For hockey-starved fanatics from coast to coast and around the world, the NHL hockey buffet finally opens tonight. Thirty tempting entrees await those that have not dined in well over a year including Ducks, Wings, Hawks and even Orca. (Careful with the Orca, I hear it packs quite a punch that you won't expect.)
It isn't the same buffet you are used to either.
Many warriors that have thrilled us in years gone by have unlaced their NHL skates for the last time. No longer will we see the crushing hits of Scott Stevens; the intense stare of Mark Messier; the slick moves of Ron Francis; or the mind-boggling power of an Al MacInnis slap shot. These legends are gone, but most certainly will never be forgotten.
Although some of the old guard have retired, they have made room for new recruits like Dion Phaneuf, Alexander Ovechkin, and Sid “The Kid” Crosby to come into the league and create new memories for us all. And let us not forget that Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, Rick Nash and Ilya Kovalchuk have shown they not only belong in the league, but that they too will shine brightly in the new NHL.
Have no doubt about it. This IS a new NHL... at least on this opening night. During the pre-season, players got more whistles than a blonde walking by a construction site. At some point, the players and coaches will buy into the new obstruction free game, or they will not. For the betterment of the game, let's hope they do, and soon. If not, the league will once again face a backlash from the players, coaches, GM's and fans. That potential backlash is the last thing the game needs this year. Time will tell how this plays out.
Aside from the new rules, and actually calling the old ones, the new NHL has a new American broadcaster, OLN, who so far appears to be a better partner with the NHL than ESPN. OLN has launched a slick “We Believe In Hockey” campaign, have hired solid TV personalities like John Davidson and Mike 'Doc' Emerick, as well as committing to develop the HDTV experience for their viewers. The NHL is front and center for them, not a third world sport as positioned by ESPN.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this new NHL is the parity. This NHL campaign starts with arguably the most balanced set of rosters fans have ever seen. There is a very good chance that the final season results will reflect that balance with many, if not most, playoff races being determined in the last game or two of the year. But that finish line is a long ways away. For each club, there are eighty-two obstacles yet to be tackled, and every club faces one of those obstacles tonight.
Forget Sports Illustrated, forget TSN, forget all the pundits and who they are predicting to win. In this new NHL, no one knows. There will be surprises and disappointments, jubilation and heartbreak. No team, no fan, is exempt from these. This season promises to have thirty roller coasters all twisting, turning, climbing and diving at the same time.