Detroit — The NHL and its players association have finalized a decision that in recent weeks seemed inevitable.
According to multiple reports, the NHL and NHLPA have agreed not to send players to February’s Olympic Games in China.
The primary reason, especially given conditions in recent weeks, is COVID-19.
The virus, specifically the omicron variant, has caused 50 games to be cancelled in recent weeks because of a rapid spread, and has given the NHL material cause to not send its players to the Games.
This decision, which is expected to be formally announced imminently, will cause disappointment among hockey fans worldwide — and also many players who were either looking forward to participating in their first Olympics (young stars Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Dylan Larkin), or to some NHL stars likely their last chance (veterans Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin).
Red Wings players Larkin (USA), Moritz Seider (Germany) and Filip Hronek and Filip Zadina (Czech Republic), and possibly, given his terrific start, Lucas Raymond (Sweden) were reportedly some players under consideration to represent their countries.
The NHL and the players association had negotiated Olympic participation in 2022 and 2026 last year during collective bargaining, after the NHL decided not to participate in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.
One key, though, for the NHL in regard to the China Olympics and its chance to pull out of this event, was if its regular season was “materially impacted” by postponed games due to COVID-19.
The slew of games postponed has triggered that clause, and there was growing trepidation among players about traveling to China for this tournament.
A positive COVID test was reportedly going to keep an athlete in China from three-to-five weeks, a possibility that particularly troubled NHL players with families.
Unlike previous Olympics, there was a sense these Games would be more in a bubble-like atmosphere, with little movement for athletes inside the Olympic village, and with plenty of COVID testing.
“There’s a lot going on right now,” said Larkin last week when asked about the Olympics. “We’re dealing with COVID here, we had calls (with the players association) and talks, and you guys have read the reports on what it could be like in China and that’s unfortunate.
“It would be very unfortunate for anyone to get stuck in quarantine for that long, and a serious unknown of when you’d come home. It’s unfortunate for all athletes.”
Wings general manager Steve Yzerman, who has won a gold medal as a player and GM for Team Canada, said Saturday he understood the pull of competing in the Olympics for players, but also understood the concern of getting the virus in China and having to quarantine for multiple weeks.
Wings coach Jeff Blashill, who has coached Team USA at the men’s world championships and world junior championships, said last month the Olympics are an event that coaches and players wanted to attend but the uncertainty surrounding COVID was a concern.
“It’s one of those things everybody wants to go, certainly the players do and I know the coaches involved do, and it can be great for the game,” Blashill said. “(But) when you’re dealing with unknowns, as you’re dealing with what we’ve been going through for two years with COVID, you try not to make the decision until you absolutely have to and have all the information at hand.”
All the information the NHL and its players needed pretty much came down hard in recent weeks, forcing the league to pause its season beginning Wednesday, through Saturday, with no games, practices or visiting team facilities.
Teams are allowed back to facilities Sunday at 2 p.m. for practice and testing, with the the regular season resuming the next day.
The Wings have yet to announce when they’ll hold their first practice. The Wings are scheduled to play in New York, against the Rangers on Monday, with another game Wednesday at the New York Islanders.
The NHL will now use the time between Feb. 6-22 that was slated for the Olympics to play recently postponed games, although that could become tricky given the lack of availability in some North American arenas.
Given the lack of NHL personnel now on any of the teams, what will Olympic hockey rosters look like?
They are expected to be filled with professionals playing either in minor pro leagues in North America or Europe, along with a sprinkling of amateur players. That was the case for many Olympic teams in the 2018 South Korean Games, with only lukewarm interest among many sports fans.