The National Hockey League will not send its players to compete in the men’s ice hockey tournament at the Beijing Olympics due to Covid-19 concerns as the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads globally, ESPN reported on Tuesday.
The NHL agreed last September to pause its regular season so the world’s top players could compete in Beijing with the caveat it could withdraw if Covid-19 disruptions forced games to be rescheduled during the Olympics window.
That had begun looking increasingly likely in recent days with the NHL being forced to postpone 50 games in Canada and the United States after a growing number of players entered Covid-19 protocols while Omicron tore through professional sports leagues with fully vaccinated players testing positive.
The NHL did not immediately respond to a request for comment. ESPN said a formal announcement on opting out of the Beijing Games was expected within the next 24 hours.
The NHL had until 10 January to withdraw from the Beijing Olympics, scheduled for 4-20 February, without financial penalty.
Players had mostly been eager to return to the largest international stage. But concerns that a positive test in China could lead to a 21-day quarantine and delay returning to their families and NHL clubs had dampened that enthusiasm for some.
“Obviously, it’s unsettling if that were to be the case when you go over there,” Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid, who was expected to be a top player for Canada, said last week.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in early December that the decision on participating in Beijing would ultimately come down to the players, but added that the league’s concerns had “only been magnified” by the Covd-19 outbreak.
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.
Their absence will have an impact on the Canadian and US teams the most, given their entire Olympic hockey rosters would be made up of NHL players. Other medal contenders like Sweden, Finland, Russia and the Czech Republic are somewhat less dependent on NHL talent.
The Washington Capitals-Philadelphia Flyers game scheduled for Tuesday night became 50th NHL game delayed this season for coronavirus-related reasons.
The league said Covid-19 issues with the Capitals prompted the postponement. Defenseman Justin Schultz and forward Daniel Sprong began the team’s morning skate in Philadelphia but were pulled off after their test results came back.
Wiping out Capitals-Flyers left the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Vegas Golden Knights as the only game left in the NHL this week. The league and players’ association agreed to begin the annual holiday break early and push off the games that were scheduled for Thursday.
“It’s not fun to see all these games getting canceled,” Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. “It’ll be interesting to see the make-up dates and when they’re going to fit those games in, but for us to focus on that, we can’t do that.”