After having to cancel fifty games in the past week over protocols due to the new Omicron COVID-19 variant, the National Hockey League today officially announced that due to the material impact of these postponements on the 2021-22 season, they will be withdrawing their players from participating in the upcoming 2022 Beijing Olympic Games.
This absence will now mark the second consecutive Olympics without NHL players, as the league opted out of the 2018 PyeongChang Games. While there was agreement in 2020 to have players return to Beijing, there was an opt-out clause that stated that if the NHL season was impacted by COVID-19, they had the option to withdraw by 10 January without financial penalty.
With games in Canada and the United States both postponed until at least 27 December, many cities already limiting capacity in arenas again, and the potential for quarantine in China for over a month if testing positive during the Games, the NHL and NHL Players Association collectively chose to pull out, and may potentially use the February break to make up missed games where possible.
The question now becomes whether the men’s hockey tournament in February will mimic 2018, with players from top European leagues in the spotlight, or if the Olympics altogether will be postponed, similar to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games being held back a year. If the former, the Russian Olympic Committee team will now suddenly be the Gold medal favourite, with a number of top-caliber players ready to head to China to defend their 2018 title.
If the latter scenario takes place, and the pandemic becomes endemic by Winter 2023, that would leave the possibility for NHLers to return for a rescheduled Olympics in Beijing. Otherwise, this will now mean NHL players cannot return to the Olympics until 2026 at the earliest in Milan, marking a twelve year absence after the conclusion of the 2014 Sochi Games, and ten years since a true “best on best” international tournament after the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.