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Hockey power brokers meet for game of Russian roulette

By Steve Keating

(Reuters) - Ice hockey power brokers are facing off in meetings this week that not only could decide if the National Hockey League (NHL) takes part in the 2014 Sochi Winter Games but the way the International Olympic Committee (IOC) does business.

While the NHL is widely expected to return to the Olympic lodge and free players to compete in Russia, the talks that began on Thursday and will continue through Friday at the NHL's New York headquarters could be more far reaching.

NHL owners are seeking some form of compensation from the IOC for shutting down business for two weeks in the middle of the season and turning over their most valuable assets - the players - to the Olympics and occasionally getting back damaged goods.

The NHL had no comment on the state of talks. But it is believed the league, a Winter Games participant since the 1998 Nagano Olympics, wants to be treated more like a rights holder or an Olympic top sponsor such as McDonald's, able to trade on the Olympic brand to help sell and promote their product the same way the fast food chain uses its sponsorship to sell hamburgers.

The NHL also wants the freedom to use video and other media from the Games on their websites and has long complained about the access to players by team owners, doctors and league officials during the Winter Olympics.

The IOC, meanwhile, is approaching the talks with considerable caution, keenly aware that giving into any NHL demands would leave them on a slippery slope with the National Basketball Association and other sports looking on with interest.

During the London Summer Games, track and field athletes created a stir with their demands for a slice of the IOC revenue pie and the ability to make money from their Olympic participation.

'NO CHOICE'

International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) chief Rene Fasel and IOC representatives are unlikely to feel much love during the Valentine's Day meetings that include NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, NHL Players Association (NHLPA) chief Donald Fehr.

Fasel, the Swiss dentist who is believed to be considering a run at the IOC president's job when Jacques Rogge steps down later this year, set a contentious tone for negotiations last week when he told CBC in an interview that "I think Gary has no other choice. He has to come to Sochi."

During an IOC executive board meeting on Tuesday in Lausanne, a relaxed Fasel talked as if a deal were in place.

"It will be very much like the participation in the other Olympics," Fasel told Reuters. "Obviously we will have a problem with logistics, Japan (Nagano) was not easy either with the time difference."

Sitting across the table from Fasel will be Bettman and Fehr, two battle-hardened negotiators who just weeks ago were locked in a bitter four-month labor dispute but now find themselves on the same team.

Since the Nagano Games, owners insist they have seen diminishing returns on their investment particularly when the Olympics are held outside of North America and games cannot be aired in prime time.

At the 2010 Vancouver Games with NHL's Olympic agreement about to expire, Fasel pleaded with Bettman to do what was best for the global growth of the sport and remain part of the Olympics. Bettman's position has been, what's in it for us?

Coming out of a damaging four month lockout that alienated fans and reduced the NHL season to 48 games, the league is under pressure to repair its damaged image.

A recent study conducted by consultancy firm Brand Finance Canada determined the prolonged dispute inflicted serious damage on the NHL chopping its brand value by over $300 million.

The IOC is sure to have an ally in NBC, which paid billions for the U.S. broadcast rights to the Sochi Games and could exert pressure on the NHL to get players to Russia after inking a 10-year $2 billion television deal with the league.

Until a decision is reached, Canada along with several countries who stock their Olympic rosters with NHL players have been left on hold.

"We'll obviously await until everything that is going on with the National Hockey League, the NHLPA, the IIHF and IOC before we make any moves," Jim Johannson, assistant executive director for hockey operations for USA Hockey told reporters.

"As it relates to a management group and naming a head coach and things like that we're just going to wait out all the negotiations that are ongoing before any of that is done."

(Additional reporting by Karolos Grohmann. Editng by Gene Cherry)

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