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What will happen when the NHL pulls out of the Olympics?

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This week, maybe even today, the NHL will announce that it won’t be sending its players to Beijing for the Olympics. Too many games have already been postponed to keep the three-week break needed for the Olympics, and even with the complications of buildings being booked for concerts during it, that break will be needed to make up what they can. In addition, the uncertainty over what a player testing positive and what his quarantine would look like in Beijing make this a bridge too far to pull off. While it’s still the players’ call, and the NHL has stressed that, it doesn’t sound like the players are going to mind too much if the league just steps in and says it needs the time to make up the games already lost on the schedule.

With that, the Olympics are still happening, and it’s unlikely that either the IOC or the Chinese government is going to develop a brain or heart in the intervening six weeks to push the Games back a year or cancel them altogether. Fuck, NBC is already running their promos about how the Super Bowl and Oylmpics will be running at the same time for the first time, because that’s some sort of happening worth celebrating for reasons that are definitely easy to understand. And NBC gets a say.

So the Olympic hockey tournament is going to be played. And the natural conclusion is that the rosters will be filled with guys playing in Europe as it was in 2018 when the NHL didn’t send their players to Pyongyang, South Korea. Or guys just sitting around doing not much because they’re old. Or maybe some college players, with a sprinkling of AHL players (but not ones that NHL teams want to keep healthy or might need to call up). But is that going to work this time around? For the same reasons that sending the NHL players didn’t?

The assumption that players who never dreamed of even being in the discussion of being a choice for an Olympic roster will simply leap at the opportunity no matter the challenges or dangers seems a pretty unfair one. As this article from a Swedish website, an interview with Swedish player Magnus Nygren, demonstrates. Maybe the translation is rough in spots, but the overall message is pretty clear.

“Send those fucking lice from Europe…”

Boy that sums it up. While European leagues haven’t seen the disruption to its schedule that the NHL and AHL have, that doesn’t mean they want to see some of their players get stuck in China for three-to-five weeks if they have to quarantine. Or just lose their players to an event they can’t control with thousands traveling from all parts of the world with different handles on COVID.

And the players, as Nygren says, aren’t jonesing either. They don’t want to leave their families for weeks at a time possibly, or put their health at risk either. Or cost their teams if they have to miss a lot of games. These guys aren’t just props.

While these players might be closer to the profile of other Olympic athletes where the Olympics are the absolute pinnacle of their careers and their opportunity to cash in on anything else around sports that a gold medal can translate to, they still have much bigger contracts than most. They don’t need this as badly as some, even if this is a chance that wouldn’t even come to them under normal circumstances.

Which might leave various federations scrambling to fill out rosters of “the willing,” which could come from anywhere and everywhere. The NBA didn’t run into this because their schedule wasn’t going to be interrupted, and Tokyo didn’t have the same protocols then as China does now. That’s just about the only parallel.

It’s likely that enough players below the NHL level would still take the chance that they never thought would come. But it might not be as automatic as some think. 

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