The Waiting Game

With An Eye On Safety, NHL Strikes A Deal To Send Players To The Olympics

Hurry up and wait has long been a fact of life in the military but it's typically not part of an NHL player's daily routine.

That's about to change now that the NHL and its Players' Association have reached an agreement with the International Ice Hockey Federation that will let the best players in the world compete for their countries at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing.

That is, as long their safety can be assured.

The agreement includes an escape clause that allows for the possibility to withdraw from the tournament if a spike in Covid-19 conditions makes it impractical and unsafe for NHL players to participate. The league can also pull out if the early stages of the 2021-22 NHL season are affected by game cancellations.

Still, the announcement on Sept. 3 was welcome news for a hockey community that has eagerly awaited word that the best players in the world will be competing in the Olympics for the first time since 2014. It will also mark the first international tournament featuring NHL players since the World Cup of Hockey 2016 in Toronto.

Perhaps nobody has played the waiting game longer than John Vanbiesbrouck, USA Hockey's assistant executive director of  hockey operations, who has been working behind the scenes with a staff of NHL general managers to select an experienced coaching staff and compile a long list of players under consideration. The initial player list is due on Oct. 15, with the final roster of 23 players slotted to be released in January.  

At the same time, Vanbiesbrouck has been compiling a second list of college players and Americans playing in various European pro leagues, similar to the 2018 Olympics, just in case the NHL pulls the plug.

"We've been asked to put together two different groups and we're probably going to have to stick with that all the way until the end just to make sure," Vanbiesbrouck said. 

"We're going to have to do it in such a way where they'll know it's a reserve team. We're just going to have to be upfront about it."

There is growing optimism that won't be necessary as the NHL continues to take the necessary steps to keep players safe as they prepare to play a full season in front of fans starting on Oct. 6. According to published reports, 90 to 95 percent of players are already fully vaccinated, which will most likely be a requirement for players to compete in Beijing. 

In the meantime, the work continues behind the scenes as Vanbiesbrouck has met with team general manager Stan Bowman, assistant GM Bill Guerin and head coach Mike Sullivan to go over every detail, from putting together an experienced coaching staff to creating a system of how they want the team to play once the puck is dropped. With no time for an orientation camp, the team is planning to hold a number of Zoom calls to try to get everyone on the same page.

"Everything's working well. Mike Sullivan has a really great approach and Stan and Bill do too," Vanbiesbrouck said. "We're happy with our preparation. It's just all the details that go with it that have to fall into place. But these guys are pros and they know how to deal with it and roll with the punches."

That's been the name of the game as the NHL has worked hard to resolve its differences with the International Olympic Committee over various issues including insurance costs, accommodations for players and their families and marketing and media rights. That led to NHL players not competing in PyeongChang, South Korea, in 2018. 

But last year, when the NHL and the NHLPA extended the collective bargaining agreement through the 2025-26 season, they agreed to go to the Olympics if they could reach an agreement with the IIHF.

"We've been cautiously optimistic that we really want the best on best tournament for the Olympics and I think that's what represents the Olympics the best," said Vanbiesbrouck, who was a member of the 1998 U.S. Olympic Team.

Regardless of who wears the red, white and blue in Beijing, Vanbiesbrouck is confident that the deep U.S. talent pool will deliver once the puck drops on Feb. 4.

"Our main focus is on the NHL players and the possibilities there of how we can put together our strongest team. Our compete factor and our coaching is really at a high level. We plan on playing a fast and hard style, which is hard to play against," Vanbiesbrouck said.

"At all levels, whether it's our men's teams, women's teams and our sled teams, we're trying to personify the pride and humility while at the same time representing our country with great honor and respect." 

Issue: 
2021-10

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