The NHL had said it would do everything possible to keep its pledge that players could return to the Olympics.
But with COVID cases surging and games being postponed, the league and players association accepted the inevitable and are pulling out of the Beijing Olympics, the league said Wednesday.
When the NHL reached the agreement on the 2022 Winter Games, it said it would depend on whether the COVID-19 situation would create so many postponements that the league would need to use the Feb. 6-22 Olympic break in order to reschedule games.
That happened in recent weeks as COVID-19 cases soared. On Sunday, the league postponed all cross-border games through the Christmas break (Dec. 24-26). On Monday, it decided to start its Christmas break two days early. There have been 50 game postponed, including some earlier in the season, and 48 left to reschedule. According to ESPN, more than 15% of the NHL's players were in COVID-19 protocols as of Monday night.
"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," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. "We look forward to Olympic participation in 2026.
“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.”
NHL players went to five Olympics from 1998 to 2014 but didn't go in 2018 to Pyeongchang, South Korea. Owners aren't fond of the Olympic break, believing it robs momentum from the regular season. But players enjoy suiting up for their country, so Olympic participation in 2022 and 2026 was granted in the collective-bargaining agreement.
"Until very recently, we seemed to be on a clear path to go to Beijing," NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said in a statement. "COVID-19 has unfortunately intervened, forcing dozens of games to be postponed this month alone. No matter how much we wish it were not the case, we need to utilize the Olympic period to reschedule these games."
The league had until Jan. 10 to pull out without financial ramifications. Making the decision early gives countries' hockey federations more time to find alternate players.
The 2018 USA team was made up of minor leaguers, college players and Americans playing in overseas leagues.
Russia won gold in 2018 using players from the country's Kontinental Hockey League. The U.S. did not medal.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NHL players won't play in Beijing Winter Olympics amid COVID-19 surge