Deal reached to send NHL players to Sochi

July 19, 2013, 12:22 PM

Sidney Crosby waited along with everyone else for an agreement to send NHL players to the 2014 Winter Olympics. It had been almost three years and five months since he scored the gold-medal-winning goal for Canada in Vancouver.

When a deal was finally reached Friday between the league, NHL Players’ Association, International Ice Hockey Federation and International Olympic Committee, Crosby and the rest of hockey could begin to make plans for what’s next.

"I think like everyone thought (that) it was just kind of a matter of time, working out logistics," the Pittsburgh Penguins’ captain 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."

Sochi, Russia will be the fifth Olympics with NHL participation, which began in Nagano, Japan, in 1998. Canada won gold at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, when Crosby scored to beat the United States in overtime.

"It’s gone by really fast," Crosby said on a conference call with reporters. "Obviously with injuries and stuff like that, 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."

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.

Canada will be in Group B along with Austria, Finland and Norway. Group A is made up of the United States, Russia, Slovakia and Slovenia, while Group C is made up of the Czech Republic, Sweden, Switzerland and Latvia. Canada opens the Olympic tournament Feb. 13 against Norway.

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."

Preparations for Sochi were ongoing well before it was official that NHL players could represent their countries in the Games.

"(General manager) Steve Yzerman and the management group have been evaluating players all year," Hockey Canada president and CEO Bob Nicholson said in a phone interview. "We’re in good shape. We’re right on schedule for our planning purposes."

Nicholson said he expects an announcement of the coaching staff in the coming days. It will reportedly include head coach Mike Babcock and assistants Claude Julien, Ken Hitchcock and Lindy Ruff.

Canada’s Olympic orientation camp could begin Aug. 25 in Calgary, though it’s not certain whether players will be able to skate. Individual federations must insure NHL contracts for camps, and USA Hockey will not have an on-ice component to its camp in Arlington, Va.

"Insurance is a big issue," Nicholson said. "We got some quotes yesterday that it would be over a million dollars to skate. 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."

The agreement being done meant the NHL could release its 2013-14 schedule after a substantial delay. The Olympic break will take place from Feb. 9-26, while the tournament in Sochi is set for Feb. 12-23.

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 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," commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.

As part of the agreement, seven NHL referees and six linesmen will go to Sochi, joining the IIHF’s on ice officiating crew.

Some Russian stars, including Alex Ovechkin, have said they would go to Sochi regardless of NHL permission. Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis even said he would allow Ovechkin to go with or without the league’s blessing. That is no longer an issue the league or players’ association needs to worry about.

"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," NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said in a statement. "Having the opportunity to wear their nation’s sweater in Sochi is something the players look forward to."

This won’t be Crosby’s first time representing Canada, but that doesn’t make it any less special for the native of Cole Harbour, N.S.

"I think anybody who gets a chance to do that, there’s a lot of pride that comes with that," he said. "Being Canadian and playing hockey, that’s a dream come true, so I think that’s a big part of it."

Crosby has never been to Russia and is looking forward to taking part in another chapter of the decades-old rivalry.

"Obviously everybody knows the history with Canada/Russia, ’72 and ’87 and the list goes on and on," he said. "I think that right there, having the opportunity to play hockey in Russia is pretty special."

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