Team Canada, get set to defend Olympic men's hockey gold in Russia.
The long-awaited deal for the National Hockey League to send its players to the 2014 Sochi Winter Games came Friday with the league and its players giving the green light for a fifth time.
"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.
IIHF president Rene Fasel said there was "never any doubt" in his mind that NHL players would go to Sochi. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said on Sirius XM NHL Network Radio that the original goal was to have a deal done by March, a target that was missed by four months.
The league had been negotiating with the NHL Players’ Association, the International Ice Hockey Federation and the International Olympic Committee for several months.
"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, NHLPA executive director. "Having the opportunity to wear their nation's sweater in Sochi is something the players look forward to."
Stopping the hockey season for two weeks is one of the biggest challenges the NHL has cited since its players first competed at the Olympics in 1998 in Nagano, Japan. It became more of a factor in these negotiations since a 113-day lockout shortened the 2013 NHL campaign to a 48-game schedule.
This time, the NHL is expected to shut down on Feb. 9, with half of the league’s 30 teams playing their final game on Feb. 8. The NHL season would resume on Feb. 26, three days after the gold-medal game.
"I think like everyone thought it was just kind of a matter of time, working out logistics," Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said on a conference call. "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."
Feb. 12 start
The men’s Olympic hockey tournament starts Feb. 12, with games shown live on CBC Television and CBCSports.ca and about 170 NHL players participating.
Those athletes selected by their countries to compete would travel by charter from four North American hubs and arrive in Sochi on Feb. 10.
Canada, which defeated the United States 3-2 in overtime to win the men's hockey gold at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, will be in a pool with Finland, Norway and Austria in Russia.
"It's gone by really fast," Crosby said. "Obviously with injuries and stuff like that, too, it wasn't like there was three full hockey seasons to kind of look back on. It's definitely gone by quick, but it's exciting. You start to kind of think about it and obviously with it being announced that we're going."
Overall it's been an up-and-down experience for Canada at the Olympics. Canada finished seventh in Turn in 2006, won gold in Salt Lake City in 2002 and finished fourth in Nagano in 1998.
Naturally, the expectation for Canada is the same as it was in 2010.
"Just being Canadian you realize pretty quickly that people come together that time of year, especially, and when it's hockey even more so," Crosby said. "I think that you want to go there and find a way to win gold."
As part of the agreement, seven NHL referees and six linesmen will join the IIHF crews to work the men's tourney.
Player insurance critical
Player insurance was one of the major issues the NHL needed to resolve. Reports suggest the cost to be as much as $2 million US per Olympic team.
"There is obviously a risk involved when you bring over a projected 160 [to] 180 NHL players where the total contract value would be around $3 billion [US]," Daly told reporters in May. "This is a risk which must be insured, especially in cases of season-ending or career-ending injuries.”
Also, the eight-hour time difference will force the games to be played at odd hours in North America, and the NHL would like to receive concessions from the IOC that haven't been made before.
In return for sending its players to Sochi, the NHL attempted to acquire video, photograph and website rights for the Games, which were held by the IIHF and IOC.
About five to six weeks before the Games, national teams will be asked to submit a 25-man roster, which will be increased by two skaters from the 2010 Games in Vancouver. Each country can now name 22 skaters and three goaltenders.
Canada is expected to announce its coaching staff in the coming days. Reportedly Mike Babock will be back as head coach, joined by assistants Claude Julien, Lindy Ruff and Ken Hitchcock.
Hockey Canada president and CEO Bob Nicholson said he hopes orientation camp in Calgary begins Aug. 25 but said in an interview he wasn't sure if players would be able to skate because of insurance issues.
"We got some quotes yesterday that it would be over a million dollars to skate," Nicholson said. "So if it's that type of dollars, it'd be very difficult for us to do that. But we're just starting to look into that now with the agreement being done today."
Men's hockey schedule
With files from The Canadian Press