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By Michael Hirtzer
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Time is running out to complete a deal that would see the National Hockey League free players for the Sochi Olympics, commissioner Gary Bettman said on Wednesday.
Speaking before the opening game of the Stanley Cup finals in what has become his annual state of the league address, Bettman fielded a wide-range of questions but the most-far reaching centered on the league's Olympic future.
With 2014 Winter Games less than eight months away, talks between the NHL, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) continue to drag on even as all parties seem committed to having NHL players in Russia.
Bettman said negotiations were ongoing but the league had not foreseen the issue taking this long to resolve.
NHL owners and officials have long been unhappy with what they perceive as second class treatment by the IOC and is seeking some form of compensation for shutting down for two weeks in the middle of the season and turning over their most important assets - the players.
The key issues standing in the way of an agreement, which would also have to be approved by the NHL Players' Association, are believed to be travel, insurance and hospitality for players' and owners' families.
The NHL also wants to increase its influence and be treated more like a rights holder or top sponsor and be able to trade on the Olympic brand to help sell and promote their product.
While the IOC, IIHF and NHL have not struck a deal, Bettman made it crystal clear that league has big plans on expanding its brand beyond North America borders.
Bettman said the league is in discussion with the players' union about reviving a World Cup and scheduling more European games but emphasized the Olympic issue was at the top of the international agenda.
"We're in discussion with the players association working on time table for international competition," Bettman told reporters.
"The first step is figuring out what we are doing with the Olympics, we are going to take a look at world championship participation and we are very much committed to bringing back a World Cup and doing it on a regular basis.
"Once we get the Olympics figured out we will start focusing on a long term, Olympic, World Cup, world championship international competition calendar.
"These are all things we are intrigued by and think are great opportunities for hockey worldwide."
(Writing by Steve Keating in Toronto; editing by Julian Linden)