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NHL, IIHF reach agreement that will bring stars to Sochi

Photo: Martin Rose/Getty Images

Alexander Ovechkin was adamant about playing for Russia when it hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The NHL's worst kept secret is out. The league's players will go to the Olympics again in Sochi. It's a resolution that all sides -- the league, the players, television and the IIHF -- wanted, but each on their own terms. With the Games in a hockey-happy venue such as Russia, most saw this as an inevitability, but enjoy it while it lasts.

The league will shut down play between Feb. 9 and 26, but this may be the last time for a while. The Games in 2018 will be held in Pyongchang, South Korea. Unlike Vancouver or Sochi, there isn't any home-country tradition of hockey and no pull from advertisers in those venues to send the best hockey players to a land that embraces short-track speedskating as its top winter sport. That isn't to say that NHL participation is an impossibility. NHL players first appeared en masse in Nagano, Japan in 1998, but that was a novelty, and those entities willing to embrace the idea were probably willing to play on the moon.

The NHL, its clubs and owner, probably had the most glaring reservations. "I'm not sure it helps our business to shut down part of the season, and expose our players to the risk of injury," Bill Daly, the NHL's deputy commissioner, told SI on Friday. "Having said that, overall I think it's good for the game of hockey to the extent that the best players are there together, the Olympic Games is the biggest sports stage.

Does it sound as though Daly is expressing qualified enthusiasm? "I think that's fair," he says. "We're going to a remote location. Having it in North America makes it better. The experiences have been better for us. For one, there is a huge time difference . . .

"We specifically made this a one-Olympics negotiation. I think the IIHF and the IOC wanted us there for multiple Olympics. We and the Players' Association are still in a position where we're taking it one Olympics at a time."

There was popular pressure to get a deal done before Sochi. This time around, even Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper urged NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to ensure that the league's players would be able to participate in Sochi.

With the Olympics in his home country, Alex Ovechkin said he would go even if the league didn't shut down for the Games, and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis stepped in and said Ovechkin's participation had his blessing, a nod that didn't hurt Ovechkin's improved play last season and kept a thorny issue from hanging over his season in Washington.

So why the long wait? The NHL wanted to be able to market its players on its own platforms such as its website, NHL.com and its television network, NHL-TV. The IOC is very protective of its broadcasting rights contracts, fighting what it sees as any encroachment upon its rights holders who pay huge sums to have exclusive access to the Games. It didn't hurt this particular agreement that the U.S. rights holder, NBC, also has rights to the NHL games and therefore has a vested interest in seeing the league benefit from all levels of Olympic exposure. Actual games won't be televised on a secondary platform in the U.S., but the restrictions on promotion will be looser than they were in past years, when other forms of media were not nearly as prevalent as they are today.

The league also wanted some of its own officials to participate in the games, as they have, for instance, during the Canada Cups. Seven referees and six linesmen will be included among the officiating corps. This is significant because the standard of officiating for things such as interference is different in the international game. Does anyone recall Canada's effective use of the double-block back in Salt Lake City? It allowed defensemen would set moving picks for forwards as they shot up the ice with speed?

NHL executives also complained about being outsiders at previous Olympics, forced to search for their own tickets to games in which they were providing marquee players for either or both participating teams. Specifics concerning behind-the-scenes access has yet to be specified, but it was part of the negotiations.

For sure, Olympic hockey presents a chance to see the game at the highest level. You have all the high-end skills of an all-star game, but without the de facto removal of checking and slap shots. Players care. Sydney Crosby may win half a dozen more titles in Pittsburgh, but the goal of his career will still be the one he scored in overtime to win the Olympics for Canada in 2010. But will these Olympics change the hockey landscape by bringing in new fans? Maybe if they are insomniacs. The semifinals will take place on Feb. 21, the bronze-medal game on Feb. 22 and the championships on Feb. 23 at 7 a.m. Eastern time (4 a.m. for those in L.A. and Vancouver). Newer fans will be tougher to reach given the time difference. Those already inclined to watch may be in for a treat, but they will have to set their alarm clocks.

Some other scheduling details:

Don't expect any of the top teams to miss out on the quarterfinals that begin on Feb. 19, but the way the brackets are set up -- with three teams in each of four groups -- the U.S. will face Russia and Ovechkin in a Group A game on Feb. 15. In case one of the other favorites has a bad outing in preliminary-round play (Slovakia is also in Group A along with Slovenia; Canada and Finland are in Group B along with Austria and Norway; the Czech Republic and Sweden are in Group C with Switzerland and Latvia), there will be a pair of play-in games, a qualification play-off on Feb. 18. Canada needed an extra game to beat Germany and advance to the quarterfinals in 2010, before rolling to the gold medal.

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