Commissioner Gary Bettman says NHL participation in Beijing Olympics is players' decision

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MANALAPAN, Fla. -- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said that participating in the 2022 Winter Olympics is "ultimately going to have to be a players' decision."

The NHL and NHLPA negotiated to have players participate in the 2022 and 2026 Winter Olympic men's hockey tournament, per their latest collective bargaining agreement. But concerns about COVID-19 protocols in Beijing, along with other political and safety considerations in China, has left participation in the Olympics this coming February somewhat in question.

"We have concerns. We've expressed those to the players' association. We see that a number of players are now also expressing concerns, and we'll have to see how this all plays out," Bettman said Friday after the second day of the NHL's board of governors meetings.

Bettman said that a decision not to go to the Olympics would require a joint agreement with the NHLPA. The league's main caveat remains if the 2021-22 regular-season schedule is impacted by COVID-19 postponements. So far, there have been five games postponed amid mini-clusters of outbreaks on the Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders.

The NHL's agreement with the players states that any material disruption of their season could result in pulling out of the Olympics. "If it became clear that we couldn't reschedule without doing something else, including some portion of the break," Bettman said.

The NHL board of governors discussed what to do with the Olympic break if the players do not go to Beijing. The challenge is that NHL arenas have used those dates to book other events despite having been advised not to do so. There was no discussion of any sort of domestic-based "replacement tournament" if player participation in Beijing doesn't happen.

The NHL said it doesn't yet understand what the duration for quarantine is for a player who tests positive for COVID-19 in Beijing, nor whether that player will need to quarantine in China.

"We don't have certainty on either of those issues yet," said deputy commissioner Bill Daly, who said the Beijing Organizing Committee is expected to issue a finalized athletes' handbook with updated protocol information.

Bettman indicated that the political aspect of the Beijing Games is among the league's concerns, including the Peng Shuai case and what the White House called the "ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity" by the Chinese government in the Xinjiang region against Uyghur Muslims. The Biden administration will not send any diplomatic or official representatives to Beijing for the Winter Olympics.

"We have concerns on a whole host of issues. But we made a promise to our players. And short of COVID messing up our break ... in good faith we made a promise to our players, and this is ultimately going to have to be a players' decision, unless we jointly agree with the players' association to the contrary," Bettman said.

The NHL said it will continue to see how things evolve, including the release of the new handbook from the organizing committee and the NHLPA response to it. Daly said that the widely reported Jan. 10 date is not a deadline for participation and that a decision can be made beyond Jan. 10. That deadline "has to do with financial reasonability for costs at that given point and time."

Bettman said that if the players still decide to go, it will have to be on terms where the NHL and the NHLPA feel the players will be "taken care of" with regard to potential COVID exposure in China.

"I don't think this is going to be the ideal Olympic experience, from the lockdowns in the Olympic Village to everything else that's going on. But again, we made a promise and I'm going to do my best to adhere to it, understanding there may be consequences that nobody is going to like," Bettman said.

While the current concern is whether players will participate in the upcoming Olympics, Bettman is preparing to have a conversation about when the next World Cup will even take place.

The NHL and NHLPA are expected to speak about the next World Cup of Hockey in the near future. The last one was held in 2016. Bettman theorized that a World Cup could be played between Olympic seasons or "instead of" the Winter Olympics. "Who knows?" he said.

NHL revenues up

The NHL is tracking to bring in more than $5 billion in revenue this year, and revenues are up from pre-pandemic levels. The league's expansion to Seattle as well as broadcasting rights deals with Disney [parent company of ESPN] and Turner Sports have helped fuel the recovery from the revenue hit the league took during its pandemic-shortened seasons.

The NHL salary cap will increase to $82.5 million for the 2022-23 season, as the league remains under a "flat cap." Bettman said he believes it will take "three more seasons, including this one" before the NHL is fully repaid under escrow and will have the salary cap rise with linkage to revenue.