By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) -The National Hockey League will not send its players to compete in the men's ice hockey tournament at the Beijing Winter Olympics due to COVID-19 concerns as the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads globally, ESPN reported on Tuesday.
The NHL agreed last September to pause its regular season so the world's top players could compete in Beijing with the caveat it could withdraw if COVID-19 disruptions forced games to be rescheduled during the Olympics window.
That had begun looking increasingly likely in recent days with the NHL being forced to postpone 50 games in Canada and the United States after a growing number of players entered COVID-19 protocols while Omicron tore through professional sports leagues with fully vaccinated players testing positive.
The NHL did not immediately respond to a request for comment. ESPN said a formal announcement on opting out of the Beijing Games was expected within the next 24 hours.
The NHL had until Jan. 10 to withdraw from the Feb. 4-20 Beijing Olympics without financial penalty.
Players had mostly been eager to return to the largest international stage. But concerns that a positive test in China could lead to a 21-day quarantine and delay returning to their families and NHL clubs had dampened that enthusiasm for some.
"Obviously, it's unsettling if that were to be the case when you go over there," Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid, who was expected to be a top player for Canada, said last week.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in early December that the decision on participating in Beijing would ultimately come down to the players, but added that the league's concerns had "only been magnified" by the COVID-19 outbreak.
The NHL, unhappy over the prospect of interrupting a regular season to send their most valuable assets overseas where they could get hurt, ended a run of participation in five consecutive Winter Olympics when it decided not to go to Pyeongchang in 2018.
The presence of NHL players at the Olympics made the men's ice hockey tournament one of the marquee events of the global sporting showcase.
Countries will now have to quickly put a Plan B in place.
For Canada and the United States, which would have sent teams stocked completely with NHL players, that will mean a top to bottom overhaul cobbling together a roster from other leagues.
Other countries, such as Sweden, Finland, Russia, Germany and Czech Republic, will also have big holes to fill with many of their best players also in the NHL.
USA Hockey, when announcing Bill Guerin as general manager of the men's team last week, said they were preparing for the possibility of an NHL pullout.
"Plan B is we have to look at what our pool options are," said USA Hockey assistant executive director John Vanbiesbrouck. "Last time through there were some American Hockey League players available, players playing in Europe and the NCAA.
"That would likely be our player pool."
(Reporting by Frank Pingue and Steve Keating in Toronto and Rory Carroll in Los AngelesEditing by Bill Berkrot and Howard Goller)