For the second straight Winter Olympics, the National Hockey League dashed hopes for a "best on best" men's ice hockey tournament.
The NHL opted out of the 2018 Pyeongchang Games because of a funding dispute with the IOC. That upset the players, who negotiated participation in the 2022 and 2026 Winter Olympics in their latest collective bargaining agreement. But the league added a caveat to the Beijing Games decision: If there was a material interruption in the 2021-22 regular-season schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it could opt out of the Olympics again.
The omicron variant arrived and over 100 NHL games were postponed. Thus, the NHL decided to use the Olympic break to make up those games and the players were prohibited from participating again.
What does that mean for the 2022 tournament? Here's a look at the field and some familiar names that are still participating in the Olympics, as the men's preliminary round began Wednesday in Beijing.
Keep in mind that after the preliminary round, the teams are ranked 1 through 12. The top team of each group and the best second-ranked team will advance to the quarterfinals. Everyone else must play in a qualification round.
2018 finish: Defeated the Czech Republic 6-4 for the bronze, medaling for the third straight Olympics. Of course, the other two were gold medals, which reveals the subtle difference between Canada with and without NHL players on its roster.
Names you might know: Captain Eric Staal, a veteran of 1,293 games and 441 goals in the NHL. The 37-year-old made a Stanley Cup Final run with Montreal last postseason, found no takers as a free agent and decided to chase a second gold medal after winning one in 2010; forward Daniel Winnik, who played 798 games during an 11-year NHL career; and University of Michigan defenseman Owen Power, who was drafted first overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 2021.
Name you should know: Forward Mason McTavish, drafted third overall by the Anaheim Ducks last year. He's a pure goal scorer, but to paraphrase one memorable draft scouting report: Violence and aggression are commonplace in your typical McTavish shift.
Outlook: A good balance between players with NHL experience -- some of it lengthy -- and top prospects, Canada is the top-ranked team in the world. The team will likely go as far as goalies Devon Levi and Eddie Pasquale take it. That could be all the way to gold.
2018 finish: This is China's first appearance in the men's Olympic ice hockey tournament. They qualified by being the host nation.
Name you should know: Forward Spencer Foo has decidedly less NHL experience, having a four-game cup of coffee with the Calgary Flames in 2018. But he was the leading scorer (33 points) with the Kunlun Red Star, the Kontinental Hockey League franchise that was an incubator for the Chinese national team.
Outlook: Despite being the host nation, China was almost pulled from this tournament because the International Ice Hockey Federation was worried that the team would be completely embarrassed on home ice. That could still happen to this combination of mainland China players and international imports, but the NHL's opt-out means China has a chance to at least be competitive in pool play. Anything more than that would be a miracle on ice.
2018 finish: Lost 4-3 in overtime to the Olympic Athletes From Russia to earn an Olympic silver medal, the nation's first medal in men's ice hockey since earning bronze in the 1976 Innsbruck Games.
Names you might know: Forward Tobias Rieder played 478 games in the NHL, most of them with the Arizona Coyotes. He last appeared in 2020-21 with the Buffalo Sabres; defenseman Korbinian Holzer played 206 games in the NHL, the majority of them with the Anaheim Ducks; winger Tom Kuhnhackl won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017; and forward Dominik Kahun left the NHL after 2021 to play for Bern SC in the Swiss league, where he has 41 points in 37 games. Kahun is one of the more explosive offensive players for Germany.
Name you should know: Goalie Mathias Niederberger of Eisbaren Berlin appears to have taken the starting goalie job from 36-year-old Danny aus den Birken, who was named most outstanding goaltender in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Niederberger posted a .929 save percentage at the last IIHF world championships.
Outlook: The biggest change for the Germans was behind the bench, where coach Marco Sturm stepped down after winning Olympic silver to pursue his dream of becoming an NHL coach as an assistant with the Los Angeles Kings. Toni Söderholm takes over as head coach for the fifth-ranked team in the world. With strong goaltending, they could challenge for a medal again if their offense doesn't go kaput.
2018 finish: Lost in a shootout to Czech Republic 3-2 in the quarterfinals of the medal round.
Names you might know: Center Matty Beniers of Michigan was the second overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft and the first-ever selection for the expansion Seattle Kraken; defenseman Steve Kampfer played 231 games in the NHL, primarily with the Boston Bruins; forward Justin Abdelkader, a "taxi squad" reserve for the U.S., had a 739-game NHL career with the Detroit Red Wings.
