The concept of “can’t” hasn’t really applied to the NHL during the COVID-19 pandemic. When faced with adversity, it has shown undeniable and admirable ingenuity.
This is a league that halted its 2019-20 season, restarted it in two Canadian “bubble” cities and rewrote its postseason rules to allow 24 teams to participate while temporarily adding an entirely new round to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
This is a league that, as an encore, realigned its 31 teams into four new divisions while scrapping conference play in 2020-21. It reduced its regular season to 56 games, changed its schedule to intradivisional play and once again rewrote the rules for its postseason format on a temporary basis.
The NHL doesn’t hesitate to shatter traditions to get things done.
Unless that thing is allowing its players to participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing while also finding a way to make up postponed games in the 2021-22 regular-season.
I agree with Brad Marchand: It’s beyond frustrating to watch a league that just made stuff up on the fly for two seasons refuse to find solutions in order keep a (CBA-negotiated) Olympic promise to its players.
“The NHL and NHLPA can change the rules of the CBA to add a taxi squad so that they don’t miss any games and don’t lose any money — which has already been agreed upon that the players will pay back in escrow until the owners are made whole from what they have lost during this pandemic, regardless of how many games are missed,” Marchand, Boston Bruins star and expected Canadian Olympian, wrote on Twitter this week.
“Yet they can’t do a taxi squad during the Olympics so they can honor the agreement they made so the NHL players can go [to Beijing],” wrote Marchand. “Please tell me that’s not bulls—.”
The focus here has been on “taxi squad,” but I think that misses his larger point: That the NHL and NHLPA have made several in-season changes to the CBA in a time of pandemic crisis to allow teams to ice competitive teams this season. That includes emergency goalie recalls and emergency player recalls, as long as that player makes under $1 million. That includes the return of taxi squads of reserve players, through at least the NHL All-Star break. Not to mention changes to testing protocols announced this week.
Marchand’s “yet they can’t do a taxi squads during the Olympics” is shorthand for “yet they couldn’t bend the supplemental roster rules so players could go to Beijing while their teams make up postponed games while they’re gone?”
Of course they couldn’t. Because they didn’t have to. Because they wouldn’t want to.
But I agree with Marchand: They should have.
There’s no question that there has been a material change in the NHL schedule, which was the mechanism through which the NHL could opt out of the 2022 Olympics. More than 80 games have been postponed due to COVID-19 or COVID-19-related reasons — like the NHL not wanting to see certain Canadian teams issue copious amounts of refunds due to provincial attendance restrictions, and postponing those games until later in the season.
The NHL needs the Olympic break to make up some of those games. Extending the season is likely a non-starter due to television obligations and the desire to have some semblance of a normal offseason. Playing games during the break was the only logical way to complete the 82-game season that the owners want.
But as Marchand pondered: Why is Olympic participation mutually exclusive from making up these games?
Well, for one, there’s an agreement between the IOC and the NHL that if the league doesn’t participate in the Games, none of its players can “cross the line” and opt in. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Athletic in 2017 that “the IIHF has given the NHL assurances that it won’t allow any NHL players under contract to participate in the Olympic tournament” if the NHL decides not to participate. So if players wanted to participate in the Olympics while the NHL continues on, it would need the NHL’s blessing.
That’s an easy fix. That’s a policy change. The IOC would be happy to have the pros, given how the level of play in 2018 was such a bust.
Another argument I’ve heard is that the NHL wouldn’t want to compete with the Olympic tournament. It’s fair to note that a former U.S. rightsholder (NBC) has the Beijing Games and would be airing games with NHL stars against hockey games on the league’s current partners’ airwaves. But if this is an argument about a disparity of quality … to quote Billie Eilish, “duh.” Anyone who watches the Olympics and is repelled that the NHL doesn’t measure up probably isn’t watching the NHL anyway.
One of the counterarguments to Marchand has been that NHL fans shouldn’t have to pay to watch games without star players. I was unaware of this caveat to the NHL refund policy, wherein fans can seek compensation if, say, the Edmonton Oilers come to town but Connor McDavid doesn’t play.
Probably because it doesn’t exist.
