NHL not going to Olympics because of COVID-19 surge

The NHL and NHL Players' Association have come to an agreement to not participate in the 2022 Winter Olympic men's hockey tournament in Beijing.

"The National Hockey League respects and admires the desire of NHL Players to represent their countries and participate in a 'best on best' tournament. Accordingly, we have waited as long as possible to make this decision while exploring every available option to enable our Players to participate in the 2022 Winter Olympic Games," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.

"Unfortunately, given the profound disruption to the NHL's regular-season schedule caused by recent COVID-related events -- 50 games already have been postponed through Dec. 23 -- Olympic participation is no longer feasible. We certainly acknowledge and appreciate the efforts made by the International Olympic Committee, the International Ice Hockey Federation and the Beijing Organizing Committee to host NHL Players but current circumstances have made it impossible for us to proceed despite everyone's best efforts. We look forward to Olympic participation in 2026."

The NHL and NHLPA had negotiated Olympic participation in 2022 and 2026 into the newest collective bargaining agreement after NHL players did not participate in the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The only caveat for the Beijing Olympics, scheduled for February 2022, was if the current NHL regular season was "materially impacted" by COVID-19 postponements.

The NHL had until Jan. 10 to opt out of Olympic participation without financial penalty and the NHLPA said it expected a decision on participation to be made before that date.

"We continue to look forward to the participation of the world's best hockey players from the other elite ice hockey leagues around the world in Beijing,'' the IOC said in a statement. "Their performances in Pyeongchang achieved a large international broadcast audience and demonstrated the exciting, passionate ice hockey that we can expect, which, as in 2018, will be followed by fans from all around the world.''

The Olympic rosters will now be filled by a combination of amateur players and professionals playing in leagues outside of the NHL. That could include North American minor leagues and overseas professional leagues like Russia's KHL. This was the setup for teams in the Pyeongchang Olympics, where the Olympic Athletes from Russia won gold.

"Although we are disappointed to receive this decision by the NHL and NHLPA, we nevertheless fully understand the circumstances that forced this action to be taken,'' International Ice Hockey Federation president Luc Tardif said in a statement. "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.''

Attention will now turn to using the scheduled break for the Olympics -- Feb. 6-22 -- to reschedule games. The NHL All-Star Game is still scheduled for Feb. 5.

"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. 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," Bettman said in his statement.

Sources said that rescheduling could include currently postponed games or potentially moving up games that are scheduled for later in the season, but there could be a lack of arena availability during the break. While the NHL asked arenas not to book events during the break in case players didn't participate in the Olympics, many buildings booked concerts and other events, seeking to make up for lost revenue during the pandemic.

It's expected there will still be some semblance of a break in the schedule. Predators general manager David Poile told ESPN 102.5 The Game in Nashville that he believed there would be a "compromise" for the amount of time players will have off, with games being crammed into the final week of that break. He also floated the idea that the regular season could be extended by a week.

News of the Olympic decision was met with frustration and sadness from players who would have played in the Beijing Games.

"I've been fortunate enough to be part of two [Olympics]," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "I definitely feel for the the guys who have missed numerous opportunities. It's not something where it's the next year or you push it a couple of months. These are experiences of a lifetime that you don't get very many of as an athlete."

Two Winnipeg Jets players who appeared headed for Team USA expressed their regret on Tuesday.

"Yeah, that sucks. I think everyone was looking forward to this," Kyle Connor said. "We made it a big part of our collective bargaining agreement as the players, to bring the Olympics back. Whether it's about different circumstances about going to China with COVID and everything, I think it would have been a great tournament."

Goalie Connor Hellebuyck, a potential starter for the Americans, was worried about his status for the 2026 Olympics in Italy.

"If the next one's in four years, I'll be 32," he said. "I know I'll be playing my best hockey, but it's going to be a different story."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.