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It’s time for the NHL, the NHLPA, the IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) and the Olympics to stop the freakin’ madness and do the right thing when it comes to the COVID situation.
If all things were equal, NHL players were headed to Beijing in February for the Winter Olympics to participate in the men’s hockey tournament for the first time in almost a decade after missing the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang. It’s something NHL players consistently feel strongly about and made a priority in collective bargaining negotiations with the league, with so many players voicing giddy, little-kid level excitement about representing their country while talking about it this fall.
Fast-forward to the present day with COVID-19 again ripping through the NHL and forcing teams like the Calgary Flames to temporarily shut down operations. Watching a team like the Flames suddenly have 17 players knocked out due to COVID in a matter of days really muddies the Olympic situation just a couple of months from now.
Of course, hockey fans would love for the NHL’s best to participate in the best hockey tournament in the world.
It’s what leads to iconic hockey moments like this.
And the Olympic Games will lose some of its luster this winter if many of the world’s best hockey players opt for a three-week February break instead. There’s clearly uncertainty about COVID protocols and safeguards at the Olympic facilities, to be sure, but of even more concern is a 3-5-week quarantine for any athletes that test positive while in China.
For players with families and NHL teams waiting for them back in North America, that’s a risk most simply can’t take.
“I’ve got four kids that are under the age of 3½,” said Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Alex Pietrangelo when asked about it recently. “For me to be potentially locked up there for five weeks plus the Olympics, that’s a long time being away from my family.
"There's a lot of things, especially guys with families, that we're taking a look at. I'm not going to make a decision until we get all the answers, because I think those are hard to come by right now."
All of this is understandable when it comes to NHL players very hesitant to risk being stuck in China for a month away from home life.
The interesting wrinkle to all this is the NHL’s stance when it comes to player participation in the Winter Olympics. The NHL has never been gung-ho about shutting down their league for three weeks during the Olympics, risking injuries to star players in the process and thereby forcing all 32 teams to play a frenetic compacted schedule due to a nearly month-long “Olympic break.”
At this point it’s too late to reschedule NHL games during those three weeks with venues that are booked for concerts, Disney on Ice and other winter events. So this season’s unusual circumstances may just lead to a strange pause in the middle of the NHL regular season.
One thing we might also see happen over the next few weeks?
The NHL may just leave it up to the individual players with opinions colorfully varied on whether they still want to participate in the Olympics. The belief is that the Russian players will head to China for the Winter Games regardless of the circumstances, and there may be other countries to follow suit in the name of competition.
That would seem to be the best solution. If you want to play for your country in the Olympics, then have at it. If you don’t then enjoy the three-week vacation during the Winter Games.
There’s little doubt it’s perhaps an easier decision for those Olympic-level hockey players that are single and without families, while those with young families and key leadership roles on teams may be much less willing to roll the dice.
“First and foremost, I think for me the last two Olympics were special events and I have amazing memories of it and it’s something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life,” said Boston Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron. “That’s one thing, as an athlete you want to compete against the best, and if you do have that opportunity, obviously, you want to represent your country.
“It is concerning when you hear about the 3-to-5-week quarantine, having to stay back and stay in China, so I think there are a lot of questions right now that need to be answered. As an athlete, I think you’re torn, because obviously you want to be there, and as I said, it’s the biggest sports event in the world. That being said, it’s a different situation and a different year, you want to make sure you have all the answers before you can really answer that question.”
It feels like there really won’t ever be clear-cut answers to some of those questions prior to heading over to China, however.
On some level it’s going to be a giant gamble for participating NHL players that everything will work out once they get there. The way things are trending right now, though, that’s a gamble a large number of elite hockey players simply aren’t going to take.
They all deserve the opportunity to make that personal choice for themselves. Hopefully governing bodies like the NHL, NHLPA, IIHF and Olympic Committees are taking notice.