Look, there’s obviously a difference between an injured player missing a game and a player missing a game because he opted to participate in an international tournament. I would be disappointed to spend $400 to take my family to a game knowing that third-liners and third-pairing defensemen are playing where star players should be playing.
Under normal circumstances, this would be quite a bummer. Except it has been, like, every NHL game for the past three weeks.
We’ve seen teams ice lineups without several key players during the past month. The ticket prices didn’t go down. The games still counted. The idea that a couple of weeks’ worth of NHL games in February couldn’t be played because star players wouldn’t be there would seem to argue that none of these skeleton crew games should have been mounted in December or should be played in January.
And yet …
Those arguments are ultimately beside the point. The NHL made this decision for one reason, which is because the NHLPA empowered them to do so.
Marchand didn’t just reference the owners in his statement. In a refreshing change from what usually happens in remarks like these, he brought up the NHLPA’s role in all of this, too.
There’s a strong belief behind the scenes that NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr didn’t want the players to go to Beijing. I’ve heard one reason is the uncertainty around the protocols: Not knowing if, how or when they could get players out of the country if they test positive with symptoms; not knowing where they’d quarantine in relation to Beijing; and not knowing the particulars of the medical board that would clear them to leave.
I asked Fehr about the notion that he didn’t want the players going to Beijing. He declined to disclose what he has communicated to players.
But beyond that, I’ve spoken to players and agents who are frustrated with the NHLPA over the Olympic opt-out.
Remember: Olympic participation was negotiated into the last collective bargaining agreement for 2022 and 2026. Negotiations involve one side trading off something to gain something else. There were no “give backs” from the NHL if they didn’t keep their end of that bargain in allowing the players to play in Beijing; hence, there was no motivation to go above and beyond to make sure that it happened. The NHLPA didn’t protect the downside. Instead, it agreed to the “material change in the schedule” provision that always gave the NHL an out on participation, as many of the players feared.
Getting the NHLPA to agree on anything is essentially like herding cats. Veterans and rookies aren’t on the same page. Different nationalities differ on views of labor. Adding another layer to this debate: The players who would go to Beijing vs. the silent majority of non-Olympic players, who just saw their two-and-a-half-week vacation evaporate.
If NHL players still went to the Olympics in the above scenario, the non-Olympians would have to report back to work and try to win games on shorthanded teams. While, again, scuttling that vacation to Maui.
Olympic participation while the NHL plays on wouldn’t be ideal. Some teams would be impacted much more than others. My goodness, could you imagine the Tampa Bay Lightning during the Olympic Break, sans Olympic players? They might as well relocate to their AHL home in Syracuse, New York, for a few weeks, because that’s from where the majority of their roster would be sourced.
But that’s assuming all the NHL players would go to the Olympics if given the choice. And it’s that choice that Marchand is arguing has been taken from them.
“For all of you who want to pipe back about forfeiting pay while gone, yah not a problem,” he wrote. “Let the players make their choice.”
Obviously, there’s a ton that would need to be worked out beyond forfeiture of pay, like player travel costs and insurance coverage and the like.
But if those details are ironed out, shouldn’t the players have the choice to go?
“Absolutely,” an NHL veteran said. “The players should get the option to go, if they want to risk going with these possibilities — the forfeiture of pay, the potential of getting stuck there with COVID restrictions.”
Not every player would give up his pay to go to the Olympics. Not every player wanted to go to Beijing and run the risk of getting stuck there with a positive COVID-19 test and symptoms. We already saw Robin Lehner opt out and Erik Karlsson indicate he’d follow. The NHL’s decision bailed out countless players from very uncomfortable conversations with their member nations about not wanting to go to the Olympics.
But under this “player’s choice” scenario, the decision to go to Beijing would be just as difficult in some cases. Marchand is gung-ho about leaving for Team Canada, and why not? The Bruins have an 87.7% chance of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs, per Money Puck, and he might have an even higher probability than that of winning a gold medal.
How are players on St. Louis or Winnipeg feeling about jumping ship for three weeks in the middle of a playoff race? There’s pressure to represent one’s nation, and then there’s pressure to stick with the guys in your own locker room when they need you.