Name you should know: Goalie Strauss Mann will likely be the reason if the U.S. makes noise in this tournament. Mann, 23, played his first pro season in Sweden after leaving the University of Michigan and put up stellar stats there. Perhaps after these Olympics, he'll be known for more than his strict paleo diet, which has been the focus for much of the coverage in his career.
Outlook: After a mismatched collection of non-NHL pro players didn't medal in South Korea, USA Hockey went in a different direction. There are roughly 15 NCAA players on this roster, coached by former New York Rangers bench boss David Quinn. Does that mean a team with unbridled enthusiasm or one that's not ready for prime time? One thing we know: When it comes to the U.S. and Olympic men's hockey, you never count out a bunch of college kids.
2018 finish: Lost in the bronze medal game to Canada 6-4 after losing to eventual gold-medal winner Olympic Athletes From Russia in the semifinals.
Names you might know: Center David Krejci, 35, is expected to be one of the tournament's star players. The veteran left the NHL after 15 seasons with the Boston Bruins to play in his home country. Krejci tested positive for COVID after arriving in Beijing, but Czech media reports he followed that with two negative tests; center Michael Frolik played 858 games during a 13-year NHL career, mostly with the Calgary Flames and Florida Panthers; and forward Vladimir Sobotka played 548 NHL games, mostly with the St. Louis Blues.
Name you should know: Forward Roman Cervenka may not be the ageless wonder we all wanted to see play for Czechia -- alas, 49-year-old Jaromir Jagr played his last Olympics in 2014 -- but this four-time Olympian is going strong at age 36 with 55 points in 43 games in the Swiss league.
Outlook: Czechia loves its veteran international rosters, with 12 players ages 29 and older making the Olympic squad. The sixth-ranked team in the world could make noise if 30-year-old KHL goalie Simon Hrubec plays well enough to be the starter. But the team has struggled recently in international play, and those struggles continued in their first game in preliminary play with a stunning upset loss to Denmark.
2018 finish: Denmark is making its first Olympic men's ice hockey tournament appearance.
Names you might know: Center Frans Nielsen, 37, played 925 games in the NHL with the New York Islanders and Detroit Red Wings. He was a flag-bearer for Denmark in the opening ceremonies. Forward Mikkel Boedker played 709 games in the NHL, most of them with the Coyotes franchise.
Name you should know: Goalie Sebastian Dahm should be the starter here. The 34-year-old, who plays in Austria's hockey league, was absolutely lights-out in Denmark's world championships and Olympic qualifying games, posting a .929 save percentage and a shutout in the latter.
Outlook: It's the lowest-ranked team in the tournament outside of China, but earned the chance to play in Beijing by stunning Norway in Oslo during the qualification tournament. Of course, Denmark had Winnipeg Jets star Nikolaj Ehlers then ... not so much now. It has some other accomplished offensive players -- see former Canucks forward Nick Jensen up front -- but probably not the depth to make a deep run in the medal round. Then again, maybe their stunning 2-1 win over the Czechs - their first Olympic win in their first Olympic game - was the start of a Cinderella story. (Fun fact: In the Danish version of "Cinderella," she wore galoshes rather than slippers.)
2018 finish: Then-known as the Olympic Athletes From Russia, they won the gold medal over Germany on an overtime goal by former Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov.
Names you might know: Voynov, 32, is back for Russia. He left the NHL in 2015 after an arrest for domestic violence. He pled no contest to a reduced misdemeanor charge, spent 90 days in jail and then agreed to leave for Russia before deportation hearings could begin; defenseman Nikita Nesterov, 28, who played 170 NHL games, most of them with the Tampa Bay Lightning; forward Mikhail Grigorenko played 249 games in the NHL, mostly with the Colorado Avalanche; and forward Nikita Gusev, who was a member of the gold-medal winning team and spent two years with the New Jersey Devils. He had 12 points in six games in 2018, and was named the best forward in the tournament.
Name you should know: If forward Vadim Shipachyov sounds familiar, it's because he played three games with the Vegas Golden Knights in their inaugural season before leaving for the KHL. He's dominated that league ever since, including 67 points in 48 games for Dynamo Moscow this season.
Outlook: The third-ranked team in the world, but the heavy favorite to win a second straight gold medal. The Russians don't have some of the famous names they had in 2018 -- Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and current Minnesota Wild star Kirill Kaprizov among them -- but they are loaded with talent up front and on defense from the KHL. That defense made the difference in their first game, a 1-0 shutout of the Swiss, as goalie Ivan Fedotov stopped all 33 shots he faced.
