NHL players will not attend the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, the league announced on Wednesday.
The league said the decision was made due to the disruption in the regular-season schedule as a result of the rising number of COVID-19 cases throughout the NHL.
"Given the profound disruption to the NHL's regular-season schedule caused by recent COVID-related events — 50 games already have been postponed through Dec. 23 — Olympic participation is no longer feasible," commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.
The Olympic break was to run from Feb. 6 to 22, but the league will now endeavour to shoehorn as many of its postponed games as possible into that stretch.
The NHL, which moved up the start of its holiday break this week from Friday to Wednesday in response to the coronavirus-related postponements, has rescheduled just two of the 50 contests affected to date.
The league currently has more than 15 per cent of its players in virus protocol, which means they are sidelined from playing due to testing positive or having close contact with a positive case.
Players expected to return for 2026 Games
Donald Fehr, executive director of National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA), agreed a full NHL schedule is important to maintain and that he expects players to be able to attend the next Olympics.
"Certainly, the players and hockey fans are quite disappointed," Fehr said in a statement. "But playing a full 82-game season this year, something the pandemic has prevented us from doing since the 2018-19 season, is very important.
"We expect that NHL players will return to the Olympics in 2026."
WATCH l What's next for Olympic hockey in NHL's absence?:
The Canadian Olympic Committee said in a statement that it understood the NHL's decision.
"There is an extraordinarily deep talent pool in Canadian hockey. We're excited to rally behind the men's team as it steps onto the ice for its first game on Feb. 10, attempting to win its fourth consecutive medal," said CEO and secretary general David Shoemaker.
"And, together with fans from across the country, we will be cheering for Canada's incredible women's team as it competes for its seventh consecutive Olympic medal and fifth gold."
International officials and national federations must now pivot to Plan B for a second consecutive Olympic men's hockey tournament without NHL players.
A team of Canadian non-NHLers beat the Czech Republic for bronze four years ago, after losing to Germany in the semifinals.
WATCH | What Canada's roster might look like now:
New GM, coach for Team Canada
Hockey Canada is expected to draw from the executives, coaches and players who took part in an international tournament in Moscow this month.
St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong and Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper will no longer serve in those roles for Team Canada as was planned had NHL players gone to Beijing.
Instead, former NHLer and 2006 Olympian Shane Doan takes over as Team Canada's GM while longtime Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien steps in behind the bench.
USA Hockey said it will soon announce new management and coaching staff.
Hockey Canada said in a statement it remains focused on building a medal-worthy team of players and personnel from outside of the NHL.
"We look forward to assembling a team of highly-skilled players and staff that have worked hard to earn the opportunity to the wear the Maple Leaf with pride on the world stage."
The decision to pull out of the 2022 Games means young superstars like Canada's Connor McDavid, Germany's Leon Draisaitl and American Auston Matthews will have to wait another four years for the chance to compete on sports' biggest stage.
'Difficult to wrap your head around'
Canada's Sidney Crosby, Russia's Alex Ovechkin and a host of other veterans, meanwhile, might have just watched their last Olympic shots evaporate.
"Difficult to wrap your head around, given the fact that we thought we'd have the opportunity," Crosby, who won gold with Canada in 2010 and 2014, said Tuesday before the Olympic news became official.
"Definitely feel for the guys who have missed numerous opportunities."
Tampa Bay Lightning captain and Canadian hopeful Steven Stamkos — passed over for the 2010 Games and injured in 2014 — is one of those players.
"You grow up wanting to represent your country and win a gold medal," said the 31-year-old. "That's something I probably won't have a chance to do now."
Tampa defenceman Victor Hedman, who was left behind by Sweden in 2014 and then missed out when the NHL didn't go to Pyeongchang in 2018 — the same year he won the Norris Trophy, said he was also left with an empty feeling.
"It's going to hurt for a while," said Hedman, also 31.
Players understand and value the uniqueness of the Olympics, said Crosby. "These are opportunities and experiences of a lifetime that you don't get very many of as an athlete," he said. "You might only get one."
International Ice Hockey Federation president Luc Tardif said in a statement he was "disappointed" by the NHL's decision.
"It was a shock to see how COVID-19 affected the NHL schedule almost overnight, and we understand the NHL's decision is in the best interest of the health and safety of its players."