NEW YORK — 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 2½ 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.
Former NHL head coach Tom Renney, now an associate coach with the Detroit Red Wings, led Canada to the silver medal at the Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994 — the last Games without NHL players. He is on board with professionals taking part.
"I am a big fan of Olympic hockey and still hold 1994 and Lillehammer very close to my heart," Renney told The Associated Press in an email. "I am all for the NHL participating in the Olympic Games.
"The Olympic experience gives many a break in a busy schedule, which is never a bad thing. Coaches and many players can regroup, recover, rest, etc. At the end of the day, it is good for all involved in hockey to have the NHL participate in the Olympics, and the positive ramifications outweigh the negative."
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."