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NHL pulls players out of Beijing Olympics, cancels Olympic break with schedule in disarray due to COVID-19

The NHL had until Jan. 10 to opt out of the Olympics without financial penalty “should COVID-19 conditions worsen or otherwise pose a threat to the health and safety of NHL Players.”Getty

The NHL and NHL Players Association agreed that their players will not participate in the upcoming Winter Olympics, the league announced Wednesday.

The NHL will also cancel the planned Olympic break, scheduled for Feb. 6 through 22, and use the time to play games that have been postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreaks that prompted the NHL to pause the season.

After pulling out of the 2018 Games in PyeongChang, the NHL was set to make its grand return in Beijing. Last summer, the league and union collectively bargained to participate in the 2022 and ‘26 Games, with an out clause for 2022 if this NHL season was impacted by COVID-19.

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“The National Hockey League respects and admires the desire of NHL players to represent their countries and participate in a ‘best on best’ tournament,” commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement Wednesday. “... Unfortunately, given the profound disruption to the NHL’s regular-season schedule caused by recent COVID-related events ... Olympic participation is no longer feasible.”

The NHL had until Jan. 10 to opt out of the Olympics without financial penalty “should COVID-19 conditions worsen or otherwise pose a threat to the health and safety of NHL Players,” according to the league, “or for any other reason that may warrant such a decision.”

Men's hockey figures to look a lot different at the upcoming Olympics.Bruce Bennett/Photographer: Bruce Bennett/Gett

The men’s Olympic hockey tournament will now likely resemble the 2018 version, which included a combination of amateurs (such as Scituate’s Ryan Donato, then playing for Harvard) and pros from leagues outside the NHL. The Olympic Athletes from Russia, stocked with players from the KHL, won gold in PyeongChang.

USA Hockey will also need to find new personnel to coach the men’s team, with Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan no longer available.

“While we’re disappointed, we certainly respect the decision of the NHL and NHLPA. Regardless, we remain excited about the upcoming Olympic Winter Games and look forward to putting a team together that gives us the best chance to win a gold medal in Beijing,” USA Hockey said in a statement Wednesday.

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USA Hockey expects to announce new coaches “shortly” and name the final team roster by mid-January.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the NHL had postponed 50 games because of outbreaks, 45 in the previous eight days. Other than one game on the schedule — Tampa Bay at Vegas, slated for 10 p.m. Tuesday — the league was paused until Dec. 27, making the NHL the first North American pro sports league to suspend operations amid the rise of the Omicron variant. More than 130 players were in COVID protocol — some 18 percent of the league’s player workforce — and 24 teams had at least one player sidelined.

Regardless of context, it was a bummer to those at the top of the profession, the NHL players and coaches tapped to represent their countries in Beijing.

The Bruins were expected to send a sizable delegation to the Games, including Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron (Canada); Charlie McAvoy (US); David Pastrnak (Czechia); Linus Ullmark (Sweden); and Erik Haula (Finland). Before he had surgery last week to repair a torn ACL in his right knee, young defenseman Jakub Zboril was an option for the Czechs. Matt Grzelcyk had an outside chance of representing the Americans.

Before the season, Bruce Cassidy was named an assistant coach for Team Canada, under Lightning bench boss Jon Cooper, and Don Sweeney accepted a spot as an assistant to Team Canada general manager Doug Armstrong.

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All of that Black and Gold group but Bergeron (2010, 2014) would have been first-time Olympians.

Charlie McAvoy was expected to be one of several Bruins players at the Olympics.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Speaking to reporters on a Zoom call Tuesday, Cassidy acknowledged the ongoing chatter that the NHL and the players could pull the plug. It was unclear what players would do if they tested positive in China, and were mandated to remain under quarantine for three or more weeks. They could miss NHL paychecks if stuck there as the rest of the league resumed play.

“Fingers crossed, but yes, I’ve heard the rumblings,” Cassidy said. “I’d be very disappointed. I’ve never been — as most people haven’t. I was really looking forward to it. It doesn’t matter where it was going to be — it was just the whole environment of the Olympics, being around the best athletes of the world in every sport.”

It was expected the NHL would use the February break set aside for the All-Star Game and Olympics — Feb. 3-22 — to reschedule some or all of the games recently postponed. Many arenas in use by NHL teams have booked other events for that time, though the league reportedly asked they not do so.

TD Garden’s calendar in that stretch lists a show by comedian Trevor Noah (Feb. 4), the Beanpot semifinals and final (Feb. 7 and 14) , Celtics games (Feb. 11, 13, and 16), and concerts by Chris Tomlin & United (Feb. 12), Dua Lipa (Feb. 18), Tool (Feb. 19), and Billie Eilish (Feb. 20).

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The NHL also could extend the regular season beyond its current end date of April 29. That would come as relief to the Bruins, who have had four games postponed: at Montreal (Saturday) and Ottawa (Sunday), and home dates against Carolina (Tuesday) and Colorado (Thursday). The Bruins had a late start to the season (Oct. 16, five days after the first puck drop) and played a league-low 14 games in the first six weeks of the season.

Beginning next Monday, they will have 104 days left before the scheduled end of the NHL regular season to play their remaining 56 games.


Matt Porter can be reached at matthew.porter@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyports.