As the days passed, hope dwindled and the outcome became inevitable. The news finally fell, Wednesday, December 22, six weeks before the opening of the Olympic Games: the players of the National Ice Hockey League (NHL), the North American championship, will not participate in the Beijing Olympics. The gratin of world hockey was however eagerly awaited in China, in particular because the NHL had already bypassed the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Faced with an increase in the number of cases of Covid-19 in clubs – and this despite a vaccination rate of almost 100% of its players – the League had to postpone some fifty matches, and even decided to advance its Christmas truce of a few days to limit the spread of the virus. Under these conditions, taking a three-week Olympic break compromised his chances of updating his calendar.
The NHL therefore activated the lever that allowed it, before January 10, to retract without financial penalty. “Our priority is and must remain to complete our regular season and the NHL playoffs in the best possible way. This is why we are going to use the time slot from February 6 to 22 initially allocated to participation in the Olympic Games to reschedule matches that have been postponed or will be postponed ”, explained NHL boss Gary Bettman, who has seen the last two seasons drastically cut by the pandemic. No question of living a third year truncated or once again shifted.
The blow is hard for the Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), the presence of the best players of the planet on the Olympic stage representing for this one an enormous promotional vector.
“Although we are disappointed to learn of this decision (…), we nevertheless fully understand the circumstances which forced this measure to be taken ”said Luc Tardif, the newly elected Franco-Canadian president of the IIHF, who has no choice but to accept this withdrawal. “We expect NHL players to return to the Olympics in 2026”, promised Gary Bettman, whom no one is forced to believe.
Since 1998, the NHL has allowed – reluctantly – its players to play in the Olympics. But his discussions with the IIHF and the IOC still go on a tightrope. Besides the risk of seeing its players injured, the Olympics, which is more in China, do not really interest the clubs and the League. Already in 2018, the South Korean market had not found enough favor in the eyes of Gary Bettman to give the green light. “Why have we been five times [aux JO] ? It seemed like a good idea at the time, but we weren’t able to benefit from it ”, then said the boss of the NHL.
The League even organized a World Cup in 2016 bringing together its best players in the jersey of their respective selection. A competition supposed to take place every four years… like the Olympics! The pandemic has obviously sounded the death knell for the 2020 edition.
This time, because of the risk of Covid-19 contamination, doubts had begun to arise on the relevance of sending NHL players to the Olympics. Some people could not imagine being stranded in China for several days – even weeks – in the event of a positive test. “I have four children, and for me, being potentially locked up there for five weeks, plus the Olympics, is a long time away from my family,” said Alex Pietrangelo, 2014 Olympic champion with Canada.
Disappointment and frustration
If the clubs see their interests triumph, the disappointment is great for the majority of players. “It sucks, everyone was impatient, admitted the American Kyle Connor. We insisted in our collective agreement to return to the Olympics. “
“For some reason, the Olympic card was not in my favor. It sucks, I will surely not have another chance to do it “, regretted the Canadian Steven Stamkos, 31, who had already had to resolve to miss the Sochi Olympics for injury in 2014. And we can imagine the frustration of Russian striker Alexander Ovechkin, 36, who could claim to join the prestigious and restricted “Triple gold club” (world champion, NHL champion and winner of the Olympic Games).
For hockey fans, it’s a cold shower. The Olympics are an opportunity to witness epic confrontations, and give the opportunity to see the best players evolve together. With the withdrawal from the NHL, the dream of seeing the pearl Connor McDavid associated with legend Sidney Crosby, two-time Olympic champion, has flown. “I am really sorry for those who missed several opportunities to go there, this experience does not often happen in a career”, commented, with compassion, Sidney Crosby.
To compensate for the absence of these stars, the nations will send players from North American minor leagues, or European championships. But despite the prestige of the competition, some do not want to serve as guinea pigs. “We don’t make that much money, we don’t play in the biggest league, but the point is, we also want to play in fair and safe conditions”, argues the Swedish Magnus Nygren, who plays in Switzerland. “We don’t want to spread the infection any further, we don’t want to be quarantined, either at home or in China”, he warns.
The only country which should welcome this news with a smile could well be … China itself, whose team, automatically qualified, was promised to be wrecked in mondovision against Canada and the United States. So much so that a withdrawal had even been mentioned a few months ago.
The NHL will watch it all from a distance, and will play, like a snub, its All-Star Game (yet very dispensable) during the first weekend of the Olympics, February 5. He said to himself that she could postpone the end of the regular season by a week to play the postponed games. The proof that, when it wants, the NHL finds solutions.