NHL players returning to Winter Olympics for Beijing 2022, though Covid could play spoiler

After missing out at PyeongChang 2018, the world’s best ice hockey players will be a part of the tournament in February, pandemic permitting.

USA's Joe Pavelski scores against Russia at the Sochi 2014 Games (ATR)
USA's Joe Pavelski scores against Russia at the Sochi 2014 Games (ATR)

The world’s best ice hockey players will be returning to the Winter Olympics in February after missing out at PyeongChang 2018.

The National Hockey League (NHL), National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA), and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) announced on Friday a joint agreement confirming NHL player participation at Beijing 2022.

The deal comes with an opt-out clause tied to the coronavirus pandemic. The IIHF statement said the NHL and NHLPA have the “flexibility to monitor the COVID-19 situation and, ultimately to not send NHL players if the COVID conditions require such”.

Provided the pandemic does not get any worse, it would be the sixth Olympic men’s hockey tournament to include NHL players. The NHL was a part of the five Winter Olympics from Nagano 1998 through Sochi 2014.

The NHL and the IOC could not come to terms for the 2018 Winter Games, with the NHL claiming concerns over travel costs, television timings in North America, and league scheduling among other issues.

The players were not happy with the decision and made participating in the Winter Games in 2022 and 2026 a part of the new collective bargaining agreement with the league in 2020.

“Representing their country in the Olympics is important to the players, even in these uncertain times,” said Don Zavelo, NHLPA General Counsel. “The players look forward to pulling on their nation’s hockey sweater at the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing as they compete for the gold medal.”

“We welcome the decision of the NHL, which will allow their players to participate in the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. All the parties who were involved in coming to this agreement should be commended for this excellent result,” said IOC Sports Director Kit McConnell.

ESPN reported last month that the IOC and the NHL had failed to secure an expanded media rights deal for Beijing 2022 that would have allowed the NHL’s website and its NHL Network television service to show content from the Games.

The media rights issue was cited as one of the reasons why the league refused to release its players for PyeongChang, but this time around ESPN said the NHL was willing to send its players to Beijing anyway.

The tournament will include 12 countries seeded into three groups. The top-eight nations qualified into the tournament according to the 2019 IIHF World Ranking – Canada, ROC, Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic, USA, Germany, and Switzerland.

They will be joined by tournament hosts China as well as the recently qualified teams from Slovakia, Latvia and Denmark, who earned the final seeds last weekend in the Men’s Final Olympic Qualification tournaments.