NHL players are returning to the Olympics after missing the 2018 games in Pyeongchang. In 2017, the NHL made the decision not to allow its players to participate in the games, and there were two reasons for this decision. First, a series of disputes between the league and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) over the costs incurred by NHL athletes and who would cover them. The IOC had paid for the travel, insurance, accommodations, and other costs for NHL players but refused to continue to do so for 2018.  Second, participation in the Olympics occurs during the NHL season, in past years, the NHL took a three-week break in its season to accommodate the athletes choosing to compete for their countries. At the time, the decision to pull out of the Olympics upset some NHL players. The first step in allowing NHL players to compete was laid out in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).
The CBA which went into effect on July 10, 2020, approved a labor agreement into 2026 and a return to the Winter Olympics in 2022 and 2026. The CBA solved the issue on the players participation dilemma of taking a three week break to accommodating the athletes participating that plagued the leagues decision. Section 16.5(a) states “League scheduled off-days or breaks (e.g., All-Star break, Holidays, Olympics) shall count as a day off for purposes of this subsection (a).” Furthermore, section 16.15 All Star Game states, “There shall be no All-Star Game in any League Year in which the NHL and NHLPA agree to participate in an international tournament or other event, including but not limited to the Winter Olympics.” Both of these amendments to the agreement clear up the participation issue which prevented players from going to the 2018 Olympics. These amendments to the agreement created real solutions to the problems that needed to be solved.
The remaining issue was an agreement between the NHL, NHL Players' Association (NHLP), IOC and International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). After months of negotiations the four organizations came to agreement, allowing for NHL player to compete at Beijing 2022. The IOC and IIHF agreed to pay for the travel costs, and insurance for the NHL players and their guests, if spectators are permitted. However, Covid - 19 created a new issue; what if a player caught Covid during the games? While the NHL and NHLPS found specific Covid insurance, it was costly and the IOC and IIHL declined to pay for it. Each player would have the opportunity to purchase the Covid insurance if they chose to, but it is not required. In addition to these terms, the IOC is requiring all players who participate in the Olympics to have the Covid vaccine, exemptions will be considered on a player basis.
While the main problems that prevented players from competing in 2018 have been solved this is not a done deal. All four sides agreed to an opt-out clause that allows the NHL and NHLP to pull out of the Olympics if Covid cases increase or poses a threat to players. This clause is a safety net for the NHL if games are cancelled due to Covid and the league needs to use the break to make up games. The opt out clause is something that should be monitored through the season. Right now, the tentative break schedule is as follows; the break will take place from February 3rd through the 22nd. The All – Star game will be played between February 4th to the 5th then the Olympians will depart on February 6th.
If all goes according to plan, players will get their wishes of competing for their home countries in the Olympics again. And hockey fans all over the world will have the opportunity to see their favorite players compete for the gold, silver, and bronze.
Jessica Shaw is the Secretary of the New York Law School Sports Law Society. She can be reached on Twitter @JessicaShaw22.
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