NHL says won't send players for Beijing Games after regular season disrupted due to surge in COVID-19 cases Photograph:( AFP )
The National Hockey League had until Jan. 10 to withdraw from the Feb. 4-20 Olympics without financial penalty.
The National Hockey League said on Wednesday it will not send its players to compete in the men's ice hockey tournament at the Beijing Winter Olympics after the regular season schedule was disrupted due to a surge in COVID-19 cases.
"Unfortunately, given the profound disruption to the NHL's regular-season schedule caused by recent COVID-related events -- 50 games already have been postponed through Dec. 23 -- Olympic participation is no longer feasible," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.
The NHL agreed last September to pause its regular season so the world's top players could compete in Beijing but could withdraw from the agreement if COVID-19 disruptions forced games to be rescheduled during the Olympics window.
With COVID-19 spreading through team locker rooms, the NHL, in an attempt to combat the outbreak, brought its Christmas break forward to shut down operations from Wednesday through to Dec. 27.
The NHL had until Jan. 10 to withdraw from the Feb. 4-20 Olympics without financial penalty.
The decision comes as a huge disappointment for players, who had negotiated a return to the Olympics into the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).
"Since the CBA extension was reached 17 months ago, NHL players have looked forward with great anticipation to once again participating in the Winter Olympics," said NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) Executive Director Don Fehr in a statement.
"Until very recently, we seemed to be on a clear path to go to Beijing.
"COVID-19 has unfortunately intervened, forcing dozens of games to be postponed this month alone. No matter how much we wish it were not the case, we need to utilize the Olympic period to reschedule these games."
The NHL, unhappy over the prospect of interrupting a regular season to send their most valuable assets overseas where they could get hurt, ended a run of participation in five consecutive Winter Olympics when it decided not to go to Pyeongchang in 2018.
The presence of NHL players at the Olympics made the men`s ice hockey tournament one of the marquee events of the global sporting showcase.
Countries will now have to quickly put a Plan B in place.
For Canada and the United States, which would have sent teams stocked completely with NHL players, that will mean a top to bottom overhaul cobbling together a roster from other leagues.
Other countries, such as Sweden, Finland, Russia, Germany and Czech Republic, will also have big holes to fill with many of their best players also in the NHL.
Sweden, home to one of the most competitive leagues outside the NHL, said it had been preparing for the possibility that NHL players would not be available.
"We are prepared for a situation where the NHL players don`t take part in the Olympics," Johan Hemline, head of hockey operations at the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), told Reuters in an interview. "It has been a possible scenario for some time, and we are prepared."