Less than four months after agreeing to send hockey’s top stars to the Games, the N.H.L. and its players’ union have reversed course amid a rise in coronavirus cases.
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Alan Blinder and
National Hockey League players will not participate in the 2022 Beijing Olympics, a reversal of plans announced in September and a signal of the fears rippling through sports about how the worsening coronavirus pandemic could derail seasons and competitions worldwide.
The N.H.L., which has postponed dozens of its games already, has grown especially concerned in recent days about its ability to complete its season on schedule. The league's decision about the Olympics, which it reached in coordination with its players’ union, offers a potential logistical lifeline because the three-week break intended for the Games could become a window for making up postponed matches.
The league and the N.H.L. Players’ Association are expected to announce their reworked agreement as soon as Wednesday, three people familiar with the deliberations said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the two organizations had not publicly declared their changed intentions for the Games, even though they had telegraphed them recently.
Just on Monday, the N.H.L. said it would pause its season for several days after a swelling number of players were ruled out of games after entering the league’s health and safety protocols.
Although the decision that N.H.L. players would not go to Beijing was rooted in the league’s spiraling concerns about its season, it carried outsize importance for perceptions about an Olympics already mired in political turmoil and a public health crisis. The absence of hockey’s best players will undercut the dazzle of the Olympic men’s tournament, which will most likely feature minor leaguers and those who play in other organizations rather than commanding figures like the N.H.L. All-Stars Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid.
Chinese officials have vowed to proceed with the Olympic festivities as planned, with the opening ceremony scheduled for Feb. 4. But the N.H.L.’s decision was sure to further rattle sports officials, already unnerved by the emergence of the Omicron variant and postponed games everywhere from the N.F.L. to England’s Premier League.
It was less than four months ago, after all, that the N.H.L. and its players toasted a deal to load rosters for the men’s tournament in Beijing with many of the world’s finest players.
The plan, such as it was, had seemed likely to usher in a grand showcase for international hockey after the N.H.L. did not send its players to the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, a choice that angered players and left the Olympic tournament bereft of the star power to which it had grown accustomed over previous decades.
The decision around the 2018 Games, though, could be traced to more traditional misgivings about injuries, revenue splits and the general irritation of complicating the regular season. The move to skip the Beijing Games reflected a far more complex puzzle, layered with potentially lengthy quarantines and the losses of N.H.L. paychecks for players who could have missed league games after returning from the Olympics.
But the disruptions to the regular season loomed especially large, officials said, and the N.H.L. had spent recent weeks signaling its mounting worries about the Olympic tournament. On Sunday, with the N.H.L. already having announced 39 postponements of regular-season games, the league said that it had suspended cross-border travel for its games and was “actively discussing” the matter of the Olympics with the players and their union.
Individual players had also expressed reservations. Robin Lehner, a goaltender for the N.H.L.’s Vegas Golden Knights, cited mental health concerns on Dec. 6 when he announced that he would not play for Sweden in Beijing.
“My well being have too come first and being locked down and not knowing what happens if you test positive is to much of a risk for me,” Lehner wrote on Twitter.
Olympic officials and Chinese organizers recently released their latest health and safety plans for the Games, including stringent quarantine and isolation protocols for anyone who records a positive test while in Beijing for the Olympics.
Although athletes who are fully vaccinated will not have to quarantine ahead of the Games — participants who are not vaccinated will have to spend 21 days in isolation upon their arrival in Beijing — they and other visitors will face daily tests while in China. Interactions with the public will be forbidden, with athletes and other Games personnel cocooned in a “closed-loop management system” that is expected to resemble the so-called bubble that the N.B.A. to complete its 2019-2020 season.
The Olympic hockey tournament is scheduled to begin on Feb. 9, when the Russian team faces Switzerland. A Russian team, which benefited from a strong domestic league, won the gold in 2018 in Pyeongchang.
The N.H.L.’s decision will not affect the women’s tournament, which is scheduled to start on Feb. 3, one day before the official opening of the Games.
Victor Mather contributed reporting.
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