Politics

With NHL abandoning Olympics, other problems for the league must be dealt with

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The Olympic hockey tournament that was to be a memorable best-on-best has been laid to rest.

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The National Hockey League and its players association will not be going to February’s 2022 Olympics in Beijing, China, with a formal announcement coming Wednesday. COVID-19, specifically the fast-spreading Omicron variant, wrought too much damage through the league the past two weeks, putting more than 100 players, five head coaches and other team staff in protocol and postponing at least 50 games.

It’s the second straight time in the four-year Olympic cycle the NHL has not participated, deciding that the 2018 Games in South Korea had too many insurance costs and weren’t broadcast friendly enough for North American audiences a half day behind.

Though the league went into this Christmas holiday break two days earlier than planned to try and halt further COVID-19 spread, there’s no guarantee numbers won’t still be high when the 32 teams reconvene Dec. 26 with games scheduled the next day.

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So, three weeks before the Jan. 10 deadline to withdraw from the Games and not face financial penalties, the NHL has told the International Olympic Committee there has been enough disruption to its schedule, on top of health and safety concerns expressed by the league and players. Many of the latter are worried about a weeks-long quarantine in China should they test positive while in the tournament bubble.

There was at least one exception to the NHL pausing its season this week, Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck calling it “a little overkill” and wondering why the league doesn’t adopt the less stringent approach of the NFL in not regularly testing vaccinated players.

But those most upset with the NHL’s exit are a little higher up the chain.

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“This would be disappointing for both (host broadcaster) NBC and the Beijing organizers,” said Mark Conrad, area chair of law and ethics at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business in New York City. “More importantly, Beijing can not be happy with the news. Although the decision is not related to the human rights controversies that have dogged this bid from the outset, it would deprive Beijing of showing the NHL’s talent. It will be interesting to see how the Chinese government and the IOC will react.”

The only way a best-on-best hockey event happens now is if COVID-19 becomes so rampant in the world that the entire Olympics get pushed back a year, as the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games were on account of the pandemic. That is a drastic move the IOC opposes, but if enough nations are compelled to drop out, there might not be another way.

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League commissioner Gary Bettman said on Dec. 11 that he intended to uphold a “good faith” promise to the players they could go to Beijing if desired, despite the mounting COVID-19 case count. But in the past few days, with so many testing positive, teams undermanned and the schedule getting more difficult to rebuild, a joint decision was reached.

Now the league must get to work restoring games — after the all-star weekend Feb. 4-5 in Las Vegas that’s still going ahead — by using the two-week Olympic break built into the schedule up to the week of Feb. 21.

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“There could be more games lost, that’s the reality,” said long-time NHL broadcast executive John Shannon. “But if I know Steve Hatze Petros (the league’s schedule maker) he’ll have all the games and available dates stuck on a big wall, but he’ll also know the contract obligations to each network. From that, he’ll create the new matrix.”

While Shannon thinks this unexpected reset might give the league a chance to create some attractive double or triple-headers on a certain night, he points out that the CBC, Sportset and TSN will still have Olympic coverage to maintain, whether it’s the hockey tourney with lesser players or regular Games’ events.

“It depends on what they can show in prime time with a 13-hour time difference,” he said.

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