NHL pulls players from Beijing Olympics despite near-100% vaccination rate
The NHL has officially pulled the plug on its players competing in next year's Winter Olympics in Beijing after a surge in Covid-19 infections in the sports league which had previously heralded its own mass vaccination drive.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed on Wednesday that players from its 32 teams will not be allowed to travel to China for the Games, which begin in early February, after the spike in Covid-19 cases which reports indicate has left around 15 percent of NHL players either infected with the virus or isolating because of a close contact situation.
This is despite the league previously reporting a near-100 percent vaccination rate across more than 700 players – with just one player, Tyler Bertuzzi of the Detroit Red Wings, reported to have declined to be vaccinated.
The reason for the opt-out, according to league chiefs, was because the spike caused the "regular-season schedule [to be] materially disrupted as a result of increasing Covid cases and a rising number of postponed games."
Fifty NHL games have been postponed due to issues related to Covid-19, with almost all of them coming in the past two weeks.
On Monday, a collaborative statement from the NHL and its Players' Association (NHLPA) announced that the holiday break was to be brought forward from its scheduled date to allow teams more time to recover. Games are currently slated to begin again on Monday December 27.
"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 Wednesday in a statement.
"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.
"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. 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."
Bettman's statement comes just months after he boasted of the league's efforts to compel its players to receive vaccinations against Covid-19, suggesting that it was the best method with which to complete the season unimpeded.
The decision also arrives after a September agreement struck by the NHL, NHLPA and the International Ice Hockey Federation that they would be within their rights to withdraw from the Olympics if participation was deemed "impractical or unsafe".
Several players have expressed their frustration at the decision. "It's disappointing," said Tampa Bay's Canada international Steven Stamkos, who fears time may not be on his side to star at the showpiece at the age of 31.
"For whatever reason, the Olympic card just hasn't worked out in my favor. It sucks. That's something I probably won't have a chance to do now."