By JOHN WAWROW and STEPHEN WHYNO
AP Hockey Writers
The NHL is not sending players to the Beijing Olympics over concerns that the pandemic will disrupt the league’s ability to complete a full season.
A person with direct knowledge of discussions told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the league informed the NHL Players’ Association it was exercising its right to withdraw from the Beijing Games because there was a material disruption to the season, a decision the union was not going to dispute.
The person spoke to The AP on condition of anonymity because an announcement had yet to be made. An announcement was expected Wednesday.
The decision is an abrupt turnaround from September, when the NHL, union, International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation struck a deal to put the best players in the world back on sports’ biggest stage after they skipped the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. The fast-spreading omicron coronavirus variant forced the scrapping of those plans.
A week ago, the NHL attempted to halt the spread of the omicron variant by reintroducing more restrictive COVID-19 protocols, which included daily testing and limiting player gatherings, especially on the road.
Then a sudden rash of postponements brought the total to 50 this season, a daunting number to reschedule and complete an 82-game season while taking an Olympic break for more than two weeks in February. The NHL’s bottom line is at stake, with the league and players drawing no direct money from competing at the Winter Games.
The decision comes long before the league faced a Jan. 10 deadline to pull out without financial penalty. As a result, the men’s Olympic hockey tournament will go on without NHL players for the second consecutive time.
Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, the likely U.S. Olympic starter, expressed displeasure Tuesday with the decision not to go and called the rash of postponements overkill.
Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby already was bracing for the possibility of the NHL not participating and, at the age of 34, ending what could be his final chance to represent Canada at the Olympics one more time.
“These are opportunities and experiences of a lifetime that you don’t get very many of as an athlete, and you might only get one,” said Crosby, who won Olympic gold with Canada in 2010 and 2014. “It just might happen to fall in your window and if it doesn’t happen to work out, it’s unfortunate.”
While the NHL and NHLPA agreed on Olympic participation last year as part of a collective bargaining agreement extension, the deal to go to Beijing was contingent on pandemic conditions not worsening.
Unless the Beijing Games are postponed a year like Tokyo’s, a generation of stars including American Auston Matthews, Canadians Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, German Leon Draisaitl and Swede Victor Hedman will need to wait until 2026 to play in the Olympic men’s hockey tournament for the first time.
“It’s a thing you’ve been looking forward to for a very long time,” Hedman said. “For us to not be able to go, it’s going to hurt for a while.”
The NHL was full go on the Olympics until the delta and omicron coronavirus variants began spreading around North America earlier this month. Before Calgary’s outbreak in the first half of December, only five games needed to be rescheduled and one was already made up.
The NHL did not participate in the Olympics until 1998, which started a string of five in a row through Sochi in 2014. The season was not stopped in 2018, leaving mostly professionals playing in Europe and some college players to make up the national rosters in South Korea, where the IOC was reluctant to pay for insurance and expenses.
Russia, which won gold at the Pyeongchang Games, immediately becomes the favorite without NHL players leading the Americans thanks to an influx of homegrown talent playing in the Kontintental Hockey League.
Several NHL players already had expressed hesitations about participating, including Vegas goalie Robin Lehner, who pulled his name out of consideration to represent Sweden. Lehner cited mental health reasons in noting the potentially lengthy quarantines for athletes who test positive during the competition.
“I’m very disappointed and it tough decision for me as it’s once in life time opportunity. Reality is that what have been said about how it’s going to be is not ideal for my mental health,” Lehner wrote in a text.
McDavid referred to the potential five-week quarantine requirement as “unsettling.”
“I’m still a guy that’s wanting to go play in the Olympics,” McDavid said. “But we also want to make sure it’s safe for everybody. For all the athletes, not just for hockey players.”
Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan will be missing his first opportunity to serve as coach of the U.S. national team. He had been holding out hope for NHL participation earlier Tuesday.
“We’re all human beings right. Emotions are a part of it. My hope is that we all have a chance to participate,” said Sullivan, who served as an assistant coach on Peter Laviolette’s staff at the 2006 Olympics. “It’s an unbelievable honor to represent your nation in the Olympics, it’s the honor of a lifetime quite honestly. And so I know I don’t feel differently than a lot of people that pull their nation’s sweaters over their heads.”
AP Sports Writer Will Graves contributed to this report.
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