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The NHL and hockey's international ruling body were scheduled to formally announce an agreement today that clears the way for league players to compete in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan.

The three-year pact with the International Ice Hockey Federation, signed last week in Helsinki, Finland, also covers expanded international competition, joint formation of a European Super League and the trans-Atlantic transfer of players."It is a historic agreement," IIHF president Rene Fasel said from Switzerland. "We will work together. To fight each other brings nothing."

Fasel says the highlight of the agreement is the commitment to have NHL players compete in 1998 in Nagano, Japan. The Winter Games fall in the middle of the NHL season.

The plan still requires ratification by the NHL Players Association, and gaining such approval will be part of the labor negotiations between the NHL and its players' union. Those talks resumed today in New York.

The plan is to have an eight-country pre-Olympic tournament in Canada in September 1997, with six teams qualifying for the Olympics.

In Nagano, there would be a two-tiered tournament. The first week would feature eight countries competing for two spots. They would join six teams that qualified in September.

Those eight would then form two four-team divisions, with the top two finishers from each advancing to the medal round.

The concept doesn't sit well with Canadian Hockey Association president Murray Costello, whose organization oversees Canada's Olympic hockey program.

"But the bottom line is, if the pros want it and if the IOC endorses it and if the IIHF in Europe supports it, nobody can stand up and say that is not the best way to go."