By Julian Linden
BANGKOK (Reuters) - The participation of National Hockey League players at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics remains on ice but officials hope to reach an agreement in time to avoid a repeat of the standoff before Sochi.
National Hockey League players have competed at the last five Winter Olympics but were in doubt for this year's Sochi Winter Olympics until a deal was struck seven months before the opening faceoff.
Many NHL team owners are opposed to the idea because the league is forced to shut down for two weeks in the middle of their season as the game's biggest names risk injury while representing their countries.
International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Vice President Bob Nicholson told reporters at the inaugural Association of National Olympic Committees awards ceremony on Friday that he was hopeful a new agreement could be reached.
"I know the players want to go but it's very difficult for the NHL because it's the one sport that has to stop its season in the middle to go to the Olympic Games," said Nicholson, a former Hockey Canada president.
"With that, if everyone agrees to take some and leave some on the table I think we'll see NHL players in the future.
"You never like it to go down to the wire, because everyone loses. The sooner you decide to go, the better it will be for them and for all of the countries participating."
Canada have won the men's gold medal at each of the last two Olympics and on Friday collected awards for the best men's and women's teams at Sochi.
Canada beat Sweden in the men's tournament at Sochi, but the gold medal game was overshadowed when Swedish forward Nicklas Backstrom was banned the day of the final after testing positive for a stimulant found in an over-the-counter medication he used to treat a sinus condition.
Both the IIHF and the NHL issued statements saying they did not consider Backstrom had done anything wrong and Swedish team officials said it could be the final straw for NHL players competing at the Olympics.
"That was kind of heat of the moment stuff. It was a very unfortunate situation," said Nicholson, who is also a vice chairman with the NHL's Edmonton Oilers.
"The National Hockey League takes doping very seriously so that wouldn't be an issue why they wouldn't go.
"The biggest one is the safety of their players, players getting hurt at the Olympics midway through the season."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)