Sports

Will N.H.L. Stars Play at the Winter Olympics?

It seemed as if everything was settled. N.H.L. players were returning to the Olympic men’s hockey tournament after missing the last Winter Games. Now, in part because of escalating Covid-19 cases across the league, there is more instability. Here are the answers to the outstanding questions, at least as far as we know; there is still a lot of uncertainty.

Are there going to be N.H.L. players at the Winter Olympics?

As of now, yes. The league and its Players’ Association struck a deal in September that allowed the stars to head to Beijing for the Games in February while the league is shut down for three weeks.

However, on Sunday the N.H.L. and the N.H.L.P.A. issued a joint statement that said they are “actively discussing the matter” of the league’s participation in the Olympics and expect to “announce a final determination in the coming days.”

The N.H.L. started participating in the Games in 1998, but had missed the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics when an agreement could not be reached.

I noticed you said “as of now.” So is there some doubt?

Some players are definitely getting restive.

The Oilers’ Connor McDavid, one of the league’s biggest stars, told reporters this week: “I’m still a guy that’s wanting to go play in the Olympics. But we also want to make sure it’s safe for everybody and all the athletes, not just for hockey players.”

“I’d love to go and I’d love to compete, but there’s definitely a lot of things that I think a lot of us would like to see worked out and just some questions we’d like to see answered,” Auston Matthews of the Maple Leafs told The Hockey News.

“There are a number of open issues, and I know the Players’ Association has concerns about them,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said. He said the league would let the players compete “if that’s really what they want to do.”

Get Ready for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics

Just a few months after Tokyo, the Olympics will start again in Beijing on Feb. 4. Here is what you need to know:

  • A Guide to the Sports: From speedskating to monobob, here’s a look at every sport that will be contested at the 2022 Winter Games.
  • Diplomatic Boycott: The U.S. and several other countries will not send government officials to Beijing, protesting China’s human rights abuses.
  • Covid Preparations: China is tightening restrictions, including plans for a “closed-loop” bubble. And N.H.L. players won’t participate after all.
  • The Fashion Race: Canada partnered with Lululemon for its Olympic kit, and a Black-owned athleisure brand will outfit Team Nigeria.

“We are having discussions with the players on the long list this week regarding the upcoming Olympic Games and the protocols that will be in place,” said Jonathan Weatherdon, the director of communications for the union. The plan remains to participate in the upcoming Olympics.”

So why specifically are the players concerned?

In general, there is concern over the rise of Covid-19 cases around the world and the increase in cases among N.H.L. players.

But most of all, players expressed concern about strict quarantine rules expected to be in place at the Olympics.

“I’ve got four kids that are under the age of 3½,” Alex Pietrangelo of the Golden Knights told The Las Vegas Review-Journal. “For me to be potentially locked up there for five weeks plus the Olympics, that’s a long time being away from my family.”

“You talk about a five-week quarantine, if you’ve already been over there for a few weeks, that’s a really long time,” John Tavares of the Maple Leafs told The Hockey News. “That’s a long time. That’s a really long time.”

So what exactly are the protocols going to be?

Well, that isn’t yet clear, and that also has players and N.H.L. team owners uncertain about the right course of action.

“We’re waiting on an awful lot of information to come from the I.O.C. and the Chinese,” Donald Fehr, the players’ union’s executive director, told ESPN last week, referring to the International Olympic Committee. “We still don’t know what the Covid situation will be as we get closer.”

Under the somewhat incomplete rules that have been distributed so far, players with a positive test may need to quarantine in China for three to five weeks.

Are the owners and players on the same page?

Over the years, players have been significantly more enthusiastic about Olympic participation than the owners, who have disliked disrupting their season. Owners also feel they should get a portion of the vast Olympic revenue.

But this time both sides have similar comments about the “uncertainty” ahead. It remains to be seen what would happen when and if one side decides it is time to withdraw.

Does this come down to money?

While players are motivated to go to the Games in part by the honor of playing for their countries, financial matters are always important. One key consideration is that “players who miss time due to Covid, related to the Olympics, will not be paid under their standard players’ contracts,” Bill Daly, the N.H.L. deputy commissioner, told ESPN.

The International Ice Hockey Federation will have a $5 million fund to compensate such players. But if there is a serious outbreak and extended quarantines, that may run out quickly.

Has the N.H.L.’s own season been disrupted by Covid?

Yes. More than 130 players have entered Covid protocols this season, ESPN reported, and there has been a surge over the past week. That doesn’t mean they all had Covid. Some may have been close contacts with someone who did; the league doesn’t reveal why a player goes on the list.

Last week, the Calgary Flames had 27 people, including three coaches and 16 players, in Covid protocol, and their games postponed through at least Saturday. The Nashville Predators had at least a dozen players and coaches in protocols on Wednesday. The Ottawa Senators and the Islanders postponed games in November. Other teams have played on after losing just a handful of players.

The league has announced that it would tighten its protocols through at least Jan. 7, by, among other measures, testing players daily instead of every three days, and requiring face masks and physical distancing at team facilities.

It also announced on Sunday that “due to the concern about cross-border travel and, given the fluid nature of federal travel restrictions” it would postpone 21 games involving a Canadian team and a U.S.-based team starting Monday through the beginning of the holiday break on Dec. 23. Games are scheduled to resume after the break on Dec. 27.

The Russian team won the gold medal in men’s ice hockey in 2018.Credit…Grigory Dukor/Reuters

If N.H.L. players start pulling out, who’s going to play in Beijing?

One option would be to go further down the list of N.H.L. players. But if many players say no, or the league or union as a group decline to play, teams will have to be assembled from minor leaguers, players in Europe, or players without contracts.

That’s what happened in 2018, when the Canadian roster, for example, included players from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and Dinamo Minsk rather than the Canadiens and the Rangers.

That will seriously hurt the chances of the North American teams. In 2018, the Russian team, which was stocked with strong players from its domestic league, the Kontinental Hockey League, won gold. Canada finished third and the United States seventh. Canada has won three of the five golds in Games with N.H.L. players, with Sweden and the Czech Republic taking one each.

It also means that far fewer fans will watch.

If N.H.L. players don’t go to the Games, will the league still have a three-week break?

Sitting around doing nothing for three weeks doesn’t seem ideal, but the league may not have a lot of choices. Many arenas have booked other events like concerts and basketball games in the time the league was expected to be idle. Some postponed games might be squeezed into that time frame, but a major restructuring of the schedule is unlikely.

When is this going to get resolved?

Union and league officials had cited Jan. 10 as a key date, because a pullout after that time would bring financial penalties, but Sunday’s announcement indicated that a decision could be made in the coming days. The Canadian and American men’s teams are scheduled to begin Olympic play on Feb. 10.

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