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Sending players to Sochi a stretch

Hockey, Olympic officials discuss disrupting season for 2014 Games

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NEW YORK -- A decision on whether NHL players will head to the 2014 Sochi Olympics isn't likely this week, but a first day of discussions went well.

Talks between the NHL, the NHL Players' Association and officials of the International Ice Hockey Federation and the International Olympic Committee stretched into Thursday night as the parties worked toward getting NHL players back to the Olympics for a fifth straight time.

There are obstacles in the process, but the sides will get back together today to talk more.

"We had good discussions," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Associated Press in an email Thursday night after talks ended.

Though the NHL and the players might want to participate in the Olympics again, they have to figure out if it makes sense for them to interrupt another season to make it possible. "I don't expect any resolution or decisions this week," Daly wrote to the AP earlier Thursday.

In these negotiations, the NHL and the players' association appear to be aligned in their position.

The Sochi Games are one year away. A final decision isn't required this week, but one will have to be made in the near future. It is believed hockey federations will need to know by May what players will be available for their teams.

The current discussions are between NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, IIHF president Rene Fasel and officials from the IOC.

After enduring a long lockout that produced a shortened regular season this year, the NHL is weighing whether it's worth shutting down the game for more than two weeks next season to allow its players to go to Russia for the Olympics.

The time difference will force the games to be played at off 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 the Sochi Olympics, the NHL is trying to acquire video, photograph and website rights for the games. The IIHF and IOC retain those exclusive rights now.

The NHL first sent its players to the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, and continued through the 2010 Vancouver Games. Although the NHL received great exposure by having its players take part in an Olympics in North America, disrupting the season does come with a cost.

Stopping the season, the potential injury risk to players and no tangible upside for the NHL are all factors that create doubt about whether the investment is good for the league.

One topic that isn't on the agenda at this week's meetings is NHL realignment. The relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg before last season has created travel troubles for the Jets and their Southeast Division rivals that need to be resolved.

The league's board of governors thought it had the problem settled when a realignment plan that would change the current system from six divisions to four conferences was formed in December 2011. But the players' association rejected the plan, leaving all clubs in place for this season.

The union turned down the proposal because of travel concerns and potential unfair playoff qualifications. League and players' association representatives met in Toronto this week, and the hope is a new plan will be ready to present to the board of governors by the end of February.

This time, it is expected the players will sign off on the plan before it goes to the board for a vote.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2013 C4

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