‘A lot of work to come’ after NHL reaches Olympic agreement

Hockey
FILE - In this Feb. 22, 2014, file photo, hockey pucks bounce off the wall during the warm up session before the USA vs Finland men's bronze medal ice hockey game at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. National Hockey League players are set to return to the Olympics in Beijing this winter after reaching an agreement with international officials. The league, NHLPA, International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation struck a deal Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, that will put the best players in the world back on sports' biggest stage in February after skipping the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

Rene Fasel barely had time for a sigh of relief about the agreement to send NHL players to Beijing before his mind wandered to what’s next for hockey at the Olympics.

“There is a lot of work to come,” the president of the International Ice Hockey Federation said. “It’s not over yet.”

Most of the work is a waiting game with the hope that the NHL returns to the Olympics for the first time since 2014. The league and Players’ Association can withdraw if the pandemic circumstances worsen.

Fasel told The Associated Press on Friday there was a “common understanding in the case of really bad COVID-19 situation” that the NHL would not risk sending players to China. He expects vaccination against the virus to be mandatory for those involved, which should not be a problem with 90 to 95% of players are already fully vaccinated or will be by the time training camps open in late September.

Not long after that, USA Hockey, Hockey Canada and 10 other national federations must submit the “long list” of players under consideration. That list is due Oct. 15, with final 23-man rosters to be revealed in January.

Most got a head start by already selecting NHL executives and coaches to start the process. U.S. coach Mike Sullivan said upon taking the job in late July that he was operating under the premise of an agreement.

“We’ll go through a process like all the Olympic teams in trying to put together a coaching staff and then identifying the player pool that we have and the talent that we have and trying to build the most competitive team that can win a gold medal,” Sullivan said.

That player pool includes reigning top goal-scorer Auston Matthews, reigning Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Adam Fox and 2020 Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. USA Hockey on Friday named Nashville’s John Hynes, Pittsburgh assistant Todd Reirden, former Rangers coach David Quinn and retired goaltender Ryan Miller to Sullivan’s staff.

“It’s a group that knows what it takes to be successful,” U.S. general manager Stan Bowman said. “Through their unique and varied backgrounds, (they) will help put our team in the best position to win the gold medal.”

Up next within the next week or two is a meeting to organize and work out logistics and coaches’ roles, and then a meeting with all eligible U.S. players. Then it’ll be time for the NHL season, with Zoom calls likely through the first half of the season.

“Unfortunately, won’t be able to get together or have time to get together in person,” Hynes said. “But you can do things like we’re doing it here on Zoom and make sure that we’re prepared to go.”

The U.S. has yet to win Olympic gold since the NHL began sending players in 1998. It came away with silver twice, in 2002 and 2010.

While the stacked Russians won in 2018 when the NHL skipped the Pyeongchang Games, Canada is a two-time defending champion when the world’s best players are involved.

Canada has 2019 Stanley Cup-winning St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong leading its management team, with back-to-back defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper behind the bench. Barring injury, reigning NHL MVP Connor McDavid is expected to get the chance to play for Canada at the Olympics for the first time in his career.

“Just to be able to represent Canada at the Olympics and compete for a gold medal would be an absolute dream come true,” he said.

NHL training camps open Sept. 22 and the regular season begins Oct. 12. The league will take a three-week break after All-Star Weekend in February so players can go to Beijing, a pause that will push the end of the playoffs back to late June.

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AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker contributed to this report from Nashville, Tennessee.

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