As we all know, the NHL has suspended all team activities until Monday, December 27th. Citing a flurry of positive covid tests, the league extended Christmas break by four days. As of right now, December 21, 15% of the league’s players are in covid protocols. Tyler Bertuzzi from Detroit is the only unvaccinated NHLer. Covid is also ravaging other sports…51 NFL players are in covid protocols, more than 90 from the NBA have tested positive for covid, all while multiple soccer leagues in Europe are returning to ghost games (no fans in the stands) and dozens of matches have been postponed or canceled.
The other specter looming on the horizon is the 2022 Winter Olympics being held Beijing, China, which are slated to begin February 4 and will go through February 20.
The $1,000,000,000 question on the minds of hockey fans everywhere is whether or not the NHL will allow its players to participate in the Olympics. Twelve nations are scheduled to compete: Canada, U.S.A., Sweden, Finland, Russia (as the ROC), Slovakia, Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, China, and Latvia. As of now, Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog are tabbed to represent Canada, Finland, and Sweden, respectively.
In light of the recent covid decimation of the NHL schedule, it’s becoming less likely we’ll see NHLers in Beijing. Gary Bettmann and the owners have not come out publicly with a decision, leaving it up to the players. It’s highly doubtful we’ll see NHL players in the Olympics. On Sunday, December 19, the league released the following statement, "The NHL and NHLPA are actively discussing the matter of NHL Player participation in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, and expect to be in a position to announce a final determination in the coming days."
Should NHL players compete in Beijing? If we go by the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the answer is yes as the CBA greenlit participation in both the 2022 Winter Olympics and the 2026 Games being held in Milan, Italy. From a player safety perspective, it’s dicey. While the new omicron variant is spreading like Westerosian wildfire (screw you Cersei Lannister, you genocidal bitch) and is now the most prevalent covid mutation, its effects seem less severe than previous strains. But covid is nothing to play around with. Former Denver Bronco (I may never forgive George Paton for trading away #58) Von Miller said his bout with covid left feeling as if he was going to die.
The other factor in letting the players compete in Beijing is China’s record on human rights and whether or not the hockey tournament would signify tacit approval or blithe dismissal on the part of the NHL. Gary Bettmann has been closed lipped on the subject and some on these forums have speculated that his silence is an insidious PR ploy to absolve the league of culpability if Olympic participation sends all the wrong messages.
China’s government is one of the most repressive regimes in the world and is considered too secretive and aggressive in terms of international diplomacy. So, part of the argument says sport can be unifying and should not be used as a political tool. Conversely, it’s felt by some that a boycott can send an indelible message that human rights violations will not be tolerated or endorsed on any level for any reason. The Biden administration has pulled all diplomatic involvement in the 2022 Olympiad, and it remains to be seen if there’s an outright boycott. The Canadian government back in February called for the Games to be moved to a new location because of ongoing concerns about human rights violations and China’s alleged development and reaction to covid. Multiple European nations made similar proclamations.
It simply isn’t appropriate to rehash covid’s genesis, not now anyway. What is relevant is China’s policies regarding infection control and safety protocols, and whether or not they’re capable of protecting Olympic athletes from contracting covid. Can China be trusted on any level? That is a question that is almost impossible to answer.
So, the onus of player safety now falls on the broad shoulders of the NHL, as does the public relations implications of participation in Beijing.
Athlete safety has to be of utmost importance, so any declaration made by Gary Bettmann would seem hollow, especially given the league’s absenteeism regarding CTE. Dozens of former players have died because of the ravages of CTE, a condition the NHL as an entity has yet to even acknowledge exists. This is emblematic of an almost siege mentality of us versus them that permeates professional team sports.
League wellbeing is of equal importance. In an ideal world, the league’s owners and players would provide a united front against anything that would stain the NHL’s reputation, appeal, and financial health. But we live in a flawed world run by flawed people. We saw this play out in 2004 when the league locked out the players, costing us the entire season. Fortunately, both sides extracted their collective craniums from their collective rectums and the NHL has never been stronger. Sending the players to China would threaten this tenuous balance the sport struck post lockout.
Neither the NHL nor the NHLPA can afford to put at risk the viability of their product. Sending the players to the Olympics constitutes a clear and present danger to the NHL’s long-term outlook. Keep the players at home, for the sake of the sport.