By Allan Muir
And just like that, the NHL's best are heading to Sochi.
After months of meticulous, and often contentious negotiations, all parties finally signed off on an agreement Friday that will see the NHL shut down for three weeks in February while its top stars jet off to Russia for the 2014 Olympic Games.
The NHL will break from the 2013-14 regular season schedule on February 9 and return to play February 26 to allow for participation in the Games. The tournament opens Feb. 12 when the Czech Republic faces off against Sweden, and ends with the gold medal match on Feb. 23.
“The National Hockey League features the most international player population in professional sports, and our outstanding athletes take tremendous pride in representing their homelands on the global stage,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “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.”
NHL players will be available to the 12 participating IIHF Member National Associations for the men’s Olympic ice hockey tournament (February 12 – 23, 2014). This will mark the fifth consecutive time, dating back to the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, that NHL players have participated in the Olympics. More than 120 NHL players are expected to compete for their respective nations in Sochi.
“[We are] are very pleased that an agreement has been reached that will allow the world’s best hockey players to compete at the Winter Games in February,” said Don Fehr, NHLPA Executive Director. “Having the opportunity to wear their nation’s sweater in Sochi is something the players look forward to.”
“Although there were many details to discuss with our partners at the 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 IIHF President and IOC Executive Committee Member René Fasel. “It is the obligation of the IIHF towards our fans that the biggest sports show on earth has the best players and towards our member associations that they are able to select the best players that their systems have developed.”
Canada begins its bid to defend the 2010 gold medal on Feb. 13 against the lightly regarded Norwegians. The Americans, who hope to improve on a silver medal earned in Vancouver, open against Slovakia the same day.
With a time difference of eight hours between Sochi and cities in the Eastern time zone, the schedule for the men's tournament (which can be found here) works out fairly well for Canadian viewers.
Each of Team Canada's three preliminary round games (against Norway, Austria and Finland) will be broadcast live at 1 p.m. Eastern, 10 a.m. Pacific.
Team USA fans won't be as lucky. Their preliminary matches against Slovakia, Russia and Slovenia will take place at 4:30 p.m. in Sochi, which means they'll be on at 8:30 a.m. Eastern, 5:30 Pacific.