NHL players are not to compete in February’s Beijing Winter Olympic Games in the wake of 50 league games being postponed due to COVID-19, reports said on Tuesday.
Multiple US news outlets, including ESPN, cited unnamed sources that said the league and the NHL Players’ Association reached an agreement not to send athletes to China.
Without the NHL’s elite millionaire stars, national teams at the Olympics would resemble those at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, when minor-league and retired players filled out rosters and Russian athletes captured gold.
“It’s disappointing,” said Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, a 31-year-old Canadian center for the reigning NHL champions. “For whatever reason, the Olympic card just hasn’t worked out in my favor. It sucks. That’s something I probably won’t have a chance to do now.”
The NHL and the players’ union had agreed to send athletes to the Winter Games next year and in 2026 unless league seasons were affected by COVID-19.
With Tuesday’s game between the Washington Capitals and hosts the Philadelphia Flyers being postponed by an outbreak at the visitors, the NHL has been forced to postpone 50 games this season.
The league paused the season for four days after Tuesday’s lone contest, in which reigning Stanley Cup champions Tampa Bay edged hosts the Vegas Golden Knights 4-3.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper was not there to see it, because he entered the NHL’s COVID-19 health protocol just before the game.
Lightning goaltender Robin Lehner had already declined an invitation to represent Sweden at the Winter Games, but compatriot Victor Hedman, a defenseman with Tampa Bay, on Tuesday mourned his missed opportunity.
“It’s something we’ve been looking forward to for a very long time,” Hedman said. “We were preparing for a battle in February in China. Looks like it’s not going to happen. It’s a bummer for us. You don’t know when you’re going to get another chance.”
“To not be able to go, it’s going to hurt for a while,” Hedman said.
Staying home during the Beijing Winter Games would open two weeks to reschedule NHL contests and provide rest for most players, as the league tries to complete a full 82-game campaign for each squad.
The NHL had until Jan. 10 to withdraw without a financial penalty.
NHL club owners have not been fond of shutting down the season to send players to the Winter Olympics — due to the risk of player injuries and lost income in a prime month of the season.
However, league players have campaigned to participate since debuting in the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.
Alex Ovechkin, the Russian star winger for the Washington Capitals, was among the most passionate about being unable to go in 2018.
Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who scored the goal that won Canada gold at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, sympathized with those who might miss their chance for Olympic gold.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of two,” Crosby said. “I definitely feel for the guys who have missed numerous opportunities. These are experiences of a lifetime that you don’t get very many of as an athlete.”
NHL games planned for yesterday and today were canceled ahead of a scheduled three-day Christmas break, which was tweaked to have players return to work on Sunday.
Teams now return on Sunday for testing, with negative tests required to enter facilities.
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