The inevitability sunk in for Steven Stamkos a full day before the NHL made it official that players would not be allowed to participate in the Beijing Olympics.
Left off Canada's Olympic roster in 2010, injured after being named to the team in 2014 and unable to go in 2018 because the NHL opted out, the Tampa Bay Lightning captain crystallized what it meant that the pandemic was wiping out participation at the 2022 Beijing Games, too.
“That was my third legitimate chance of playing in the Olympics, and here I am sitting (here) probably not even going to get to play a game,” Stamkos said. “It’s disappointing, but at the same time there’s not much that we can do.”
Commissioner Gary Bettman made the announcement Wednesday, making official what seemed inevitable in recent days when a rash of positive COVID-19 test results caused several teams to shut down and the list of postponed games ballooned to 50. The league will use the previously scheduled Feb. 6-22 Olympic break to make up those games and others that need to be rescheduled.
“Given the profound disruption to the NHL’s regular-season schedule caused by recent COVID-related events ... Olympic participation is no longer feasible,” Bettman said. “Our focus and goal have been and must remain to responsibly and safely complete the entirety of the NHL regular season and Stanley Cup playoffs in a timely manner."
In a separate statement, National Hockey League Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr said that while there was a clear path to Beijing before COVID-19 intervened, the Olympic break is now needed to make up games.
Stamkos, Swedish teammate Victor Hedman and many of the NHL's best players may have missed their Olympic window entirely after growing up hoping to one day represent their country on sports' biggest international stage. Hedman said Tuesday, “Us to not be able to go, it’s going to hurt for a while.”
The International Olympic Committee said it is disappointed for players who pushed for the agreement to go to Beijing. The extension of the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and NHLPA included Olympic participation, though that was contingent on pandemic conditions that ultimately proved too daunting to overcome.
“We made this a big part of our collective bargaining agreement as the players to try to bring the Olympics back,” U.S.-born Winnipeg Jets forward Kyle Connor said. “Whether there's circumstances around going to China and with COVID and everything, whether there was going to be fans, I think it still would have been a great tournament, great hockey.”
International officials and national federations must now pivot to Plan B for a second consecutive Olympic men’s hockey tournament without NHL players. USA Hockey said it will soon announce new management and coaching staffs, and Hockey Canada is expected to draw from the executives, coaches and players who took part in an international tournament in Moscow this month.
Former Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien is the leading candidate to be behind the bench for Canada, which left with the bronze medal in 2018 when NHL players did not go to Pyeongchang, after back-to-back gold in 2010 and 2014.
Russians won gold in South Korea playing under the name Olympic Athletes from Russia, part of the fallout from years of doping disputes. Expected to play in Beijing as the Russian Olympic Committee, the team is now the favorite given the talent available in the Kontinental Hockey League.
“We continue to look forward to the participation of the world’s best hockey players from the other elite ice hockey leagues around the world in Beijing,” the IOC said in a statement. "Their performances in Pyeongchang achieved a large international broadcast audience and demonstrated the exciting, passionate ice hockey that we can expect, which, as in 2018, will be followed by fans from all around the world.”
The U.S. and Canada could choose from a mix of professionals from European leagues and college players. The lack of NHL participation turns the tournament from a competition featuring the best players in the world back into what it looked like prior to 1998.
“Although we are disappointed to receive this decision by the NHL and NHLPA, we nevertheless fully understand the circumstances that forced this action to be taken,” International Ice Hockey Federation president Luc Tardif said in a statement. “It was a shock to see how COVID-19 affected the NHL schedule almost overnight, and we understand the NHL’s decision is in the best interest of the health and safety of its players.”
The NHL’s focus is on completing an 82-game regular season for the first time since 2018-19. The schedule already was extended through April, with the playoffs going to the end of June, with more than two weeks off in between for the Olympics.
When Olympic participation was confirmed in September, teams were sent two versions of the NHL schedule. The sheer volume of postponements forces the league to use that break for makeup dates, rather than folding later games into February and move up the start of the playoffs.
Despite the NHL not being part of the Olympics for just the second time since Nagano in 1998, Bettman, Fehr and Tardif expressed optimism about a return for 2026. That's not much of a consolation for Stamkos on the verge of his 32nd birthday, but it could allow Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Connor and others to get their first chance in Milan and Cortina.
“If the next one’s in four years, I'll be 32 and I know I'll be still playing my best hockey, but we’ll see,” U.S-born Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck said. “We’ll see if it’s the same story.”
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