- Associated Press - Friday, July 19, 2013

NEW YORK (AP) - After weeks of tough negotiations, the NHL and its players reached a deal with the International Ice Hockey Federation on Friday to put the season on hold again so the game’s biggest stars can compete next year in the Sochi Olympics.

Putting a stop to another season one year after the damaging lockout created a shortened, 48-game campaign was hardly an optimal plan for the NHL. But an agreement was made to allow the top players to take part in the Olympics for the fifth straight time.

“Our outstanding athletes take tremendous pride in representing their homelands on the global stage,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a joint announcement with the players’ association. “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 first went to the Olympics for the 1998 Nagano Games. Now they will be available to the 12 national teams that will comprise the hockey tournament from Feb. 12-23. More than 120 NHL players are expected to compete in Sochi while the league takes a break for 2 1/2 weeks from Feb. 9-26.

“You find out pretty quickly that an Olympic-year schedule is a little more condensed and a little more intense than a typical year,” Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said during a conference call. “You have to take advantage of your days off because it is condensed.

“Playing that condensed schedule then going right into basically a pretty intense playoff atmosphere, every game is like a Game 7. Then coming back from that, you basically go from being at that level of intensity to regular-season games.”

Crosby is a veteran of this type of schedule, having served as an alternate captain at the 2010 Vancouver Games when Canada captured the gold medal. Crosby scored the “Golden Goal” in overtime against the United States to win the championship.

“It’s gone by really fast,” he said. “With injuries and stuff like that, too, it wasn’t like there were three full hockey seasons to kind of look back on.

“It’s exciting. You start to kind of think about it with it being announced that we’re going.”

Friday’s announcement paved the way for the NHL to reveal the schedule for the upcoming regular season. That had been held up until a resolution was made on Olympic participation. The league said Friday the 2013-14 regular season will begin Oct. 1.

Long gone are the days in which college and amateur players made up Olympic hockey teams like the 1980 United States “Miracle on Ice” squad that captured gold in Lake Placid, N.Y.

But with increased logistic issues such as insurance, travel and disruption of the regular season, there is no guarantee NHL players will be back at the Olympics in 2018 and beyond.

“The players 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, the players’ association executive director. “Having the opportunity to wear their nation’s sweater in Sochi is something the players look forward to.”

Bettman, Fehr and IIHF President Rene Fasel met for more than five hours July 1 _ the day after the NHL draft _ at league headquarters in New York and made progress toward a deal that took nearly three more weeks to hammer out.

“I am very happy with the result of the constructive discussions which will ensure that once again we will see the world’s top ice hockey players competing at the Olympic Games,” IOC President Jacques Rogge said in a statement. “I would like to thank all parties involved for making this happen ahead of Sochi 2014.”

The biggest challenge the NHL faces every time the Olympics come is the need to stop the hockey season for several weeks so its players can go. That became a bigger factor this time because of last season’s lockout that delayed the start of the campaign until late January.

“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,” Fasel said in a separate statement. “The modern Olympic era is about sportive competition on the highest possible level. This is what fans around the world expect from a 100-meter race or downhill skiing and this is also what they are entitled to expect from our sport.

“It is the obligation of the IIHF toward our fans that the biggest sports show on Earth has the best players, and toward our member associations that they are able to select the best players that their educational systems have developed. I would like to thank NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr for their cooperation.”

As part of the deal, seven NHL referees and six NHL linesmen will join the IIHF on-ice officials’ crews that will work the men’s tournament. It will be played according to the IIHF rulebook on the bigger international-sized rinks.

Crosby, who was left off Canada’s Olympic team during his rookie NHL season in 2006, never really doubted that NHL players would be back for the Sochi Games.

“I think everyone thought it was just a matter of time, working out logistics,” he said. “With it being a little further in Russia, I’m sure there was a little bit more work to do. I’m glad that we’re going, and obviously excited to kind of start the process.”

Soon enough he will shooting for a golden repeat.

“When you play for Canada, that’s the expectation,” Crosby said. “You realize pretty quickly that people come together that time of year especially. When it’s hockey even more so.

“You want to go there and find a way to win gold.”