The first game of the 2022 Winter Olympics men’s hockey tournament is scheduled for Feb. 9. It’s still not certain that NHL players will be competing in the Beijing Games.
Here’s a look at the issues, concerns and challenges facing the NHL and the players just two months away from the Olympics, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to loom over everything, courtesy of ESPN NHL reporters Emily Kaplan, Kristen Shilton and Greg Wyshynski.
When does the NHL have to make a final call about the Olympics?
Emily Kaplan: When the NHL and NHLPA came to an agreement with the IOC and IIHF about player participation in the Olympics, they added in a caveat: The NHL side has until Jan. 10 to opt out without any penalties. (As a reminder, the Olympics are scheduled to begin on Feb. 3.) The NHL still could technically opt out later than that, but there would be financial consequences.
Since everyone is watching their finances right now — the NHL, still recouping from missed revenue during the pandemic, has maintained a flat salary cap — the expectation is that we’ll know definitively on Jan. 10 or before.
What’s the latest you’re hearing about the decision?
Kaplan: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman never wanted to send players to the 2022 Olympics. NHL players had participated in a string of five straight Olympics before the league decided not to send players to the 2018 Games in PyeongChang. Bettman feels that there isn’t enough upside for the league; between the disruption of schedule, risk of players getting injured, and unfavorable licensing and marketing agreements with the IOC and IIHF, Bettman and many NHL owners don’t think the juice is worth the squeeze.
That said, they made an agreement with the players during the last round of collective bargaining talks to allow them to go, and Bettman, in good faith, intends to see that through.
The only way the league office will pull out of the Olympics at this point is if there is significant schedule disruption due to COVID-19 that will make it impossible to finish out the season on time. In other words, if the league feels it absolutely needs that current three-week break to reschedule games. As of now, we’re not there.
A rising scenario is that players themselves do not want to go to the Olympics, and ask to pull out. Olympic participation has always been incredibly important to players; the opportunity to represent their country on that stage is a childhood dream for so many. However, given the current climate — anxiety about the virus, restrictive protocols and a nontraditional athlete village experience, plus the fear of having to quarantine in China for three weeks after testing positive — players are starting to show some trepidation.
The NHLPA is in constant communication with its members, gauging their comfort level. As of now, the concerns are not enough to reverse course. But it’s something that continues to evolve and could change over the coming weeks.
What happens if the NHL decides not to go?
Kaplan: According to sources, the NHL has created a shadow schedule that features just a one-week break instead of a three-week break should it decide not to go to the Olympics. It would cause a lot of headaches; building availability is low, with concerts and other sporting events in full swing, so there isn’t much wiggle room.
Also, players have been banking on a three-week break. Many players not on Olympic short lists look forward to the Olympic break as a much-needed in-season vacation. And many of them have planned tropical getaways, which they will have to cancel.
If NHL players do not go, the Olympic hockey tournament will still go on. As was the case for the 2018 Olympics, which NHL players did not participate in, Team USA would be filled with college players, professionals playing overseas and even a few former NHL players (Brian Gionta, at age 39, served as the U.S. captain in PyeongChang). The NHL coaches who were appointed as heads of Team USA (Mike Sullivan) and Canada (Jon Cooper) also would not attend, and the federations would name replacements.
Do most of the players still want to go?
Kristen Shilton: Do players want to go to the Olympics? Absolutely. They fought to get that opportunity back in the latest CBA, and of course the desire to represent individual countries remains strong.
“It’s certainly fair to say it was an important issue for the guys,” said one player source. “There are some guys that never got to go, and this may be the last one for them.”
However, there is an increasing concern about what traveling to and staying in Beijing could mean, both over the short and long term. For some younger players, who believe there will be another chance for them to play at another Olympics down the road, negatives might outweigh the positives about going this year. But some veteran players — who know these Games might be their last opportunity — sound more open to still going despite the risks.
The bottom line is feelings are fluid. The more information players receive (about potential quarantines, the possibility of getting stuck in China, the repercussions of a positive test while overseas, etc.), the more things can change. The players we talked to declined to discuss concerns about human rights violations or other political concerns about the country.
There’s always the family side of things to consider, too.
“There are younger guys that may just be starting families who have those considerations. And they might think they have another shot to go in a few years,” another player source said. “But how much pressure do guys feel to represent their country?”
Have any players opted out yet?
Greg Wyshynski: Robin Lehner of the Vegas Golden Knights became the first high-profile player to reveal that he’d rejected an invitation to represent his county in the Beijing Games.
After Vegas defeated the Calgary Flames on Sunday, he was asked about vying for the starting goaltender job for Team Sweden with Calgary’s Jacob Markstrom. Lehner said he turned down an invitation from Sweden to play in the Winter Games. He made the decision “for health reasons” and after discussing the situation with his psychiatrist.
Lehner had been a vocal critic of the NHL’s COVID-19 policies in the past, including the decision not to allow families in the playoff “bubbles” in 2020 and for not easing restrictions for vaccinated players last season, citing a lack of consideration for a player’s mental health in both cases.
