With both the National Hockey League and NHL Players Association today ratifying both their return to play proposal to complete the 2019-20 NHL season, as well as extend their latest Collective Bargaining Agreement, one major clause of the plan is the return of NHL players to the Winter Olympics, marking the return of the world’s top professional players for the first time since 2014, pending IOC and IIHF approval.
The new CBA extension, which was ratified until the 2025-26 season, ensures that the NHL will continue without an interruption in play, marking the first CBA extension to achieve this in some time, after previous work stoppages in 1994 and 2013, along with the complete cancellation of the 2004-05 season preceding this agreement. The proposal, which also ensures that the NHL will return to play on 01 August in Toronto and Edmonton with an expanded playoff picture of 24 teams, included the clause that now ensures NHL players will compete at both the 2022 Beijing and 2026 Milan Games.
While the approval of both the IOC and IIHF is the final step required to formally confirm the players’ return, this can be seen as little more than a technicality, as the IIHF previously rallied hard to have the NHL participate at the 2018 PyeongChang Games, which they controversially skipped in the midst of previous CBA negotiations, marking the first Games since 1994 that did not see the pros participate. Previous issues outlined by the NHL, such as usage rights to Olympics footage and player insurance, will surely be part of the final negotiations, but all parties in the NHL are now aligned on a return.
Since NHL players debuted at the Games in 1998, Canada has won three Olympic titles (Salt Lake 2002, Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014), while Czechia (Nagano 1998) and Sweden (Turin 2006) have each won one Gold Medal. The last Olympics in 2018, without NHL players, saw the Olympic Athletes From Russia squad capture Gold in an overtime thriller over Germany, while the NHL looked to fill the gap with the 2016 World Cup of Hockey before the start of the 2016-17 NHL season, which saw Canada defeat a “Team Europe” conglomerate.
With Olympic groups set based on the IIHF World Ranking, nine teams have qualified thus far (Canada, United States, Russia, Czechia, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Switzerland and hosts China), with twelve teams set to compete in August 2021 to secure the remaining three qualifier spots. But based on the “big six” and both Germany and Switzerland already qualifying for the 2022 Games, this will ensure that the vast majority of the top men’s pro hockey players in the world will convene in China in February 2022 to crown the best in the world.