National Hockey League players will not compete at February's Beijiing Winter Olympics, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed Wednesday, due to Covid-19 disruptions.
The league paused its season on Wednesday after 50 games had been postponed due to Covid-19 outbreaks among clubs, with plans to reschedule those contests during the February 6-22 window of the Games in China.
"The National Hockey League respects and admires the desire of NHL Players to represent their countries and participate in a 'best on best' tournament," Bettman said in a statement Wednesday.
"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.
"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 December 23 -- Olympic participation is no longer feasible."
Olympic rosters will now be filled by players from European leagues, colleges and development clubs as they were at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, when the NHL elected not to take part.
Players expressed their disappointment on Tuesday when reports of the NHL's decision began.
"It would have been a great thing for our game to have all the NHL players go," said Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews, who won gold medals with Canada in 2010 and 2014.
"Players are going to put their own health and their own families and their own clubs' situation as priorities ahead of going to Beijing and dealing with some very unpredictable scenarios. So to me, that's the right way to go about it."
Players had expressed concerns about the length of time they might miss while being quarantined should they test positive for Covid-19 in China.
"It's just a tough situation for everybody," said Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, a 2010 and 2014 Olympian for the United States.
"You're hoping you can play as many as possible, but I don't know if it really would've been a true Olympics experience this year with being in a bubble and all the worries going over there."
Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby, also a two-time Olympic champion with Canada, said, "It's difficult to kind of wrap your head around, given the fact that we thought we would have the opportunity this time."
"I definitely feel for the guys who have missed numerous opportunities. These are opportunities and experiences of a lifetime that you don't get very many of as an athlete."
NHL elite global talent began playing at the Olympics in Nagano, Japan in 1998, with the league shutting down to allow players to represent their homelands, and NHL players last competed at the Olympics in 2014 at Sochi, Russia.
The league had agreed to a deal with the players union for competing at Beijing and the 2026 Winter Olympics.
"Current circumstances have made it impossible for us to proceed despite everyone's best efforts," Bettman said. "We look forward to Olympic participation in 2026."
- NHL wants full season -
NHL Players Association executive director Don Fehr said it was important to try and complete a full 82-game NHL schedule per club for the first time since the 2018-19 campaign.
"Until very recently, we seemed to be on a clear path to go to Beijing. Covid-19 has unfortunately intervened," Fehr said. "No matter how much we wish it were not the case, we need to utilize the Olympic period to reschedule these games.
"Playing a full 82-game season this year, something the pandemic has prevented us from doing since the 2018-19 season, is very important. We expect that NHL players will return to the Olympics in 2026."
The league plans to have players return to clubs on Sunday to resume the season after that, with negative Covid-19 tests required for access to facilities as the NHL continues to follow Covid-19 health and safety protocols.
"Our focus and goal have been and must remain to responsibly and safely complete the entirety of the NHL regular season and Stanley Cup play-offs in a timely manner," Bettman said.
"Therefore, with stringent health protocols once again in place, we will begin utilizing available dates during the Feb 6-22 window to reschedule games that have been, or may yet be, postponed."
The NHL All-Star Game on February 5 at Las Vegas remains on the schedule.