I imagine if players had the choice, it would come down to the individual teams. I’ve been thinking a lot about Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis after Marchand’s statement, and how he supported Alex Ovechkin leaving midseason to play in Pyeongchang if the players had been given the option.
“He has given a lot to our team and he doesn’t ask for much in return, and whatever he likes to do in this one, I’ll support him,” Leonsis said back then. “His mother was an Olympian. It’s a part of the tradition in the family and it is meaningful to him. He needs to know, and he does know, that in this one instance I’ll have his back.”
I imagine Ovechkin has a different view on leaving a team midseason than many North American-born players do. It’s a practice that’s much more prevalent globally in sports than in the U.S. and Canada.
Like in soccer. For a recent example, the Africa Cup of Nations was moved to January and February 2022 due to COVID-19. Champions League top scorer Sebastien Haller of Ajax said, “I hate having to choose between my country and my club.” But he made the choice to play for Ivory Coast. Liverpool expects to lose Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane for around eight matches, too.
Like in cricket and field hockey. And especially like in rugby: The Six Nations Rugby Championship starts in February, and top players take a sabbatical from their club teams, whose seasons continue on in many cases. Same issues with the Autumn Internationals. It’s commonplace in some sports. But in hockey, there was no player option for its most prestigious international tournament.
Marchand’s teammate Taylor Hall lamented not having that choice in 2018, when he might have had his best shot to play for Team Canada. He said that representing one’s country on that stage “ignites a fire” in athletes and that he was disappointed not to see the NHL back in the Olympic tournament.
“Who knows if the league really wanted us to go in the first place?” asked Hall.
Well, of course it didn’t, Taylor. That’s canonical at this point. The owners have been against sending players for several Olympiads, seeing no profitable reason to do so. The NHL didn’t get a better deal out of the IOC for Beijing, punting on the revenue and rights requests that it had made since Sochi.
By holding back the players from the Olympics, the league can make up postponed regular-season games with star players. But it also increased its appetite for another World Cup of Hockey, whose last edition was in 2016.
McDavid called for one. “We do need to find a way to get a best-on-best tournament done at some point here. We can’t go six, seven, eight years without playing best-on-best,” he said. Hall said he wanted to see the event become “just as important as the Olympics in people’s minds.”
But the giant paperweight handed to the World Cup winner is not a gold medal. The goal that an 18-year-old Hall watched Sidney Crosby score for Canada in 2010 wasn’t in a prefabricated NHL-only tournament, but on the grandest stage imaginable.
“The Olympics are the Olympics,” Lightning star Steven Stamkos said recently, “and there’s really nothing that can compare to that experience.”
Even with COVID-19 having smashed apart the schedule, there were still ways for NHL players to have that experience. It’s just that the NHL was not motivated to explore those options for an event it didn’t want to participate in, having a clear path to opt out of that participation due to postponements.
While I typically side with the owners on Olympic issues — especially given the craven attitude of the IOC toward sharing in the revenue spoils — I have to sympathize with Marchand here.
There was a way for the NHL, but not the will. The league is exploring all options to stage regular-season games with makeshift rosters but wouldn’t do the same in February to facilitate NHL players’ participation in the Olympics. I feel that frustration from Marchand and others. We haven’t seen a lot of “can’t” from the NHL during this pandemic. Until now.
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: Connor Bedard
The expected first overall pick in 2023 became the youngest player to score four goals in a world junior championship game, with a quartet against Austria. It’s the kind of performance that underscores the “generational talent” vibe many have about the 16-year-old. Of course, that performance is now a mere footnote because …
Loser: Hockey tournaments, to COVID-19
My heart breaks for the players in the men’s under-20 world junior hockey tournament, who also missed the under-18 tournament when it was canceled. Now “the sportive integrity of the event has been compromised” due to COVID-19 and the omicron variant, and the men’s world junior tournament was scuttled.
My heart breaks for the players in the under-20 women’s world junior tournament too, who saw their tournament canceled for a second straight season. On top of that, they had to hear the IIHF explain how their “commitment to women’s hockey is long-standing, legitimate and substantial” while at the same time saying that it attempted to stage the men’s tournament because of the revenue it generates. I’ve covered women’s sports for over 20 years. I’ve covered plenty of organizations that stand atop their “what we’ve done for female athletes” platform, while making a financial case as for why they couldn’t offer baseline equity in comparison to men’s sports. As Sarah Nurse tweeted: “Nope, this isn’t it.”