Some teams have had games postponed due to COVID-19 outbreaks already. How does that process work?
Shilton: There is no set number of COVID-19 cases that triggers a team shutdown. Everything is done on a case-by-case basis. There are several factors involved in making the decision to postpone games, and ultimately that call comes from the medical groups of the league, the NHLPA and the individual clubs.
One of the biggest factors in the process is how teams are controlling the spread. We’ve seen clubs like the San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins lose several players to illness but not be shut down, while the Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders have had games postponed. A difference is that in the latter two cases, players continued to get sick one after the other for a significant stretch, as opposed to the other instances where the bulk of impacted players tested positive within a few days of each other, and the teams were better able to control the virus from there.
The NHL’s concern, beyond just the health and safety of everyone involved, is competitive balance as well. So if an outbreak reaches a point where a team can’t reasonably be expected to perform at a high level, postponing games has to be taken into consideration.
How is the NHL All-Star Weekend being impacted by COVID-19?
Wyshynski: NHL All-Star Weekend is scheduled for Feb. 4 and 5, 2022, in Las Vegas, with the skills competition set for Friday and the All-Star Game scheduled for Saturday. Both events will be held at T-Mobile Arena, although the NHL is planning on having some skills competition events that take place outside on the Las Vegas Strip.
The league intends to have as normal an All-Star Weekend as possible, with parties for VIPs and its annual “fan fest,” which will be set up inside the city’s convention center.
Currently, the NHL plans to abide by the local COVID-19 protocols for the events. T-Mobile Arena does not require proof of vaccination and/or a negative COVID-19 test for entrance into Vegas Golden Knights home games. But following the state of Nevada’s directive, masks are required for fans attending games there. Guests under 2 years old are not required to wear masks.
The NHL and NHLPA are in talks about protocols for players who travel to Las Vegas for the All-Star Game — specifically those who will be heading to Beijing immediately afterward for the Olympics.
Olympic athletes must provide proof of negative COVID-19 test results before their departure for China and will be tested again upon arrival at Beijing Capital International Airport. While nothing has been decided formally, the expectation is that Olympic athletes will have stricter protocols than non-Olympians at the All-Star Weekend, from housing in separate hotels to restrictions on participation in public events.
What protocols are being set up for the Beijing Games, and how do they compare to the NHL’s current (and bubble) restrictions?
Wyshynski: The COVID-19 protocols for the Beijing Olympics are, in many ways, more restrictive than the ones for the Tokyo Summer Games that were held earlier this year.
First, the good news: The China 2022 organizers say that fully vaccinated athletes will be able to skip the mandatory 21-day “hard” quarantine that will still be in effect for unvaccinated athletes.
But getting there will be the challenge.
“Following the protocols are crucially important just to get the guys there. You don’t want to send guys all the way over there who can’t even participate in the Games,” a player source said.
To qualify for “fully vaccinated” status, athletes must have received all doses of the COVID-19 vaccine 14 days before traveling to China. (This will presumably not be an issue for any NHL players, as the league is nearly 100% vaccinated.) They must take two COVID-19 PCR tests on two separate days, from approved test providers — a minimum of 24 hours apart, and one of the tests must be within 72 hours of their departure for the Games. Athletes are expected to socially distance at least 14 days before traveling to China.
Fully vaccinated athletes who previously tested positive for COVID-19 will need a laboratory certificate establishing a timeline of that infection, and those who recovered less than 30 days out from traveling to Beijing may be required to provide additional PCR test results. Athletes will have to bring full documentation of vaccine status and medical history with COVID-19 on the chance they test positive during the Games.
Once they arrive in Beijing, players will be tested for COVID-19 before leaving the airport. If that test is positive, there will be a second confirmation test administered. Athletes will be tested for COVID-19 each day at the Games. They will receive temperature checks upon entering any training and competition venues, as well as the Olympic Village.
The village, where athletes are encouraged but not required to stay, is part of a “closed loop” system that has been established for everyone participating in the Games. Dedicated transports will take athletes from the village to training and competition venues, as well as medal ceremonies and “non-competition venues and other permitted destinations” in Beijing, Zhangjikou and Yanqing. Unsanctioned transportation isn’t permitted. Athletes must remain in the “closed loop” for the duration of their Olympic stay. Sorry, sightseers.
Those who violate any of the coronavirus-related rules for the Beijing Games face a variety of punishments, ranging from a temporary or permanent exclusion from events to disqualification. But athletes can also get off with just a warning, too.
All that established, the Beijing Olympics will not have one restriction from the Tokyo Games: Spectators will be allowed, although tickets are being sold exclusively to those residing in China’s mainland who meet the requirements of the COVID-19 protocols.
What happens if a player gets COVID-19 at the Olympics?
