The NHL is expected to return to the Beijing Olympics this winter after reaching a deal with international officials, although the league and players have the option of opting out if the circumstances of the pandemic warrant.
The NHL, its players’ union, the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation on Friday struck a deal that will put the world’s best players back on the sport’s biggest stage in February after missing the Pyeongchang 2018 Games.
“It wasn’t easy, but we did it,” IIHF President René Fasel told The Associated Press by phone. “I am really, really happy. When you see the last one was 2014, and they would wait until 2026, so you’re 12 in between – that means we have a generation of hockey players who couldn’t play in the Olympics. “
Even after the NHL and the players agreed to compete in the Olympics as part of a long-term extension of the collective agreement last summer, the coronavirus pandemic and related costs threatened to put that possibility aside. . Instead, the teams figured it out, allowing the league or players to pull out if the circumstances of the virus worsen or if there is an outbreak during the season.
Until that happens, NHL players will take part in the Olympic men’s hockey tournament for the sixth time in seven occasions since 1998.
“We understand how passionate NHL players are about representation and competing for countries,” said NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. “We are very happy to have been able to make arrangements that will allow them to bring back the best of the best on the Olympic stage.”
COVID-19 insurance is not part of the deal, although Fasel has confirmed that the IIHF will provide a $ 5 million fund for any wages lost due to the illness. Vaccines should be mandatory and players will have their contracts insured in the event of injury.
US coach Mike Sullivan called the return to the Olympics “such an exciting time for hockey.”
He is not alone in this thought.
Reigning NHL MVP Connor McDavid played for an Under-23 “North American team” at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey and has yet to play for Canada in a tournament. best male hockey players in the world.
“Just being able to represent Canada at the Olympics and compete for a gold medal would be an absolute dream come true,” McDavid told the AP this week. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to play better on the best at the international level. I think for me, and I think for a lot of the guys who were on this team, it’s been a long time coming. We obviously can’t wait to go to the Olympics if we all have the chance to get there.
It could be the first Olympics for McDavid, American star Auston Matthews, 2020 playoff MVP and two-time Stanley Cup champion Victor Hedman and many more. They didn’t get the chance three years ago, when the national teams were mostly made up of European university and professional players, with the exception of the Russian Olympians, who won the gold medal in Pyeongchang.
“The Olympics are one of my biggest dreams and I couldn’t participate in it – it might be the last chance I have,” said Hedman, who was kicked out of Olympic roster from Sweden in 2014. “When you have the opportunity to represent your country on the biggest stage, this is one of those things you will probably never forget. So yeah for me it’s obviously something I’ve dreamed of my whole life and something I want to do before I hang up my skates.
In anticipation of a deal, the NHL has already scheduled a three-week hiatus to accommodate the opening of the Olympic tournament on February 9. The league will still hold its All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas before the players fly to China on February 9. 6.
“It levels the playing field,” said Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Pronger, who made his Olympic debut in 1998 and won gold with Canada in 2010. “It allows more countries to compete. at a higher level. It showcases the sport. “
NHL players at the Olympics have become commonplace, with the IOC agreeing to pay for travel and insurance costs and owners willing to suspend the season for players to participate in the tournament. A whole generation of players grew up knowing that the Olympics were a showcase for NHL stars.
“You dream of representing your country,” said US defenseman Ryan McDonagh of the Lightning. “The Olympics are such a unique experience, and I think they do wonders for the sport of hockey. “
The IOC, led by President Thomas Bach, would not pay miscellaneous costs in 2018, leading the NHL to shy away from the Olympics and league officials voicing concerns over the season’s hiatus. Fasel said officials worked on the 2014 deal and then made adjustments due to the pandemic.
Players ultimately decided it was worth dealing with any virus restrictions in Beijing, which could go beyond the quarantined bubbles of the 2020 playoffs.
“I don’t think there will be anything we’ve never seen before,” said Canada coach Jon Cooper. “I am reassured that we have been through all these different situations. “
NOTES: Should the NHL disengage for reasons related to COVID-19, Fasel said the Olympic tournament will continue with participating countries sending a team made up of non-NHL players. Such a scenario could potentially handcuff the United States and Canada, based on a limited pool of players to tap into, as the tournament would interfere with the Canadian junior and US college seasons. … Once the deal was in place, USA Hockey completed Sullivan’s assistant team, which will consist of Nashville Predators coach John Hynes, former New York Rangers coach David Quinn, Penguins assistant Todd Reirden; and former NHL goaltender Ryan Miller, who retired after an 18-year career last season.