NHL announces plans to send players back to the Olympics in 2026 and 2030 for first time since 2014

TORONTO (AP) — 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 Games in 2026 in Milan and in 2030 under an agreement announced Friday by the NHL, the NHL Players’ Association, International Ice Hockey Federation and the IOC.

NHL players have not been at the Olympics since 2014 in Sochi.

“We know how important international competition is to our players,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.

“We made it,” IIHF president Luc Tardif added. “That’s two years work and more intense the last six months.”

Milan, barring another unforeseen circumstance like the pandemic that caused players to miss Beijing in 2022, will be the first Olympic opportunity for a generation of stars, led by Canadians Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar and Americans Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel and Adam Fox. It could allow McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Connor Bedard to be on the same team in a tournament with a gold medal at stake.

“Extremely badly want to play in the Olympics,” McDavid said Thursday. “I’ve been hopeful about that. I think everybody knows where I stand. … All these guys that haven’t had a chance to represent their country at a best on best, I think it’s something that we’re all hungry to do.”

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, the time difference between South Korea and North America were cited as factors in the NHL passing on Pyeongchang in 2018.

Pandemic-related scheduling issues scuttled plans to send players to Beijing. 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 is also expected to include a four-nation tournament involving the U.S., Canada, Sweden and Finland next year.

Hockey has not had a “best vs. best” international competition since the World Cup in 2016, when McDavid, MacKinnon, Matthews and Eichel played on the age 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.

Finally, the Olympics are back on the schedule for the world’s top players.

“For years, the players have embraced the opportunity to compete for Olympic gold,” NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh said. “We are excited that today’s announcement makes it a certainty for our members in the 2026 and 2030 Olympic Winter Games.”

McDavid, a three-time NHL MVP and widely considered the best hockey player in the world, has been one of the most vocal players pushing for an Olympic return.

“I feel like it’s super important for hockey to go back,” McDavid said. “Talking about growing the game, doing all these things well, you got to have the best on best, play on the biggest stage in sport, and that’s the Olympics.”

The mini international tournament set to take place a year from now — one that leaves out Germany’s Leon Draisaitl, Czechia’s David Pastrnak, Switzerland’s Roman Josi and every Russian player — could serve as a bit of an Olympic preview for the U.S., Canada, Sweden and Finland.

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 including 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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