Wyshynski: Athletes who have a confirmed positive test during the Beijing Games will not be allowed to compete. If they are symptomatic, they will be taken to a designated hospital for treatment. If they are asymptomatic, they will be asked to stay in an isolation facility.
The hospital does not sound like a fun time. The location and length of the isolation period will be determined by the Chinese health authorities, depending on the severity and symptoms of the infection. Athletes will not be able to go outside the building. They can be visited by team representatives for “safeguarding checks” during designated hours. There will be English-speaking personnel and mental health professionals on hand to assist.
Athletes can be discharged from the hospital when their body temperature returns to normal for three consecutive days; their respiratory symptoms improve significantly, including documented improvement through lung imaging; they have two consecutive negative COVID-19 tests within 24 hours of each other; and they exhibit no other COVID-19 symptoms.
Asymptomatic athletes will be discharged after two consecutive negative COVID-19 test results at least 24 hours apart if they exhibit no other COVID-19 symptoms.
Those athletes discharged from isolation facilities will face increased COVID-19 protocols, the same ones into which those who are considered close contacts will be placed. A close contact is someone who spent 15 minutes or more within one meter and unmasked with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. The increased protocols for these two groups include quarantining in a single room and a much higher frequency of testing: temperature checks twice a day and COVID-19 tests every 12 hours for seven consecutive days. If all of those tests are negative, the individuals may move back to a regular testing regimen.
But there’s not only concern from players about catching COVID-19 while at the Olympics in general, but also when they might catch it.
How concerned are NHL players about getting COVID-19 in Beijing?
Kaplan: Allow one veteran player to explain it to you, as he explained it to me: “If you test positive in China you’re stuck there for three weeks. That’s brutal. Guys are terrified of that.”
The three-week quarantine is absolutely players’ biggest concern right now. Isolating in a hotel room for three weeks isn’t good for anyone’s mental health — and many players are scarred from their experience in the 2020 bubble — and compounding the issue is that they’re stuck in China, in the middle of a global pandemic, with the fear that border rules could change if there’s a serious outbreak. Players do not want to miss any NHL games after the Olympics, and if you contract COVID-19 there, that’s a distinct possibility.
As was the case in previous Olympics, if a player is injured, his NHL contract will be insured and covered by the IIHF or his national federation. But they did not get insurance for COVID-19; so if a player misses NHL games after Beijing for COVID-19 reasons, he will not be paid.
The NHL and NHLPA are arranging a charter for players to and from Beijing; if a player was stuck there, he’d probably have to fly commercial, likely with a few connections, which could be another headache.
So if everything breaks right here … who are the favorites for the 2022 men’s ice hockey tournament?
Wyshynski: Probably the one that has either Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid as its second-line center.
Canada will be loaded as usual, with a slew of players who will be appearing in the Games for the first time like McDavid, Mitchell Marner, Nathan MacKinnon, Brayden Point, Mark Stone and Cale Makar. The Canadians won gold in 2010 and 2014, the last two times the NHL participated in the Winter Olympics.
Canada could run it back with the goalie who won in Sochi, 34-year-old Carey Price, who is expected to compete with Jordan Binnington for the starter’s spot. The crease is one area where Team USA might have the edge on its archrivals: Connor Hellebuyck, John Gibson, Jack Campbell and Thatcher Demko make up the deepest position on the American side. It’s the first Olympics for Auston Matthews, but it’s expected fellow star center Jack Eichel could miss the Games due to his rehab from neck surgery.
The biggest changeover for the U.S. is on defense, where there’s an influx of young standouts making their Olympic debuts: Adam Fox, Charlie McAvoy, Quinn Hughes, Jaccob Slavin, Zach Werenski and Seth Jones are among those in the mix.
The U.S. and Canada are in the same group as Leon Draisaitl and the Germans, as well as China’s national team — at least for now, as the IIHF mulls swapping China out for Norway, lest we see the host nation embarrassed in group play.
The Russian Olympic Committee won gold in the 2018 Winter Games as the Olympic Athletes from Russia. (Please recall the World Anti-Doping Agency ruling that banned Russian athletes from competing under their nation’s name and flag for four years.) Alex Ovechkin & Co. will be in the same group as the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Denmark. If the ROC can play well enough defensively and/or get stellar goaltending from one of its elite options in net, it’s certainly a medal threat.
Rivals Sweden and Finland are in the other group, along with Slovakia and Latvia. The Finns are going to have some offensive firepower up front — Aleksander Barkov, Mikko Rantanen, and Sebastian Aho are among their forwards — but could they see a changing of the guard in goal from Tuukka Rask to Juuse Saros?
Speaking of a changing of the guard: The last time Sweden had NHL players in the Olympics, it had the Sedin twins and Henrik Zetterberg up front, and Henrik Lundqvist in goal. In China, it could be the team of Elias Pettersson, with Jacob Markstrom likely taking over in goal.
The early wagering favorites for the gold — without rosters having been selected — are Canada (-125), Team USA (+350) and Sweden (+500) as of September.