The NHL may have made a commitment to return to the Winter Olympics in 2022, but that doesn’t mean that participation is automatically guaranteed. TSN’s Darren Dreger reports that concerns obviously still exist about the viability of a mid-season international tournament set to begin in less than 12 months given that the battle against the Coronavirus is still being waged across the globe. Although COVID-19 vaccines are now being distributed world-wide and the hope is that the virus will be contained within the next year if not sooner, a major international event with athletes from all over the world poses a great threat of infection, especially given the fact that many countries will not be vaccinated at the same rate as major world powers like the United States and Canada, among others. As Dreger notes, the first test before the Beijing Games in 2022 will be this summer, as the postponed Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics are still scheduled to take place. However, there is considerable concern and doubt about the Tokyo Games occurring. The stakeholders in the next Winter Olympics will learn a lot from how these Summer Games are operated, if at all, from a health and safety perspective. As Dreger notes, the testing protocols in Beijing will have to be extensive for NHL players to attend, especially considering that the virus originated in China. He believes that if the Summer Olympic results or the plans for the Winter Olympics do not inspire hope, there is a possibility that the men’s hockey tournament could be held remotely at a different venue, still part of the Beijing games but from a more secure location, likely in North America. Dreger adds that the IIHF is set to meet soon to discuss the many issues and possibilities surrounding the 2022 Games. Since the commitment to Olympic participation was collectively bargained in the latest CBA, both the NHL and NHLPA would need to agree if players were not to attend next year. However, both sides only have player safety in mind at this time and should be on the same page with making a determination at some point in the near future.
- Assuming the NHL does return to the Olympics in 2022, it will the first opportunity to play at the top international level for many of the game’s biggest names. After skipping the last Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in 2018, the NHL has not sent representative to the Games since 2014 – a long span of time in an NHL career. Many established stars had not even been drafted when the league was last involved. Expectations are especially high for Team USA, as the Americans may be looking at their most talented Olympic roster ever in 2022. Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew and Brady Tkachuk, Seth Jones, Connor Hellebuyck, and countless other will all be making their Olympic debuts. However, USA Hockey has yet to choose the man that will be in charge of forming this team and does not plan to do so until participation in the games is confirmed. However, TSN’s Frank Seravalli reports that Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman is considered the likely selection at this point. Bowman, who won Stanley Cups in the years sandwiching the NHL’s last Olympic Games, was nevertheless not part of Team USA the last time around. This time, he is expected to be the GM and the one to lead a hopeful squad. Seravalli notes that past members of Team USA’s operations such as David Poile and Don Waddell are surely being considered as well, but appear more likely to be assistants to Bowman. With Hockey Canada already announcing a deep and talented brain trust for the 2022 Games to go with an always-talented roster, Team USA may not want to wait much longer to formally begin preparations.
- As for other possible upcoming international ventures, Arizona Coyotes President and CEO Xavier Gutierrez has some thoughts. Speaking with AZ Central’s Jose Romero about the NHL’s upcoming outdoor games – and how the ’Yotes have never been invited to play in one – Gutierrez shared his hopes for Arizona to take part in a different historic game. He believes that the next step for the NHL in their global initiatives is to hold a game in Mexico City. Although Mexico is not a traditional hockey country, Gutierrez sees “incredible opportunity” for growth in Latin America. The NHL has played games in Asia before with this same idea of spreading the game in mind and Gutierrez feels that Mexico should be next up. He notes that the NFL, MLB, and NBA have all ventured into Mexico before, leaving the NHL as the only major North American league yet to do so. The league has not hesitated to hold both preseason and regular season games abroad in recent years and games in Mexico City, given a proper venue is available, may not be as costly or logistically challenging as games in Eastern Europe and Asia have been. Should the league consider Gutierrez’ idea, the Mexico native’s club does seem like the ideal fit. Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo is the NHL’s first Latino majority owner and Gutierrez it’s first Latino president. The ’Yotes, as well as the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, or Dallas Stars, all play in areas with significant Latin populations and there are surely fans of some of these team in Mexico as well. A match-up between Arizona and any of those teams would be a great introduction for the NHL south of the border.