The buzz is back, NHL set to open next week

The General

Another Day, Another Dollar
New rules, new faces and new hope - the NHL drops the puck for real on Oct. 5 having undergone a major face lift after the 301-day lockout that wiped out all of last season.

"It's been a long time coming for a lot of people," said star goalie Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils. "I know a lot of the players are real thrilled to get back at it. In New Jersey, the level of excitement is huge."

The buzz appears to be back, and it's not just in Pittsburgh where Sidney Crosby will star, which may come as a surprise for some who believed the lockout would kill off fan interest in some cities.

"I think people understand there's a business side to the game and that's been put in the past now," said Colorado Avalanche defenceman Rob Blake. "It's time to move on and the excitement of the game will live again."
Perhaps the truer test will come a few months into the season after the novelty of having hockey back possibly wears off.

"I think the lockout hurt a lot, but I think if we get back and give everyone an appealing product, where rules are called, and let the game's talented players play and show off their skills - I think we'll attract more fans than maybe we did before the lockout," said San Jose Sharks centre Alyn McCauley.

The changes in the game were drastic: a penalty shootout to decide tie games, an 11 per cent reduction in the overall size of goalie equipment, the allowance of the two-line pass, and - more importantly - a major crackdown on obstruction.

The message is clear: if you're not using your stick to shoot or pass, don't use it at all. The hope is that players will truly be able to show off their skills and fans will see more scoring chances and ultimately more goals.

"I think our product will be better," said Calgary Flames superstar Jarome Iginla.

Also helping to create some of that buzz around the league are the number of big names that have changed homes since hockey was last played.

Peter Forsberg is now in Philadelphia, Nikolai Khabibulin in Chicago, Mike Peca and Chris Pronger in Edmonton, Scott Niedermayer in Anaheim, Paul Kariya in Nashville, Jeremy Roenick in Los Angeles, Adam Foote in Columbus, Brian Leetch in Boston, Sergei Gonchar in Pittsburgh, Roman Hamrlik in Calgary, Eric Lindros in Toronto, Alexander Mogilny in New Jersey, Marian Hossa in Atlanta, Dany Heatley in Ottawa and Brett Hull in Phoenix - where Wayne Gretzky is now behind the bench.

Rivalries will help fuel hockey's return as teams play eight games against divisional opponents instead of six this season, meaning the Battle of Alberta and the Battle of Ontario will be spiced up even more.

On the downside, a lockout at CBC means Hockey Night In Canada won't quite be the same come its Oct. 8 opener between Montreal and Toronto. South of the border, hockey fans will need to search the dial for midweek games on OLN, which replaced ESPN as the cable rightsholder. On the flip side, Olympic network NBC gives the NHL a huge platform with Saturday afternoon games starting in mid-January.

And the game returns with more parity than ever, a product of a collective bargaining agreement that has slapped a salary cap on teams and ensuring an even playing field in markets of all size.

All of which has all six Canadian teams boasting legitimate chances at making the playoffs. Not since 1985-86 has every team in the country made the post-season.

"That's a nice change," said Iginla. "You can pretty much the start the season in every city in the NHL and believe you have a shot at the playoffs and that certainly wasn't the case before."

The Flames fell one game short of winning the Stanley Cup in 2003-04 and remain Canada's best bet to be the first club to bring the Cup north of the border since Montreal last did it in 1993.

"We do think we're going to be a really competitive club and we want to be one of the top clubs, but we know it's not going to be easy," said Iginla, Calgary's captain. "We're not going to get ahead of ourselves."

The Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks also have Cup dreams, while the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers are a notch below but still playoff-worthy.

The defending Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning lost Khabibulin but still possess an offensive powerhouse led by the triplets - Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis.

The Philadelphia Flyers loaded up with Forsberg, Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje, as well as adding blue-chip rookies Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, and they're the early season favourite to win their first Cup since 1975.

