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Agreement almost in place to free players for Sochi Olympics

(Reuters) - The National Hockey League (NHL) and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) inched closer to an agreement on Monday that would free players to take part in the next year's Sochi Winter Olympics.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, IIHF chief Rene Fasel and NHL players' association boss Donald Fehr met for five hours at the league's New York offices and left expressing confidence an agreement was nearly in place.

"There are still some 'I's to dot and 'T's to cross," Bettman told reporters. "We are on track and things are moving along, I think it is fair to say we are not quite ready to announce it's done.

"There's still a little bit of work to do but on most issues, not all issues, there is a pretty good understanding of where we need to be.

"We're on a compact schedule and everybody is working hard and we seem to be pulling the oars in the same direction."

NHL owners and officials have long been unhappy with what they perceive as second class treatment by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and are seeking some form of compensation for shutting down for two weeks in the middle of the season and releasing the players.

The key issues standing in the way of an agreement center around travel, insurance and hospitality for players' and owners' families.

The NHL also wants to be treated more like a rights holder or top sponsor and to trade on the Olympic brand to help sell and promote the league.

All sides will now report back to their members but the clock is ticking to get the agreement done with the start of the 2014 Winter Games a little over seven months away.

"We had a very constructive meeting," said Fasel. "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."

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Greg Stutchbury)

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