2018 finish: The Swiss lost to eventual silver medalist Germany, 2-1, in overtime in the qualification round. Ah, what might have been. ...
Names you might know: Defenseman Yannick Weber played 499 games over 13 NHL seasons, most of them with the Nashville Predators; defenseman Mirco Mueller played 185 NHL games with the San Jose Sharks and New Jersey Devils; and forward Denis Malgin, who played four seasons with the Florida Panthers before ending his NHL run with Toronto in 2020. He has 40 points in 37 games in the Swiss league.
Name you should know: Two names, actually, in Leonardo Genoni and Reto Berra. These are the goalies tasked with replacing Jonas Hiller, who retired in 2020 and was outstanding in the Pyeongchang games (.956 save percentage). Berra, 35, played five seasons in the NHL from 2013-18. Genoni, 34, has played well internationally and for EV Zug of the Swiss league.
Outlook: The Swiss finished sixth in the 2021 IIHF world championships. The strongest part of this team is the back end, but can it generate enough offense to break through in the medal round? Former Blue Jackets forward Grégory Hofmann could be a difference-maker there. The Swiss had 33 shots but couldn't generate a goal against Russia in their opener.
2018 finish: Lost to Canada 1-0 in the quarterfinals.
Names you might know: Forward Valtteri Filppula, a veteran of 1,056 NHL games and a Stanley Cup winner with the Detroit Red Wings; defenseman Sami Vatanen, a nine-year NHL veteran with the New Jersey Devils and Anaheim Ducks; forward Markus Granlund, who played 335 NHL games, primarily with the Vancouver Canucks; and center Leo Komarov, a former Maple Leaf and Islander who is affectionately known as "Uncle Leo."
Name you should know: Winger Niko Ojamaki, 26, is one of the better Finnish finishers, with 29 goals in 48 games with KHL Vityaz Podolsk this season. He could skate with linemate Miro Aaltonen in the Olympics.
Outlook: The Finns are the favorite to win Group C. They're a deep and talented group with a lot of NHL and international experience. This program always has its teams prepared for international play. Coach Jukka Jalonen was behind the bench for gold and silver in the last two IIHF world championships. A gold-medal threat.
2018 finish: The team did not qualify for the 2018 Olympics. It last had qualified in 2014, where it had its best finish (eighth) in history.
Names you might know: Forward Kaspars Daugavins, 33, had a brief NHL career with the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins; and while goalie Kristers Gudlevskis only played three games in the NHL with the Tampa Bay Lightning, fans might remember him from a 55-save performance from the 2014 Games in a near-upset of Canada.
Name you should know: Center Rodrigo Abols, 26, is one of the better offensive threats for Latvia, having played for Orebro in Sweden for the last two seasons.
Outlook: Latvia earned a trip to Beijing with a tight 2-1 win over France, killing off a penalty at the end of their qualification final. The Latvian formula in the past has been defense first, and that's what we expect here.
2018 finish: Eliminated in the qualification playoffs by the U.S. 5-1.
Name you should know: Winger Peter Cehlarik, 26, has been a star for Slovakia in international play, with 11 points in eight games at world championships and two goals in the team's Olympic qualifying run.
Outlook: Craig Ramsay has coached the Buffalo Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers, Atlanta Thrashers and the Slovakian Olympic team -- twice. That's quite a bio. The Slovaks aren't expected to mount a medal challenge, but they're not without their intrigue: Defenseman Simon Nemec and winger Juraj Slafkovsky are both 17 years old, on the roster and expected to be lottery picks in the 2022 NHL Draft.
2018 finish: Eliminated in the quarterfinals by eventual silver medalist Germany 4-3 in overtime.
Names you might know: Center Marcus Kruger won two Stanley Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks; forward Jacob de la Rose played 242 games in the NHL, the majority with the Montreal Canadiens; and center Anton Lander, who played six years with the Edmonton Oilers.
Name you should know: Defenseman Henrik Tommernes plays for Geneve-Servette in the Swiss league and could be one of the best offensive defensemen in the Olympics tournament. He has 49 points in 41 games this season.
Outlook: Sweden was one of the teams most impacted by the NHL's opt-out. It's still expected to be the second-best team in the group, which means good things for medal-round seeding. Their goaltending is going to be strong, but there are real questions about who will put the puck in the net for the tre kronor.