The NHL and NHLPA announced Wednesday that NHL players will not go to Beijing and participate in the Winter Olympics. This will be the second straight Winter Games in which NHLers have not been able to play for their country on what many consider the grandest stage.
“Our focus and goal have been and must remain to responsibly and safely complete the entirety of the NHL regular season and Stanley Cup Playoffs in a timely manner,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a press release Wednesday. “Therefore, with stringent health protocols once again in place, we will begin utilizing available dates during the Feb. 6-22 window (originally contemplated to accommodate Olympic participation) to reschedule games that have been, or may yet be, postponed.”
National Hockey Now has confirmed that this decision was not only a difficult one for all involved but that it has also caused some internal strife within the NHLPA.
“There’s definitely some major division within the PA ranks right now,” an NHL player agent told NHN. “Some feel that with how hard the union fought to play in these Olympics that others capitulated like they always seem to do with the league. I think we all get the gravity of COVID and health concerns but are the players going if we had lightened protocol?”
The general reaction between players, coaches, management, and league executives is that this decision to forego the Winter Games in February was understood given the recent COVID outbreak in the NHL. The growing amount of postponed games forced an early holiday break that began Wednesday, with a return to action next Monday. Despite the reality of the situation the NHL and North American society found itself in, sources tell National Hockey Now that there was plenty of pushback and harsh criticism of this decision from within the NHLPA.
“The players I’ve talked to are ticked off,” the same agent as above said. “This is getting ridiculous as far as they think. It’s a time to figure out how to move forward and not backward.”
That criticism wasn’t private either.
“I can’t speak for everyone, but the feeling for myself … it’s a little overkill, “Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck told reporters in Winnipeg Tuesday. “You see leagues like the NFL, who are adapting and, I think, doing things right.”
Hellebucyk didn’t hold back his frustrations that he may not ever get a chance to represent his country on the grandest stage.
“I’ll be 32,” the Jets goalie said. “I know I’ll still be playing my best hockey, but we’ll see if it’s the same story. It was going to be an awesome opportunity to play, but I guess that’s just what we have to deal with.”
Reached by phone Tuesday night, a former and prominent member of the NHLPA told NHN that the players who had a chance to don their countries’ jerseys are ticked off.
“I’ve talked to some of these guys and some are basically like what the bleep? We did what we were supposed to do,” the source said. “I get that, trust me. Then you got those who see the risks – like maybe being held hostage in China for what? Five weeks maybe? Those guys are like screw this! The problem is though, this means the world to some guys and others they’ve got their glory.”
On Wednesday, Boston Bruins team President Cam Neely expressed his frustration for the players as well but more so for the way this season has taken a turn for the worse.
“Just talking with a number of guys … They were disappointed. … They certainly understand the circumstances,” Neely said of the players. “But at some point, we have to get back to normal here, and completing those postponed games and an 82-game schedule is a big part of that.”