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Column: NHL skips Olympics again, cites COVID-19 uncertainty


FILE – Canadian defenseman Shea Weber, left, stumbles over United States forward David Backes in the third period of a men’s ice hockey semi-final game at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games on Friday, February 21 2014, in Sochi, Russia. The NHL players will ultimately not participate in the next Olympic Winter Games in Beijing. A person with direct knowledge of the decision told The Associated Press that the league will withdraw from the Olympics after the regular season schedule was disrupted by outbreaks of the coronavirus on Tuesday, December 21, 2021 (AP) Photo / Julio Cortez, File)


First, US diplomats and a handful of allies have said “no”. Now it’s the NHL. A party that promises to be.

It was only by bad luck that Beijing won the Winter Games during the COVID-19 era. But the decision to go ahead as planned rests entirely with the hosts and their buddies at the International Olympic Committee. Hopefully, like most people who get married just for money, they end up having to earn every penny.

The NHL is the most innocuous of the major sports leagues, so unlike the diplomats who have retired, it did not make a political statement on the serious and varied human rights violations in China. But just like the IOC, the league’s steadfast interest has always been its own outcome. This is why the league skipped the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, an option that is not available to all sledgers, curlers, ski jumpers and even figure skaters who need the attention that Olympics bring in to pay their rent for the three years in between.

But it was always going to be an easy decision for Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL Players Union. Olympic overlords are paying them zero for showing up and blowing up a roughly three-week hole in the league’s regular-season schedule, which – to say the least – is already a mess because of COVID. Fifty games had been postponed until Tuesday night, and there is a league-wide hiatus in effect until next week. Assuming the recently tightened protocols give some control back to those responsible for the league’s schedule, that three-week window to catch up on games could prove very useful.

Who knows, the NHL might even decide to go ahead with its All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas, which would fall on the first two days (February 4-5) of the Olympics. And wouldn’t that be nasty counter-programming?

“We understand the decision,” Olympic broadcaster NBC said in a statement on Tuesday, “but the Olympics remain the biggest hockey tournament in the world, whether the players are from the NHL or other elite leagues around the world. . ”


On the bright side, the women’s tournament might draw a few viewers and the scramble to fill the men’s Olympic rosters with minor leagues, college players and even the occasional beer league star provides an opportunity for the sad China hockey team.

Just a few weeks ago, the International Ice Hockey Federation was still debating whether to let the team play. Olympic hosts usually have the privilege of fielding a team in any sport, but China was so bad that new IIHF president Luc Tardif had doubts.

“Watching a team beat 15-0 is not good for anyone, not for China or for ice hockey,” Tardif said in September.

From now on, the Chinese will be able to qualify a final score of 7-0 as a moral victory.

To be fair, this is a bad deal for just about everyone. The hosts lose face, NBC lose one of its three biggest draws – figure skating and alpine being the other two – and the rest of us will miss what has been a fast-paced, wide-open version of the sport. which is better than anything the NHL puts out during the regular season.

Unfortunately, the players mostly lose. A generation of young stars who refused their debut in 2018 will now have to wait at least until 2026; among them are Canadians Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, American Auston Matthews and Swede Victor Hedman.

“I’m still a guy who wants to go play at the Olympics,” McDavid said. “But we also want to make sure it’s safe for everyone. For all athletes, not just hockey players.

But the Edmonton Oilers captain also acknowledged that the 21-day quarantine at a Chinese facility for anyone who tests positive in the games – part of protocol mandated by the Beijing organizing committee – was “disturbing.” Las Vegas goalie Robin Lehner had already declined the chance to represent Sweden, explaining in a text that having this possibility hanging over your head “is not ideal for my mental health“.

Yet it was the financial health of the NHL that mattered most. The Olympic Games raised the profile of hockey, notably in Salt Lake City in 2002 and especially in Vancouver in 2010, where local hero Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal to beat the United States for the gold medal (once again ) attracted nearly 35 million viewers, roughly double the average viewership for the Masters or NCAA Basketball Finals. But the NHL players’ debuts at the Nagano Games in 1998, as well as their appearances in 2006 (Turin) and 2014 were played and televised at odd times for North American audiences, who are bread and butter. the league.

The Beijing Games will be 13 hours ahead of the Eastern United States time zone. For all of the other factors that weighed on his decision, all Bettman had to do was glance at the watch on his wrist to confirm he had done the correct one.


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