The IIHF has agreed to cover travel and insurance costs for NHL players ©Getty Images

A key barrier to National Hockey League (NHL) players participating at next year's Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang appears to have been removed after the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) agreed to cover their travel and insurance costs.

Although obstacles such as the league being forced to shut down for a two-and-a-half week period still remain, the move represents progress as the IIHF and the NHL have been locked in ongoing talks.

According to Reuters, the IIHF has confirmed it will pay as much as $20 million (£16.1 million/€18.6 million) in a bid to ensure some of the planet's most recognisable stars take part at the Games.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had previously covered these costs but has decided against it for the 2018 edition in South Korea.

This was one of the main stumbling blocks, along with the opposition from the NHL concerning the closure of the North American-based league.

Insurance was also among the main hurdles, with teams in the NHL fearful about players getting injured during the Olympic tournament.

"We know that the players definitely want to play and the fans want to watch the best players in the Olympic Winter Games Pyeongchang 2018," IOC spokesperson Mark Adams said. 

"These Games give the greatest worldwide exposure to the sport of ice hockey. 

"The offer for the two Olympic Winter Games 2018 and 2022 remains on the table and we are still hopeful there will be an agreement in the interests of all.

"Because of the interest of the Olympic Movement to see the NHL players in the Olympic Games, the IIHF has ensured that the travel and insurance cost of the NHL players will be fully covered, as was the case in previous Olympic Games.

"Obviously, this time the owners of the NHL clubs are putting more commercial conditions to the IOC and the Olympic Movement. 

"The IOC has been informed the talks between the International Federation and the NHL are continuing. 

"The IOC knows that NHL understands that the Olympic movement cannot treat the owners of a commercial franchise of a national league better than an international sports federation or other professional leagues with regard to the Olympic Games.

"Within this framework the IOC still hopes that NHL will be able to make the players’ Olympic dream come true.”

Last week, the IOC said they were confident a deal can still be reached.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who has criticised the IOC in recent months following deadlocked discussions, claimed that "people should assume" the league will not be sending its players to Pyeongchang 2018. 

Bettman has also accused the IOC of opening a "can of worms" by refusing to pay and revealed earlier this month that there had been "no progress".

Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin has vowed to attend Pyeongchang 2018 to represent Russia regardless of whether or not he has permission from the NHL ©Getty Images
Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin has vowed to attend Pyeongchang 2018 to represent Russia regardless of whether or not he has permission from the NHL ©Getty Images

The NHL are thought to be ambivalent about the prospects of an Olympics in South Korea, but keen to exploit the opportunity of the Chinese market during Beijing 2022.

A number of players from the league have insisted they will go to the Games regardless of whether the relevant parties can strike a deal or not.

Montreal Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty became the latest player to speak out in support of being able to attend the Olympics last week.

Other players to criticise the impasse in negotiations include Czech Republic and Philadelphia Flyers right winger Jakub Voráček, who accused the NHL of taking a "ridiculous" stance.

Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin has vowed to play for Russia regardless of whether or not he has permission.

René Fasel, President of the IIHF, has warned that the NHL cannot pick and choose Olympic games and that they risk never returning if they opt not to attend next year.

NHL players have participated at every edition of the Winter Olympics since Nagano 1998.

Time remains for an agreement to be signed, with a similar deal not struck for Sochi 2014 until just seven months before the Opening Ceremony.