By Karolos Grohmann
BERLIN (Reuters) - The International Olympic Committee was hopeful negotiations with the National Hockey League would eventually be successful, allowing the world's best players to compete at next year's Pyeongchang winter Games, the governing body said on Thursday.
The NHL players' participation is traditionally a thorny issue for the Olympics with the season forced to shut down for 2-1/2 weeks to accommodate the Games while club owners are concerned with player injuries and the high cost of insurance.
The NHL last met with the IOC and the International Ice Hockey Federation in early February but talks have so far been unsuccessful and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said this week it was unlikely the players will travel to South Korea.
"We remain hopeful that the negotiations between the IIHF and the NHL will prove successful," an IOC spokesperson told Reuters.
"The fans want to see the best hockey players taking part in the Olympic Winter Games Pyeongchang 2018."
Bettman had told Reuters on Tuesday it should be assumed players would not compete at the winter Games in South Korea.
"There are no negotiations ongoing," Bettman said. "We were open to having discussions on a variety of things that might mitigate the damage to our season but that had no resonance.
"As things stand now people should assume we are not going."
For handing over $3.5 billion in player contracts the NHL is seeking something akin to IOC Top Sponsor status that would allow the league to market the Winter Games on its platforms.
The NHL has also said the IOC will have to backtrack and pay player insurance and transportation costs after saying it would no longer bear the costs like it had during the five previous Winter Games.
The NHL did not agree to go to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi until July, 2013. While NHL owners have dug in, the IOC and IIHF have both the players and the sponsors in their corner applying pressure.
Some players have said they will compete in the Olympics regardless of the NHL's decision, while Japanese tyre maker Bridgestone, which is both an IOC Top Sponsor and major NHL advertiser, is trying to help push a deal forward.
(Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)