BEIJING (Reuters) – Beijing Olympics organisers expressed “regret” on Thursday after the National Hockey League said it would not allow its players to compete at the Winter Games because of disruption to the league schedule caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wednesday’s decision by the North American league, which four months ago had agreed to let the players go to Beijing, means the Games will not see some of the best-known athletes expected to compete in the Chinese capital from Feb. 4-20.
“We express regret that they cannot take part in the Games because of COVID,” Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) official Huang Chun told a news conference.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the postponement of 50 regular-season games since the Omicron variant started to spread through teams had made participation in the Olympics “no longer feasible”.
The league has brought its Christmas break forward and shut down operations through to Dec. 27 in an effort to combat the outbreak. It will use the Olympic period to reschedule postponed games.
Luc Tardif, the President of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), which organises the Olympic tournament, said he was “disappointed” but understood the circumstances that led to the decision.
“It was a shock to see how COVID-19 affected the NHL schedule almost overnight, and we understand the NHL’s decision is in the best interest of the health and safety of its players,” he said in a statement.
Huang, the deputy director general of the Pandemic Prevention and Control Office at BOCOG, said he was confident the COVID-19 prevention measures would be effective in protecting athletes at the Games in Beijing.
“We firmly believe these COVID-prevention measures can reduce the risk of infection spreading, and can ensure the health of the athletes and other games personnel while ensuring the games go on and that the Chinese people are safe,” he said.
NHL players had negotiated a return to the Olympics for the first time since the 2014 Sochi Games into their current Collective Bargaining Agreement.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) expressed disappointment for the athletes.
“We know that the players were desperately keen to participate in the Beijing Games,” a spokesperson said.
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Canada and the United States, which would have sent teams made up entirely of NHL players, must now cobble together rosters from other leagues.
USA Hockey said it would soon announce a new coaching and management team and finalise its roster by mid-January.
“While we’re disappointed, we certainly respect the decision,” it said in a statement.
Since NHL players were first welcomed into the Olympic programme at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, Canada has won gold three times.
“We know that the top Canadian NHL players were excited to wear the Team Canada jersey, and we hope to see them get that opportunity once again in 2026,” said David Shoemaker, secretary general of Canadian Olympic Committee.
Other countries, such as Sweden, Finland, Russia, Germany and Czech Republic, will also have big holes to fill.
“We are prepared for a situation where the NHL players don’t take part in the Olympics,” Johan Hemline of the Swedish Hockey League told Reuters in an interview.
(Reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing, Steve Keating in Toronto, Rohith Nair in Bengaluru, Phil O’Connor in Stockholm, Amy Tennery in New York; Additional reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Writing by Steve Keating and Nick Mulvenney; Editing by …)