NHL players are out of Winter Olympics: Who is hurt most by decision to withdraw from Beijing?

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The NHL has pulled out of the Beijing Olympics in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases and game postponements.

League players participated in five Olympics from 1998 to 2014 but didn't go to the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang. The NHL had promised a return for the 2022 Winter Games as part of its collective bargaining agreement, but the number of postponements forced the league to abandon the two-week Olympic break in order to reschedule games.

The next opportunity for NHL players to suit up for their countries' Olympic teams will be in 2026 for the Milano-Cortina Games in Italy.

Who is hurt most by the decision to withdraw from Beijing?

NBC

The Olympics are supposed to be best-on-best. Now the men's hockey tournament won't be. Instead of getting to showcase high-profile players such as Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane and Leon Draisaitl, NBC will have to feature players who might not be household names. But the Olympics are about the flag, so hockey fans might still watch, even though the quality won't be as strong.

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

Canada forward Sidney Crosby celebrates after scoring a goal against Sweden in the second period in the men's ice hockey gold medal game during the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
Canada forward Sidney Crosby celebrates after scoring a goal against Sweden in the second period in the men's ice hockey gold medal game during the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.

He scored the golden goal in overtime of the 2010 Olympics championship game in Vancouver against the Americans and scored in the gold medal game in 2014 as Canada repeated. He already had been named to Beijing and likely would have been Canada's captain. But he'll be 38 in 2026. This might have been his last chance to go.

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

The Capitals captain, having a dominating season, also had been an early selection. He would have been a key player as Russia defended its gold medal. He'll be 40 in 2026, though he'll still be under NHL contract at the time.

Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning captain was named to the 2014 Games, but he wasn't able to recover in time from a November broken leg and couldn't go. He was in the mix to make his Olympic debut for Canada in Beijing.

Stamkos will turn 36 during the 2026 Olympics.

"The Olympic card just hasn't worked out in my favor," he told reporters. "It sucks. You grow up dreaming of winning the Stanley Cup and I've been able to accomplish that and then you grow up representing your country at the Olympics and winning a gold medal and that's something I probably won't have a chance to do now."

Nicklas Backstrom, Capitals

He won silver in 2014 but was pulled before the gold medal game because he failed a doping test for taking the medicine Zyrtec-D to treat his sinusitis. Sweden would have been a challenger to get to the gold medal game this year and give Backstrom another chance.

Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

As a former Vezina Trophy winner, Hellebuyck would have been a prominent goaltender for Team USA. By the time 2026 rolls around, Thatcher Demko and Spencer Knight should be established as the top U.S. goaltenders.

Team Canada and Team USA

They met twice in the gold medal game during the NHL era and Canada has won three times. Both talent pools are deep enough that many deserving players would not have made the roster. Now, both countries will have to build a team featuring minor leaguers, players in European leagues and college players. European countries will be able to draw the top players from their respective leagues. Canada, then the defending champion, won bronze in 2018 and the Americans were ousted in the quarterfinals.

Follow Mike Brehm on Twitter @ByMikeBrehm

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Winter Olympics: Who's hurt most by NHL decision to not go to Beijing?