NHLers discuss ‘uneasy’ Olympic decision as COVID-19 cases rise

Jeff Marek joins Sportsnet Central to discuss the state of the NHL and whether players are still planning on playing in the Olympics in February, following the announcement of new quarantine protocols and recent COVID outbreaks around the league.

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the NHL and more and more games are postponed, questions over whether players should participate in February’s Beijing Olympics are getting louder and louder.

On Friday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league would honour a promise made in the last round of CBA negotiations and let the players play, but news over the weekend that anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 in China could be forced to quarantine for up to 3-5 weeks has some players wondering if it’s worth the risk.

“I think we all hope to go but clearly I think things are a little bit more uneasy than they were,” Maple Leafs captain John Tavares said Monday. “There’s going to be some hurdles and some challenges currently (where) things stand and the way they present themselves. But yeah, (I’m) probably a little more uneasy, at least speaking for myself, than I was a number of weeks ago or a few months ago.”

His teammate Auston Matthews, who has already been named to the United States team, echoed those concerns.

“I’d love to go and I’d love to compete, but there’s definitely a lot of things that I think a lot of us would like to see worked out and just some questions we’d like to see answered,” Matthews said, according to David Alter of The Hockey News.

The Olympic men’s hockey tournament runs from Feb. 9-20 leaving only 10 weeks from the gold medal game until the end of the NHL season in April. That means players could possibly miss up to more than half of their team’s remaining games during the push to the playoffs if they test positive for COVID-19 and have to quarantine in China.

Earlier Monday, the Calgary Flames became the third team to postpone games this season due to an outbreak on the roster while Hurricanes star Sebastian Aho and Devils captain Nico Hischier — two stars in line to represent their home countries at the Games — have entered protocols in recent days.

Blackhawks goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who was Canada’s third-string goaltender at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, said while he enjoyed his past Olympic experience he would need more information before committing to play this time around.

“It would obviously be a huge honour to be selected and have a chance to go (to the Olympics). I’ve been once and it was such a great experience,” he said, according to Charlie Roumeliotis of NBCS Chicago. “Now, I think it’ll be good to have some clarity on the COVID protocols over there. If you go to the tournament and stay between four walls for 4-5 weeks by yourself over there, not come back to your team, not play for a month or so and not see your family, too, I think it’s something you have to take into consideration.”

Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek reported Saturday that players will have a chance to ask questions about the Olympics and the rules in place on conference calls this week. A handbook detailing the exact COVID protocols at the Games is expected to be released this week, as well.

Golden Knights defenceman Alex Pietrangelo — already named to the Canadian team — is one of the players waiting for more answers before committing to play.

“There’s a lot of things, especially guys with families, that we’re taking a look at,” he said. “I’m not going to make a decision until we get all the answers, because I think those are hard to come by right now.”

The NHL has until Jan. 10 to pull out of the tournament without a financial penalty but the decision not to play can be made after that date, deputy commissioner Bill Daly confirmed last week.

“You talk about a five-week quarantine, if you’ve already been over there for a few weeks, that’s a really long time,” Tavares said, according to Alter. “That’s a long time. That’s a really long time.”

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