Representing your country in your chosen sport in the Winter Olympics is an incredible opportunity, one most of us can only dream of. It’s one of the most prestigious honors that can be bestowed upon an athlete. I’d say it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance, but that’s not exactly right; if you’re truly that good, you probably get more than one crack at it.
Despite all of that, the likelihood of NHL players going to the 2022 Winter Olympics seems to be dwindling by the day, sometimes by the hour. Not just the likelihood - but how smart of a choice it would be. At this point, with the COVID-19 pandemic still thriving, the Omicron variant infiltrating communities and the league facing more and more positive cases, there’s absolutely no way that NHL players should be going to Beijing.
Before anyone jumps down my throat: I know. I fully admit that I’m in a really comfortable position to say this. I’m not a professional athlete. I haven’t worked my entire life at a craft, to be invited to represent my nation at the highest level. I’ll never get an Olympic invitation. Therefore, it’s easy for me to sit here behind a computer screen and say “This isn’t smart.” Unfortunately, that’s also just the truth, it seems.
There are a lot of factors at play here.
First and foremost, the NHL is currently experiencing a rapid surge of positive cases. We recently saw 23 players added to the league’s protocol in a span of 36 hours. The very next day, an additional 10+ players have been added, not including staff & coaches. The league’s priority at this point should be stemming the flow of this current spread, which is a big mess in and of itself.
There’s still a month and a half until the Olympics begin, but that time will pass quickly, particularly amidst the current outbreak(s). The league is already introducing increased health & hygiene protocols, to be effective through at least January 7, but there’s still nearly an entire team of Flames players out, six Predators players, and a handful of others across the league.
Aside from the obvious possibility of contracting COVID-19 while in Beijing, there’s the aftermath to consider. If a player is confirmed positive, they’ll require two negative tests, 24 hours apart, to avoid a lengthy quarantine that could last between three and five weeks.
Let me reiterate that: between three and five weeks.
Even when just considering this, there is so much at stake here. The mental, emotional and physical toll of such a lengthy quarantine is unfathomable. Imagine being stuck in a hotel room in Beijing, some 6,000+ miles from home, alone, for that many weeks. Unable to work out, or skate, or see your family. (Sorry, FaceTime just doesn’t hit the same.)
Physically, that also means several weeks that you’re off the ice - and if it’s after the Olympics end, several more weeks you’re away from your team. When you finally get out of quarantine and eventually return to North America, it will take you a while to get into game shape, meaning even when you come back, you’re not really back.
And of course, if you do contract COVID-19, there’s no way to predict how bad it will be, or its long-lasting effects. Nearly all NHL players are vaccinated at this point, but even with vaccination, you can still be symptomatic, and who knows what effects it could have down the road? This isn’t just about the present; it’s about the future, too.
To some extent, the league can only do so much when it comes to preventing its players from going to Beijing. There’s a CBA to uphold alongside the NHLPA, and my gut feeling is that the NHL doesn’t want to say no - they’d rather the players decide for themselves. It’s like how your parents may not want you to go to that semi-questionable party on Friday night, but they’ve told you they trust you. They don’t want to tell you no; they want you to make the call.
It’s challenging, but it certainly seems like more players are becoming hesitant about it. Vegas Golden Knights goaltender - and former Buffalo Sabres netminder - Robin Lehner outright said he will not go. Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid said the quarantine rules are ‘unsettling.’ Ryan Callahan (retired) has said he absolutely wouldn’t go.
There’s no doubt this is an incredibly challenging decision, and it’s not one that players will make alone. They have to consider not just their individual, physical health, but also their mental and emotional health. They have to consider their families. Their futures. Their teams and the current season. The risk versus the reward. It’s not a decision that I envy, and it’s not one I necessarily expect to be a blanket decision; it would certainly take a lot of courage to say no, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some players go to Beijing.
But hey, just think about the 800,000+ Americans who have died from COVID-19.
Maybe that makes the decision a little bit easier.