one without an Olympic break, which it will break out if needed.

Assuming NHL players go, Canada's No. 1 goalie job is still Carey Price's to lose.

The good old days of Canada getting to choose between Curtis Joseph and Marty Brodeur, or Brodeur and Roberto Luongo, or Luongo and Carey Price, are gone. The country's goaltending depth just isn't what it used to be. But Canada still has one of the best netminders in the world in Price, who won Olympic gold in 2014 and carried Montreal to the Stanley Cup final a few months ago.

Price, though, has yet to play this season after seeking help for a substance-use issue. In fact, he still hasn't skated with the Habs. So his availability for Beijing remains very much in the air. "If he gets his game up and wants to come and he's playing to that level [he showed in the playoffs], he'll be the guy again," Armstrong told CBC Sports' Rob Pizzo. If not, the top candidates are Jordan Binnington, who backstopped Armstrong's Blues to the Stanley Cup in 2019, Philadelphia's Carter Hart and New Jersey's Mackenzie Blackwood. For more of Armstrong's thoughts on the Olympics and Canada's roster, watch the video below.

The Chinese men's team might be in trouble.

As the host country, China has the right to a spot in every event at the Beijing Olympics. But some people in the international hockey world are warning that its talent-deprived men's hockey team is going to get walloped when it faces Canada, the United States and Germany in the group stage. The first two, in particular, will be stocked with NHL all-stars, and they'll be incentivized to run up the score because goal differential matters in the standings.

Due to the pandemic, the Chinese national team hasn't had many opportunities to play internationally. But one indicator of its lack of quality is Kunlun Red Star, a team in the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League stocked with players (including 19 Canadians) who might be eligible to suit up for China at the Olympics. Kunlun has six regulation wins in 31 games this season. Another problem is that China doesn't recognize dual citizens. So if, say, a Canadian of Chinese heritage wants to play for China in the Olympics, he may have to forfeit his Canadian passport, at least temporarily.

The president of hockey's world governing body has warned that China could be pulled from the tournament and replaced with Norway. A final decision is expected this week. Read more about China's hockey predicament in this story by CBC News' Briar Stewart.

The Canadian and U.S. women's teams are gearing up for another gold-medal showdown.

The rival superpowers have met in five of the six Olympic women's hockey finals, and there's little reason to believe they won't square off again for gold on Feb. 16. Yes, Finland upset Canada in the semifinals of the 2019 world championship, and then nearly shocked the Americans in the title game, but order was restored last summer when Canada reclaimed the world title with an overtime win over the U.S.

Canada and the U.S. are a third of the way through their nine-game Rivalry Series — a set of pre-Olympic exhibition games that started a month ago and run til early January. The Canadians won the first two before the Americans scored a 3-2 overtime win Sunday in Kingston, Ont. They play again tonight in Ottawa, followed by three games in the U.S. in mid-December. Read a breakdown of the women's and men's Olympic hockey schedules here.

Canadian Olympic men's hockey power rankings: Ep. 04 - Doug Armstrong

9 days ago
8:17
Rob Pizzo decided the time was right to speak to the man responsible for putting together Canada's Olympic hockey team. 8:17

Quickly...

Some big matchups are happening at the Canadian curling trials. The men are playing at 3 p.m. ET today, and the draw features a clash between Brad Gushue and Brad Jacobs. The former Olympic champions came into this event as favourites to meet in the final, and they're both off to 3-0 starts. At the other end of the standings is reigning Brier champ Brendan Bottcher, who's 0-3 and fighting for his life against Mike McEwen (2-0). Only the top three teams in the nine-team field advance to the playoffs. The women play at 8 p.m. ET. 2018 Olympian Rachel Homan got her first win last night, but at 1-2 she's still in a tough spot heading into her showdown with Tracy Fleury (3-0). The other marquee matchup pits 2014 Olympic gold medallist Jennifer Jones (4-0) vs. reigning Scotties champ Kerri Einarson (2-2).

And finally…

One of Canada's greatest divers retired. Jennifer Abel, who announced her retirement today at the age of 30, won 10 medals at the world championships and two at the Olympics. She took bronze at the 2012 Games in London with former partner Émilie Heymans, and silver in the same event this summer in Tokyo with Melissa Citrini-Beaulieu. Read more about Abel's accomplishments and future plans here. Read her first-person reflection on her career as a rare mixed-race athlete in diving here.

You're up to speed. Talk to you tomorrow.

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