TORONTO — NHL players are returning to the Olympics for the first time in more than a decade.
The world’s top hockey league will allow its players to participate in the Winter Games in 2026 in Milan and in 2030 under an agreement announced Friday by the NHL, NHL Players’ Association, International Ice Hockey Federation and the IOC.
NHL players have not been at the Olympics since 2014 in Sochi.
“There is a recognition of how important this is to the players,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said at a news conference during All-Star Weekend. “Everybody felt on our ownership side that it was the right thing to do. … This really came down to doing something because the players really wanted it.”
IIHF president Luc Tardif smiled and said, “We made it” after two years of work that picked up over the past six months.
“With all the uncertainty that’s been around it in years prior and just how great of an experience that it is, I think it’s just awesome news and I’m sure a lot of players are really happy,” Canada and Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby said. “And especially to commit to two different Olympics, I think that’ll be great.”
Milan, barring another unforeseen circumstance like the pandemic that caused players to miss Beijing in 2022, will be the first Olympics for a generation of stars led by Canadians Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar and Americans Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel and Adam Fox. The tantalizing rosters could see the likes of McDavid, Crosby and Connor Bedard on the same team battling for gold.
“The opportunity to do that is a dream come true,” McDavid said. “I’ve been vocal about this. I feel like it’s important for hockey as we continue to try to grow our game internationally and at home. I think it’s a great thing.”
The NHL paused its season for the Olympics five times from 1998 through 2014, and most of the players now in the league grew up expecting to play on that stage. Disagreements over who would pay for insurance and travel costs, along with the time difference between South Korea and North America, were cited as factors in the NHL passing on Pyeongchang in 2018.
Bettman said in 2026 and ’30, team owners will not be paying “big ticket” costs like travel and insurance. That is up to the IIHF and respective organizing committees. Tardif said national federations and Olympic committees will contribute.
Pandemic-related scheduling issues scuttled plans to send players to Beijing two years ago. As recently as this past fall, U.S. defenseman Charlie McAvoy said he was still upset about not being able to play in the 2022 Olympics.
“That one took a while to get over,” McAvoy said. “You’re picking sizes for your Ralph Lauren outfit to walk around in the opening ceremonies. That stuff got real. It got really real. And you internalize it. It works as motivation. You want to be a part of that, and then you just lose it in a matter of seconds.”
The upcoming international calendar also will include the “4 Nations Face-Off” involving the U.S., Canada, Sweden and Finland next year. It will take place in four cities, one in each country, with a total of seven games from Feb. 12-20, 2025.
“This marks a new era for international hockey,” NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh said. “We view this event as a building block to a larger World Cup.”
Bettman reiterated that the NHL would like to get on a cycle of having an international “best-on-best” tournament every two years.
Hockey has not one of those since the World Cup in 2016, when McDavid, MacKinnon, Matthews and Eichel played on the 23-and-under Team North America, not Canada or the U.S. There hasn’t been a World Cup since, with Russia’s war in Ukraine contributing to not being able to pull something together that would have been played this month.
Tardif said an IIHF council meeting is scheduled for next week to make a decision on Russian and Belarusian participation in the 2025 world championship.
Asked Friday night about the decision, Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning asked if Russia was going to be a part of it.
“I want to go — I think everybody wants to go, and it definitely means a lot for the country,” Kucherov said. “Hopefully, my fingers crossed, that we’re going to be in the Olympics — Team Russia is going to be in the Olympics. And it’s going to be a real best versus best because when Team Russia is not out there, it’s not the same.”
Tardif, a native of France, also said the 2030 Olympics would be held in his home country, with hockey among the sports being played in Nice. The IOC is expected to make a host site announcement later this year and the French Alps are considered the favorite.
No matter where it happens, the Olympics are back on the schedule for the world’s top players.
“Players would constantly say to us, ‘We want to play in the Olympics, we want to be in the Olympics, we want to be part of the Olympics,’” Walsh said. “Today’s announcement makes that a reality.”
It remains to be seen if Russia will be allowed to participate in 2026. The IOC is allowing individual athletes from the country to compete under a neutral flag but banned Russians from team competitions at the 2024 Games in Paris.
The Russians — playing as the Olympic Athletes from Russia — took home Olympic gold in 2018 with a stacked roster that included former Detroit Red Wings winger Pavel Datsyuk and current Minnesota Wild All-Star Kirill Kaprizov. Finland is now the defending Olympic champion after winning in Beijing.
“It’s always been my dream and my goal to someday play in Olympics,” Finland’s Sebastian Aho said. “I grew up playing with them on the junior national team, so it would be very special to try a tournament with those guys and play hockey when it’s best on best.”
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