Will NHL players go to Beijing Olympics? With rising COVID-19 cases in NHL, it's becoming more uncertain
On Tuesday, Bill Guerin was formally introduced as the general manager of the U.S. men’s ice hockey team, which still plans to send NHL players to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
A few hours later, the Minnesota Wild – the team Guerin runs as general manager in his day job – had their game against Carolina postponed due to additional COVID-19 positives on the Hurricanes.
The coronavirus pandemic is, once again, causing NHL schedule disruptions, this time also casting the Olympics excursion for NHL personnel in doubt. Players fought for the chance to go to Beijing in the most recent collective bargaining agreement, after NHL players did not play in the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. At a NHL Board of Governors meeting in Florida last week, commissioner Gary Bettman punted, saying it is "ultimately going to have to be a players' decision" if they want to opt out of the Games – either individually or as a whole.
“We certainly are hopeful that all systems will be go by the time we get ready to go to Beijing but there’s still some work to be done,” USA Hockey executive director Pat Kelleher said, citing “a lot of moving parts.”
Players would travel to China following NHL All-Star Game festivities the weekend of Feb. 5 in Las Vegas.
Four additional positives for Carolina triggered the ‘Canes-Wild postponement. Four teams have now paused due to rising COVID-19 cases, with 23 players entering the league’s COVID-19 protocol as of Tuesday afternoon over a 36-hour window, according to TSN. Vancouver Canucks defenseman Tucker Poolman was even placed in COVID protocol mid-game, pulled from Tuesday's contest after skating 5:37.
As one agent told USA TODAY Sports, it is “looking more and more problematic by the day.”
The NHL is not the lone major league currently experiencing trouble on the COVD front – the NBA and NFL have seen a swath of positives in their own right, with both leagues instituting deadlines for staff members to receive their booster vaccinations. The NHL, which has a nearly 100% vaccination rate among players, has not yet announced booster plans for staff.
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Until this week, the line from USA Hockey and the NHL Players’ Association was that the parties were awaiting information on the latest “playbook” from Beijing 2022, an 84-page document released Monday that details the COVID-19 protocols. The main hang-up is the potential quarantine a person who tests positive while at the Olympics may face.
"I hope when the clarity comes, it resolves that uncertainty," NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr told reporters last week. "And if it doesn't, then we'll have to see what comes next."
Guidelines say a person who tests positive must return two negative tests 24 hours apart before being released. However, Beijing 2022 and the Chinese government have final say in determining the length of the quarantine, and the possibility of that timeline lasting three to five weeks if players are unable to test negative is “unsettling,” said Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid.
"Obviously, it's unsettling if that were to be the case when you go over there,” McDavid, who is one of three players already selected by Team Canada, said. “Obviously, I'm still a guy that's wanting to go play in the Olympics. But we also want to make sure it's safe for everybody and all the athletes, not just for hockey players."
McDavid's coach, Dave Tippett, was placed in the COVID protocol Tuesday night.
The NHLPA has set up several video calls for players with Olympic hopes to help answer questions this week. Kelleher said USA Hockey is “working to get finalization” on the expected quarantine measures in China from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
“Part of our responsibility is to make sure that they feel comfortable going, to get all the information that we can and pass along to them,” Guerin said. “The last thing we would want to do is put anybody in harm’s way.”
The NHL admitted in a memo to teams last month (that directed clubs to cancel holiday parties and outings with fans amid COVID-19 fears) that spread within teams had come from more than one source, meaning multiple instances of community spread were brought into dressing rooms.
And before Beijing, the NHL has more than six weeks worth of games to contest, with players weighing options in a situation that is beginning to pose more questions than answers with each passing day.
“There's a lot of things, especially guys with families, that we're taking a look at,” Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “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.
“I've got four kids that are under the age of three and a half,” Pietrangelo, another player already designated by Team Canada, added. “For me to be potentially locked up there for five weeks plus the Olympics, that's a long time being away from my family.”
Contributing: Mike Brehm
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.