ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) â€” NHL players will participate in the 2002 Olympics at Salt Lake City, giving the league a chance to atone for the embarrassment caused by the U.S. team at the 1998 Nagano Games.
The decision came Tuesday after an agreement between the International Ice Hockey Federation and the NHL and was announced before the Russia-Sweden game at the World Hockey Championships.
``The Salt Lake City Games will be played with the best players in the world,'' IIHF president Rene Fasel said.
The agreement still requires approval by the IIHF Congress and the NHL Board of Governors.
The league will break from its season for 12 days during the Salt Lake Games. The NHL took a 17-day break in 1998, a stoppage some thought hurt the league's momentum.
``From the NHL's perspective it was important to have as short a break as possible,'' said Bill Daly, the NHL's senior vice president of legal affairs.
The U.S. team caused problems for the U.S. Olympic Committee and the NHL at the last Olympics. A room at the Olympic Village room was trashed by American players following their elimination from the tournament. The trashing was investigated but no culprits were identified.
``On the part of the players, we very much look forward to participating in international competitions of the highest levels,'' said Ted Saskin, the NHL Players Association senior director.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman got the green light from the Board of Governors to conclude the Olympic agreement more than two months ago, and the league already received assurances it will get the tickets and TV exposure it wants.
But that approval came before the hockey federations of Russia, Czech Republic, Sweden and Finland threatened to vote against NHL participation unless the league substantially inflated the $5.5 million it pays annually to the IIHF.
However, Daly said the issue of transfer fees was not even broached during meetings, and the IIHF and its federations had already resolved the matter.
The IIHF divides money from transfer fees among the federations that contribute players to the NHL. About one-third of the NHL players are European, a fivefold increase from 20 years ago.
The NHL-IIHF agreement expires in 2001, and the European concerns complicated the negotiations involving the NHL, IIHF and the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee.
Cathy Priestner Allinger, managing director of sports for the Salt Lake organizers, was ``delighted'' with the decision to allow NHL players in the 14-team tournament.
``The organizing committee has supported and worked on behalf of the inclusion of the NHL because they represent the world's best hockey players,'' she said.
The agreement also included a provision for a World Cup tournament after 2003.