Chris Johnston: The sight of NHL players at the Beijing Olympics isn’t a sure thing yet. There’s still a thing called COVID to overcome.

Canada

The long road back to the Olympics for NHL players anxious to represent their countries was seemingly secured with last week’s agreement covering the Beijing Games.

Well, not so fast. Real hurdles remain.

There’s still a healthy amount of skepticism quietly clouding a men’s Olympic tournament that would rival all others before it, even after the NHL and NHL Players’ Association spent the summer hammering out the conditions under which it would be played.

We can file this under news that wasn’t even buried. Friday’s official announcement on the 2022 Games included an important proviso beneath all of the stuff that made headlines and sparked optimism: “The agreement allows for the possibility of a later decision to withdraw in the event evolving COVID conditions are deemed by the NHL/NHLPA to render participation by NHL players to be impractical or unsafe.”

They have until Jan. 10, according to sources, to withdraw from the Olympics without penalty. That’s 90 days into a regular season where the league hopes to take a giant leap toward normalcy but understands it could contend with a fourth pandemic wave that interrupts those ambitions.

How the next three-plus months play out will ultimately dictate if we get a highly anticipated Sidney Crosby/Connor McDavid mash-up in China. Plus a long overdue Auston Matthews-led Team USA that would legitimately threaten Canada’s iron grip on best-on-best gold.

The top players on the planet are now at the mercy of COVID, just like the rest of us. It’s a precarious position.

Any significant disruption to the NHL schedule in the early stages of the season would seriously threaten the Olympic tournament. The most important number to both NHL owners and players this year is 1,312, the amount of games contested over a full campaign and an important part of getting business back to pre-pandemic profitability.

In the event a team — or teams — needs to be shut down in October or November, it will be challenging to reschedule games with a Feb. 7-22 Olympic break built in to the matrix and April 29 locked in for the end of the regular season.

Should the squeeze come in to play, the Beijing Olympic tournament will be the first to go.

Leafs centre Auston Matthews and Oilers counterpart Connor McDavid are almost certain to play in the Beijing Olympics, if NHL players go. “Being able to do that would be something to check off of the bucket list,” McDavid said.

This places an additional burden on players who have already shown an incredible desire to return to the Games for the first time since 2014. They accepted an Olympic deal that doesn’t include insurance on their contracts should they contract COVID while in China, and they have done so with the understanding that they’re unlikely going to be permitted to bring family or friends over for the tournament.

And yet they were basically unanimous in their desire to go.

The potential of tightly controlled bubbles and mandatory GPS-tracking devices didn’t scare them off the experience, either, which explains why the NHL honoured a good-faith promise to return players to the Olympics.

At least in spirit.

Whether McDavid, Matthews and their peers actually have the chance to compete for Olympic gold will come down to how smoothly this season gets off the ground. It’s expected that more than 90 per cent of NHL players will be vaccinated by the time training camps open later this month and anyone heading to Beijing must be double vaccinated.

Call it peer pressure.

The NHL’s 2021-22 protocols basically guarantee that everyone will get jabbed eventually, but it may not happen in time to avoid issues early in the season. And the league needs to avoid COVID outbreaks that force the mass rescheduling of games in order to take the February break for the Olympics.

The best players on the planet are already counting on it.

“The Olympics is one of the biggest dreams of mine and I haven’t been able to participate in one,” Tampa Bay defenceman Victor Hedman said in June. “And this might be the last chance I get. It’s something I’ve dreamed about my entire life.”

“It’d be right up there with winning the Stanley Cup,” McDavid told reporters recently. “Having the ability to play for your country at the Olympics and a best-on-best tournament, there’s nothing better than that. Being able to do that would be something to check off of the bucket list. And if we’re lucky enough to win a gold medal, so special.”

He got one step closer with the door reopened by last week’s NHL/NHLPA agreement, but the escape clauses in that are far more the fine print.

Teams must consistently be able to do business again before they willingly close up shop and watch their priciest assets chase their dreams on the other side of the globe.

Chris Johnston is a Toronto-based journalist with NordStar’s new gaming company. His work will be seen in the website and app for the new gaming company, and also in the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterchris

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