The 2022 Winter Olympic Games are scheduled to run February 4-20 in Beijing, China. Back in September, the National Hockey League announced that it had come to an agreement with the NHL Players’ Association to ensure its top players had the opportunity to participate in the quadrennial event set to be played in both 2022 and 2026.
After failing to appear in the 2018 Games in PyeongChang, the NHL is set to return to the biggest stage since participating in Sochi 2014. In fact, the last time an international tournament featuring the world’s greatest hockey players occurred was in 2016 for the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto.
“I know that I can speak for hockey fans around the world when I say that we absolutely welcome the decision to bring back best-on-best ice hockey to the Olympics,” IIHF president Rene Fasel said. “We had many constructive discussions, and a lot of hard work was put into making this happen within the time we set for ourselves, and I want to thank all parties involved for their support and commitment.”
With the National Hockey League breaking from February 3-22, the league’s top players will travel overseas to China for the highly acclaimed 16-day affair. However, much unlike past years, the NHL will go ahead with an All-Star Weekend just prior to the Olympics. This has not been done since the league held the All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles just before players headed off to Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics. There was no All-Star Weekend in 2006, 2010 or 2014.
This has been the cause of some grave concern. With the NHL ultimately owning an opt-out clause from Olympic participation, fear is growing amongst players, team officials, media and fans that there may not be NHL hockey players in China this February.
The main culprit is COVID-19. Should the NHL have to adjust its schedule by cancelling and making up games due to the narrow window allowed for the Olympics in February, it would be forced to pull its players from the overseas tournament. Already breaking for 20 days, the IIHF does have a fallback plan in place, which would see ‘shadow teams’ consisting of non-NHL players created to play in the games.
Should the NHL deem Olympic participation impractical or unsafe, it will pull its players. But that final decision must be made by January 10 – as agreed upon in September.
So back to the idea of the NHL going ahead with plans to host its All-Star Weekend in Vegas on February 4-5… Held in Nevada – a state to which has seen nearly 500K total cases of COVID – the NHL’s best players will gather for the social event and then congregate on planes to travel oversees to China. This idea does seem far from perfect, but who would have assumed a fourth COVID wave would come as powerfully as its first, second and third iterations.
The NHL will do what it can to ensure a safe environment for its players while ensuring the schedule goes on, however, as seen with the recent outbreak in Ottawa, the league is not afraid to postpone games. With the San Jose Sharks and New York Islanders also experiencing significant outbreaks, it very well could be just a matter of time until the NHL and Players’ Association opt to pull the plug on what might be the final year of Olympic participation for aging stars Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.
“Everyone feels pretty strongly they’d like to be there, but I try not to think too far ahead and get too caught up in it,” Crosby told reporters this past week. “Some of that stuff, you can’t control.”
Oh right, and what about youngsters Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, Andrei Svechnikov and Andrei Vasilevskiy, who have yet to participate in the Winter Olympics? Yeah, they may have to wait until they are close to age 30 to even get that opportunity at this point.
“I’m preparing like we’re going,” Crosby added. “That’s the best way to look at it.”