After several years of qualifying tournaments dating all the way back to November 2019 and delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the final three entries into the 2022 Winter Olympics Men’s Hockey Tournament are now set with less than six months to spare. The closing tournaments took place over this past week and came to a close today with Slovakia advancing past Belarus, Austria, and Poland, Latvia overcoming France, Hungary, and Italy, and Denmark upsetting host Norway to win the group that also included Slovenia and South Korea. The results are the following groups for the 2022 Games, with the three qualifying teams joining the IIHF’s top eight ranked nations and host China (with IIHF ranks):
Group A: (1) Canada, (6) United States, (7) Germany, (32) China
Group B: (2) Russia, (5) Czech Republic, (8) Switzerland, (12) Denmark
Group C: (3) Finland, (4) Sweden, (9) Slovakia, (10) Latvia
The inclusion of Slovakia, the top non-autobid nation in the IIHF, Latvia, and Denmark is a strong result for the competitive balance of the Olympic field, which was especially needed this time around to compensate for the drag of China’s participation. It also could allow for a pair of veteran NHLers who are currently unsigned to potentially ride off into the sunset with a final performance for their country. Zdeno Chara will be expected to lead a Slovakian entry that will have a mix of experienced veterans and promising youngsters, while Frans Nielsen will likely be the leader of the Danish squad, which will have more prime participants like Nikolaj Ehlers and Oliver Bjorkstrand. Latvia will bring a young roster built from the net out with Elvis Merzlikins. Lost by the final qualifying results are Olympic appearances from NHL stars like Anze Kopitar (Slovenia) and Mats Zuccarello (Norway) or young players leading their teams such as Alexandre Texier (France) and Marco Rossi (Austria). However, this for the best with the three teams who advanced clearly appearing to be the best choice on paper.
Of course, this all assumes that the NHL permits participation in these Olympic Games. While the league released a regular season schedule that allows for an Olympic break and the IIHF has reportedly met all demands of the league and the players’ association, there still has not been an official announcement. At this point, it is expected that NHL players will participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics, but concerns remain surrounding COVID-19 and China that could reverse course. The tournament field will not change regardless of whether the NHL sends players or not, but it will certainly impact how the Olympics are viewed this winter.