"Management has given us a real fighting chance here to have a real good team," said Flyers head coach Ken Hitchcock. "And it's our job now, coaches and players together, to try and put this thing together."

Colorado, New Jersey and Detroit - who have combined to win eight of the last 10 Stanley Cups - were all victims of the new economic reality and lost key players. They appear to be on their way down but not without a fight.

"I still see us as having a real strong lineup," said Detroit Red Wings veteran Brendan Shanahan. "Definitely the teams around us in our conference have improved but I don't think people should count us out yet."

Said Brodeur: "I think we'll surprise a lot of people."

Western teams on the rise, outside of Calgary, are Nashville, Edmonton, Columbus and Chicago. In the East, Pittsburgh could see the biggest point increase thanks to Crosby as well as the additions of Gonchar, Mark Recchi, John LeClair and Ziggy Palffy.

Atlanta could also make the playoffs for the first time but only if the Thrashers solve their contract dispute with star sniper Ilya Kovalchuk.

Washington will be dreadful despite talented rookie Alexander Ovechkin. He's got no one to play with.

The game returns without familiar faces. Gone but not forgotten are Mark Messier, Ron Francis, Al MacInnis, Scott Stevens, Igor Larionov, Vincent Damphousse and James Patrick.

But there's no shortage of talent to replace them.

"You look at our game, you look at how many young guys are coming in: Crosby, Richards and Carter and Corey Perry to name a few - there's a lot of skilled players coming up," said Iginla. "And there's also guys coming into their prime, (Joe) Thornton and (Dany) Heatley and others - there's a lot of players in our league that will get a chance to shine and it's in every market.

"And that's what we need."

And the game has Iginla, the 28-year-old winger many believe to be the best player in the league, not to mention a perfect pitchman off the ice with his ebullient personality and contagious smile.

Like many of his peers, Iginla is uncomfortable responding when asked how he feels that many believe he's the top player in the NHL.

"It's a very, very nice compliment," he said. "And it is humbling. It feels good to hear, I'm not going to lie."

Similarly, Blue Jackets winger Rick Nash tries to re-direct the attention to his team when told many believe he's reached the elite level of stars along the likes of Iginla, Thornton, Forsberg, Richards, St. Louis and Lecavalier.

"Definitely, to be mentioned in the same bracket as those names is a pretty big deal," said Nash, 21. "It's a bit different here in Columbus, we don't have as much media. So to have that media attention is a great thing for me personally but also a great thing for the team and the organization as well."

It's that humble hockey player mentality that Shanahan feels needs to change somewhat for the game to sell itself better.

"There's definitely a peer pressure in our game to not draw individual attention to yourself," Shanahan said. "But that's something we need to get over and say, you know what? If Jarome Iginla or Sidney Crosby or Rick Nash are constantly being thrust into the limelight, we have to actually help them and feel comfortable with that. We need famous players, we need guys to become more famous in more markets."

What the game needs is more outspoken players like Roenick.

"I sometimes shake my head at the some of the things that J.R. says, but in the end, L.A. is a great market and I hope he puts us on the front page there every week," said Shanahan.

At the same time, hockey players are hockey players. The NHL doesn't need anyone to cross the line in search of attention like NFL bad boy Terrell Owens.

"I think players are coming back with a willingness to share more," said Shanahan. "But it's not an invitation to become jerks. We can have colourful players without doing workouts in our driveways."

The players have a vested interest in helping sell the game. Their salaries in future years are directly linked to the game's financial success. The higher the revenues, the higher the salary cap, the more the players can earn under it.

"From a players' perspective, and from a league perspective, when the markets are doing well and the season-ticket sales and the fan interest and the merchandise and all these things are going and improving and there's buzz - it's money in everyone's pockets," said Shanahan. "The early indications is that the revenues are going to be much higher than they anticipated because of all the things that have happened - not just the new rules, but players like Kariya going to Nashville, Pronger going to Edmonton, all the player movement.

"Things are coming together pretty good, I'm pretty optimistic about our game."