NHL players returning to Olympics

Los Angeles (AFP) –


National Hockey League stars will take part in next year's Winter Olympics in Beijing under an agreement announced by the league on Friday.

The NHL said in a statement the league and the NHL Players Association had brokered a deal with the International Ice Hockey Federation to confirm a break in the 2021-2022 NHL regular season to allow for the Olympics.

NHL players were not released for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The Beijing Games will mark the first international tournament featuring the world's best players since the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in Toronto.

"We understand how passionately NHL players feel about representing and competing for their countries," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said.

"We are very pleased that we were able to conclude arrangements that will allow them to resume best-on-best competition on the Olympic stage."

The deal leaves wiggle room for players to withdraw from Beijing if Covid-19 conditions in China are deemed to be too risky or impractical for players to participate.

"Representing their country in the Olympics is important to the players, even in these uncertain times," NHLPA general counsel Don Zavelo said.

"The players look forward to pulling on their nation's hockey sweater at the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing as they compete for the gold medal."

Under the agreement, the NHL regular season will take a break from February 3-22.

IIHF president Rene Fasel said in a statement the agreement would allow for the return of "best-on-best ice hockey to the Olympics."

"We had many constructive discussions, and a lot of hard work was put into making this happen within the time we set for ourselves, and I want to thank all parties involved for their support and commitment," he said.

Friday's decision ends a long-running saga over NHL players and the Olympics.

NHL players featured regularly at the Olympics between 1998 and 2014 but that run ended with the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, with the league maintaining that the disruption to the schedule was too severe.

However the door to a possible deal was left ajar last year when the NHL and NHLPA extended their collective bargaining agreement through the 2025-2026 season.

Under that deal, the Olympics were put in play provided agreement could be reached with the IIHF.

Canada won the gold medal at the last Winter Olympics with NHL players, beating Sweden 3-0 in the final in Sochi.

A team from Russia won the gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics when NHL players were not released.