By Emily Goddard

olympic ice hockey vancouverJuly 19 - The world's top ice hockey players from the National Hockey League (NHL) will compete at the Winter Olympics for the fifth consecutive time after an agreement was reached today.

The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), the NHL and the National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA) struck up a deal which will see the NHL take a break during its 2013-2014 season schedule to free up about 120 athletes to play at Sochi 2014, which takes place on February 7-23.

"Although there were many details to discuss with our partners at the NHL and NHLPA, there was never any doubt in my mind that we would not continue the tradition from Nagano, Salt Lake City, Turin and Vancouver," said René Fasel, IIHF President and an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member.

"The modern Olympic era is about sportive competition on the highest possible level.

"This is what fans around the world expect from a 100-metre race or downhill skiing and this is also what they are entitled to expect from our sport.

"It is the obligation of the IIHF towards our fans that the biggest sports show on earth has the best players and towards our member associations that they are able to select the best players that their educational systems have developed," Fasel added.

"I would like to thank NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Don Fehr for their cooperation."

Twelve teams in three groups will participate in the men's event, running from February 12 to 23, and eight in two groups in the women's, on February 8-20.

To enable the selected players to open the men's tournament on February 12, the NHL will take a break in its schedule after February 8, which will be the final day of the NHL regular-season games before the league's Olympic break.

Russia ice hockeyHosts Russia will take on Slovenia in their first game of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics

The opening games of the men's events will see Nagano 1998 champions the Czech Republic take on Turin 2006 winners Sweden, while Latvia face the 2013 World Championship silver medallists Switzerland.

Defending Olympic men's champions Canada take to the ice to battle it out against Norway the following day, while hosts Russia take on Slovenia in their first game.

"We are delighted that a final agreement is in place to ensure some of the world's best ice hockey players from the NHL will be joining us in Sochi for what we are sure will be one of the most exciting competitions at the Games," Sochi 2014 President Dmitry Chernyshenko.

"The athletes will enjoy competing in our world class ice hockey venues, one of them our magnificent Bolshoy Ice Dome, which we tested effectively early this year by hosting the IIHF World Under 18 Championship."

Ice Hockey is one of only two winter sports that can trace its Olympic history further back to the Winter Games itself.

The first Olympic tournament in the sport featured as part of the Antwerp 1920 Summer Olympics – the first Winter Olympics took place in Chamonix in 1924.

"I am very happy with the result of the constructive discussions which will ensure that once again we will see the world's top ice hockey players competing at the Olympic Games," IOC President Jacques Rogge said.

"I would like to thank all parties involved for making this happen ahead of Sochi 2014."

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