By IRA PODELL
AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK — NHL players are just a slap shot away from returning to the Olympics next year.
While a deal hasn’t been reached yet between the NHL, the union and the International Ice Hockey Federation, to send the league’s players to Sochi, a long meeting Monday pushed the sides much closer to an agreement.
“Things are moving along,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.
Bettman, union leader Donald Fehr and IIHF President Rene Fasel met for more than five hours Monday at league headquarters to work on a deal that would allow NHL players to compete at the 2014 games in Russia. This would be the fifth Olympics for the NHL.
Not everything has been agreed to and the various sides need to meet internally to sign off on any pact. Still, Bettman called Monday’s session a “constructive meeting,” adding there are still “some I’s to dot and T’s to cross.”
“I think it’s fair to say that we’re not quite ready to announce it’s done,” Bettman said.
Fasel headed to the airport following the meeting and planned to get together with various international groups beginning on Tuesday. Fehr will brief the players during multiday union executive board meetings next week.
“We had a very constructive meeting,” Fasel said. “I am very happy and pleased. I have to go back also to my federation and to other national federations, especially back to the IOC, to make a report. I am confident that we will have a solution at the end.”
When pressed for a timeline to get a deal done, Bettman responded with an emphatic, “Soon. Very soon.”
“We’re on a compact schedule,” Bettman added. “Everybody is working very hard and we seem to be pulling the oars in the same direction.”
The biggest challenge the NHL faces every time the Olympics come is the need to stop the hockey season for several weeks in order for its players to go. That is even more of a factor this time because the Olympics are taking place one year after a lengthy lockout wiped out nearly half of the hockey regular season.
While the Olympic exposure is good for the NHL, breaking up another season in February is hardly ideal.
Bettman declined to get into specifics of what still needs to be worked out. But it was certainly a positive to see all three men standing side by side outside the NHL offices — a far cry from last year during the lockout when Bettman and Fehr were on opposite sides and held separate news conferences on the street.
Fehr agreed with Bettman this time that only smaller details have to be ironed out before a final deal can be reached.
“From my end, while we’ve made a lot of progress on a lot of issues, there are a few I dots and T crosses to do yet,” Fehr said. “We have to turn it into final written documents, and I do have to go back to my executive board. Things are moving along.”
Fasel, from Switzerland, joked that an agreement could already have been in place if the talks weren’t held in English.
“There are still some language problems to understand. It’s not so easy for me,” he said. “I would prefer to speak French with my two colleagues. It would be much easier to negotiate with them.”