Winner: Alex Ovechkin
The Washington Capitals star has the top-selling player jersey in 2021, according to Fanatics. Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury, Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid rounded out the top five. Pretty impressive, considering Ovechkin is in his 17th season and the Capitals have been wearing the same jerseys since 2007.
Loser: All other ugly sweaters
The stockings from our ugly sweater jerseys past were hung on the mantle with care 🎄 pic.twitter.com/MNSH04bQtl
— Orlando Solar Bears (@OrlandoHockey) December 16, 2021
The Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL may have created the ultimate holiday jersey, as their ugly sweater this season referenced previous ugly sweaters on its stockings. So meta it puts “The Matrix Resurrections” to shame.
Winner: Promising interviews
Vancouver Canucks president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford has reiterated his desire to hire a diverse collection of front-office staffers. It’s been previously reported that women’s hockey luminaries such as Jennifer Botterill, Jayna Hefford and Angela Ruggiero are under consideration for hockey operations roles.
“My feeling is if you can build a front office with people that grew up playing hockey or in the game, not even necessarily playing but as part of the game, then you get different voices, different opinions,” Rutherford told Sportsnet. “You have a better chance of getting different ideas. That’s really where I’m coming from here as to having people from different [backgrounds] coming through the system.”
Meanwhile, Renaud Lavoie reports that former Team Canada women’s coach Danièle Sauvageau and agent Emilie Castonguay will be among the people that Jeff Gorton interviews for the Montreal Canadiens‘ GM opening. Please recall Gorton knows a bit about Castonguay, as she is Alexis Lafreniere‘s agent. You love to see all of it.
Loser: Reminder of a disappointing hire
With the NHL out of the Olympics, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of hockey operations John Vanbiesbrouck is the new general manager for Team USA. Which means a fresh round of scrutiny over Vanbiesbrouck having resigned as GM and coach of a junior hockey team in 2003 after using a racial slur to describe defenseman Trevor Daley. It remains utterly baffling that this person has held such front-facing position in an organization that loves to wave the “hockey is for everyone!” banner. And now he’s running the Olympic team.
Winner: ‘That guy’
Corey Schueneman! Rafael Harvey-Pinard! Jayden Halbgewachs! As teams struggled to fill out their rosters due to players lost to the COVID-19 protocols, a number of players have been forced into unexpected NHL duty. Time will tell if they end up enduring or as trivia questions, but “Hidden MVPs of the pandemic” is going to make for a great nostalgia column in five years.
The NHL players got a break from the CDC this week, as the isolation period for fully vaccinated players dropped from 10 days to five days. Well, theoretically. “While the changes apply on a League-wide basis, all personnel will still have to comply with the applicable health and safety regulations in their jurisdictions, including the Federal and Provincial COVID health and safety mandates in Canada, which may be more restrictive than the Protocol,” the league wrote.
In other words, it’s the same issue the NHL faces when it comes to reducing testing of vaccinated asymptomatic players, for example: Canada and the border will ultimately drive these decisions.
Winner: Tuukka Rask
The Boston Bruins have had a free-agent goaltender who has played his entire NHL career with them practicing with their team. They’ve talked openly about how there have been contract talks with him and that he’d go to AHL Providence in January for conditioning “if” he re-signs with the team. So to paraphrase John Wick: “Yeah, I’m thinking he’s back.”
Rask is 34 and had surgery for a torn labrum in his hip in July and has been rehabbing since. It looked like the Bruins had turned the page to Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark as the goaltenders moving forward. Wonder what it’s been like to play in that shadow this season.
Loser: League save percentages
Pretty remarkable what a week off and piecemeal lineups will do for scoring. You could have told me the Arizona Coyotes and San Jose Sharks combined for 15 goals in a month and I would have thought there was a better chance of that happening than in a single game.
From your friends at ESPN
Ranking the previous 12 Winter Classic games based on everything from venue to hype to style.