TAMPA — There was a lot of excitement when the NHL promised to make every effort to participate in the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics (also agreeing to return in 2026) in its collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players’ Association last summer.
Now there seems to be some doubt those efforts will come to fruition after Monday’s pre-Stanley Cup final address with commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
“We have real concerns about whether or not it’s sensible to be participating,” Bettman said. “We’re already past the time that we hoped this would be resolved.”
Daly added that with coronavirus concerns still prevalent “and the Games being halfway around the world, (they’re) not necessarily an ideal Games to elect to go to,” though nothing is off the table yet.
The NHL participated in five straight Winter Olympics starting in 1998. After the league skipped the 2018 Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, players were thrilled they might be able to represent their home countries again.
During those five Olympics, 706 NHL players attended, averaging 141 per season.
Lightning veteran defenseman Ryan McDonagh played six games in the 2014 Sochi Games, scoring a goal and an assist for Team USA. Former Lightning forward and alternate captain Ryan Callahan won a silver medal in the 2010 Vancouver Games and also competed in 2014.
McDonagh said Tuesday that it’s a dream for any player to represent his country, so having that opportunity taken away would be especially tough for those going to their first Games.
“It would be a shame for sure if players weren’t allowed the opportunity to go play,” McDonagh said. “The Olympic Games are such a unique experience, and I think they do wonders for the sport of hockey, so I’m really hoping there’s a way for things to work out.”
Fellow Lightning defenseman and Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman always hoped to represent Sweden, having yet to participate in the Winter Games during his 12-year professional career with Tampa Bay.
“This might be the last chance I get, so it sucks to hear (the league might not participate), but at the end of the day, I have to focus on the task I have at hand right now,” Hedman said. “But when you get an opportunity to represent your country on the biggest stage, it is one of those things that you’ll probably never forget.”
Lightning coach Jon Cooper can attest to that.
The Prince George, Canada, native, is reportedly a frontrunner to stand behind the bench for Team Canada in the 2022 Games. He got a taste of international playing experience as an assistant coach in the 2016 World Cup for Team North America.
He was the head coach of Canada’s men’s national team for the 2017 IIHF World Championship tournament, taking silver that summer after falling to Sweden in a 2-1 shootout.
“There’s something about the best on best. There is something about how proud you are from the country you’re from, and to wear the flag, there’s no question about it ...,” Cooper said.
“It’s amazing the pride the teams have regardless of what country you’re from, and it was one of the coolest events I’ve ever been to, so I can’t even imagine what these players feel like when they go to the Olympics, just to be around the best athletes of all the sports.”
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