We were all stoked when it was announced that the NHL had agreed to send players back to the Winter Olympics this February for the 2022 Beijing Games. After missing the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, the best players in the world would be heading back to the largest international stage, where so many unforgettable Men’s hockey moments have been made. However, there was always going to be an eye on the developments of the COVID pandemic as the Games approached, much like this past summer’s 2020 (2021) Tokyo Summer Olympics.
It was never going to be easy to send players to the Games, but after the Ottawa Senators had games postponed in November, and the New York Islanders after them in the same month, the league has the opportunity to pull players from participating before the January 10 opt-out deadline.
With the Omicron variant of the virus now making itself a problem, concerns over the NHL’s participation are not only coming from the league’s front office and team ownership, but from the players, too. In a recent report from ESPN, various player sources spoke about their growing hesitation for heading to Beijing for the Olympics.
This from Kristen Shilton in the report:
There is an increasing concern about what traveling to and staying in Beijing could mean, both over the short and long term. For some younger players, who believe there will be another chance for them to play at another Olympics down the road, negatives might outweigh the positives about going this year. But some veteran players — who know these Games might be their last opportunity — sound more open to still going despite the risks.
The bottom line is feelings are fluid. The more information players receive (about potential quarantines, the possibility of getting stuck in China, the repercussions of a positive test while overseas, etc.), the more things can change.
From what we know, if a player were to test positive while in China, they could potentially be held in a 21-day quarantine. Whether at the beginning or end of the Winter Olympics, that 21-day period would keep that player away from the team for at least one game when the NHL schedule is set to resume on February 23, 2022. If a player, say Patrick Kane for example, were to test positive between Team USA’s Semifinal win and the Gold Medal Game on February 20, he wouldn’t be back State-side until March 12, missing what would be eight games. That’s a terrifying scenario for the player, their team, and the league and it’s a very real possibility.
From Emily Kaplan in the report on players missing NHL time due to injury/illness at the Olympics:
As was the case in previous Olympics, if a player is injured, his NHL contract will be insured and covered by the IIHF or his national federation. But they did not get insurance for COVID-19; so if a player misses NHL games after Beijing for COVID-19 reasons, he will not be paid.
Speaking of Kane, after already being named one of Team USA’s three preliminary roster players, he’s clearly looking forward to his third opportunity to represent the U.S. at the Olympics.
— Charlie Roumeliotis (@CRoumeliotis) December 3, 2021
What happens then if the NHL decides not to go to the Olympics? This again from Kaplan in the report:
According to sources, the NHL has created a shadow schedule that features just a one-week break instead of a three-week break should it decide not to go to the Olympics. It would cause a lot of headaches; building availability is low, with concerts and other sporting events in full swing, so there isn’t much wiggle room.
Having the NHL All-Star break lead into the Olympic break was a double-edged sword for the league. The All-Star break in Las Vegas is being put under heavy player restrictions to prevent any possible spread or outbreak chance right before players head to the Olympics, but also serves as a built-in “consolation” event for fans if the league is not going to send players over.
With Vegas on the mind, we’ve already seen our first player opt-out of potentially going to the Olympics. Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner was likely going to be one of the three Swedish goaltenders heading to Beijing, but with the rumored conditions, restrictions, and protocols players will be subject to during the Games in Beijing, Lehner said that environment wouldn’t be good for his mental well-being.
Robin Lehner Opts-Out of Olympic Participation, Citing Personal Health Reasons https://t.co/Z9dmB3LqV8
— Bleacher Nation Blackhawks (@BN_Blackhawks) December 6, 2021
For what the conditions and protocols will be like for players on their way to Beijing and what it will be like once they get there, Greg Wyshynski has a full breakdown within the full ESPN report. I don’t want to take the whole thing here, but I highly recommend reading it. In short, it will be better for fully vaccinated athletes than for unvaccinated athletes, by a long shot. But the term “better” is subjective.
I still hold out hope that the league can send players to the Olympics and have it go-off without a hitch. But I live in the real world where, if COVID can ruin something, it will. I also live in the real world where the NHL will 100% not take a risk where they have no financial benefits if they absolutely do not have to take it. I’d love to see NHL players at the 2022 Winter Olympics, but mentally, I’ve already prepared not to see it.