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NHL will return to Winter Olympics

For a result that everyone involved wanted, the haggling took more time than the World War I armistice. But the NHL, the International Ice Hockey Federation and the NHL Players’ Association finally came to terms Friday on an agreement that will feature the league’s stars at Olympus next year for the fifth consecutive time.

“The decision to participate in the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi was in many ways a difficult one, but one that we know will be well received by our players and, most importantly, by the vast majority of our fans and sports fans everywhere,” said commissioner Gary Bettman after the NHL agreed to interrupt its season for 17 days next February to allow more than 120 of its players to compete for 12 countries.

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All of the stakeholders stood to benefit from continuing an arrangement that began in Nagano in 1998. The IIHF, and by extension, the International Olympic Committee, again will have the world’s best performers in action. The league and the players will have a global showcase for their skills. And NBC, which is paying the NHL $2 billion dollars for a 10-year deal as well as $775 million for the US television rights to the Games, will be able to shine a spotlight on the sport’s marquee names.

Yet negotiations dragged on for months and an agreement that was supposed to be announced by May’s world championships required nearly another three weeks to finalize after Bettman, IIHF president Rene Fasel, and Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr met for more than five hours in New York on July 1. The key points of contention were players’ insurance, travel logistics, hospitality perks for club owners, and the league’s right to use Olympic-related content like video and photos on its various media platforms.

“Although there were many details to discuss with our partners NHL and NHLPA there was never any doubt in my mind that we would not continue the tradition from Nagano, Salt Lake City, Turin and Vancouver,” said Fasel. “The modern Olympic era is about sportive competition on the highest level.”

The biggest beneficiaries of NHL involvement in the Games have been the North American teams. Canada has won two of the last three gold medals, its best performance since 1952, which was before the Soviet Union entered the tournament. And the US, which hadn’t won a medal since the Boys of Winter in 1980, has claimed silvers at two of the last three Games. The Americans, who’ve already named the Penguins’ Dan Bylsma as their coach, will form the core of their squad from the 2010 roster. “We couldn’t be more pleased,” said USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean. “I commend all involved in coming together to make this happen. The sport of hockey is the real winner today.”

The NHL, which reduced last season’s schedule to 48 games in the wake of the player lockout, will suspend play on Feb. 9, two days after the Sochi Opening Ceremonies, and will resume on Feb. 26, three days after the gold-medal game. After traveling to Russia by charter planes from four North American hubs, the players will arrive on Feb. 10 and take the ice for their first contests on Feb, 12. The US, which will play its three preliminary games at 7:30 a.m. Eastern time, will face Slovakia on Feb. 13, Russia on Feb. 15 and Slovenia on Feb. 16.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.
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