It's certainly been a wild two weeks to open the 2006-07 season.
There's been surprising starts -- both good and bad -- among the 30 teams. Scoring has been fast and furious in most games and the game, at least at this early stage, might actually be even more enjoyable than last season's. No doubt, it helps that there is no learning curve for the players this season in regards to the enforcement of rules.
Here are a few observations from the first 14 days of the season:
* Dallas goalie Marty Turco is off to a scalding-hot start this season. Plus, he is one of the most well-spoken athletes in our game today. In fact, his own coach, Dave Tippett, called him the most normal goalie he has been associated it, a compliment all goalies should aspire to.
* Where are the fashion police when you need them? The concept of wearing unfashionable -- sometimes downright ugly -- articles of clothing as a badge of honor is reaching epidemic proportions in the NHL. First, it was the green hard hat in Calgary, which has now been replaced by a garish, one-of-a-kind (fortunately) necktie. Each was awarded by the current holder to the MVP of the following win. Not to be bested, the rival Oilers have broken out the "ugly coat", an apt description of the fur trimmed, leather monstrosity that Ryan Smyth so proudly donned last week after his hat trick. It says something about the good-natured personalities of most NHL players that these accoutrements are donned proudly -- without a hint of shame or embarrassment.
* Kris Draper is not a latecomer to the Detroit Tiger bandwagon. He has regularly attended Tiger games throughout his long tenure with the Red Wings, first going to Tiger Stadium and, more recently, taking his family to games at Comerica Park. He was one of the many Red Wing players who donned Tigers gear throughout Detroit's march through the playoffs as a sign of support for their sister organization.
* It hasn't taken long for Aaron Ward to feel right at home in New York. Six games into the new season -- his first with the Rangers -- he has become part of the leadership group. Ward, as is his want, is never shy about expressing his opinions and was candid in discussing his new team's shortcomings -- effort and organization -- during a troublesome three-game losing streak. Then he went out in scored the opening goal in what proved to be a streak-snapping 4-2 win against the New Jersey Devils Monday night. By the way, congrats to Aaron on his 100 NHL point with that goal.
* Mike Dunham has certainly opened some eyes out on the Island, hasn't he? Invited to camp as a last-minute invite, he not only won the backup job, but he has been better, for now, than Rick DiPietro, he of the new 15-year contract. It will be interesting to see how Ted Nolan spreads around the playing time when DiPietro returns from his slight groin injury.
* The more you watch New Jersey's Brian Gionta, the more you realize that he just lacks the fear many other players possess. New Jersey's mighty-mite will put his nose anywhere, against anybody, to win a puck or get off a shot. Last week, he got the best of mammoth Hal Gill to score one of his three goals in his team's stirring comeback win against Toronto. A few nights later, he was rolling around in the slot with Rangers defenseman Darius Kasparaitis. Those encounters certainly qualify for hazardous-duty pay.
* Paul Maurice has the Toronto Maple Leafs playing an enjoyable brand of attacking hockey. The personality of the team itself is also a pretty dramatic departure from the Pat Quinn years. Maurice is also one of the most accommodating and informative coaches in the League.
* That Martin Havlat kid is pretty good, no?
* It might be time to break up the Minnesota Wild. If captain Brian Rolston is right and this team has yet to reach its potential, the Wild could be among the elite this season. Plus, this Jacques Lemaire team is averaging almost four goals a game. What in the trap is going on here? Guess Lemaire does have a few attacking tricks up his coaching sleeve after all.
* Pittsburgh's Kris Letang and San Jose's Marc-Edouard Vlasic are the real deal as teens. Both have made cases to stay in the NHL this year and both have amazing futures ahead of them.
* Buffalo has scary speed. Just ask the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers.
Now, it's time to break out the first installment of this season's mailbag. Thanks to all who wrote. I try to personally answer as many e-mails as I can and save the best for this public forum. So, keep the letters coming. I appreciate the time and effort it takes.
The majority of the mail was in regards to my previous list of 82 reasons to savor the upcoming season:
While sitting at work with a cold on a Wednesday morning, I read your list of 82 things to appreciate, and I was immediately reminded of why I actually don't hate life. I love hockey. Thanks.
--Todd Holzman, Wilmington, Del.
Well said, Todd.
82 amazing reasons! Reading the list has me thinking of why this game is so fantastic. I remember the 2001 Cup, Game 7, my brother and I watching the Avs win it. That season and that game are memories I will cherish for all time. I too LOVE the game of hockey and as I drag my 43-year-old knees and back onto the ice to do battle in front of the net with a bunch of 20-year-olds, I am truly happy! If every American had pre-game locker room joy, game anticipation, on-ice fun and competition, post-game laughter and pranks (win or lose), a cold beverage with the boys and the great solo drive home thinking about the game you just played at 11 p.m. then this country would be a happier, more satisfied place. I can go on for days after a quality skate. Good luck this year. Love the work. Love the game and look forward to your insight!
--Scott Costello, Denver
Scott, it is people like you that make me want to write the best material I can. Your love and passion for the game must be respected. So, I try to go all out in my writing in much the same way you go all out on the ice. Have a great season and I look forward to some in-season updates.
Your column on the 82 things to love the season was the best! Even as a woman, you can have a true and passionate love for the game! Summer was great but there is really nothing like that puck drop on opening night. Like you, I have been known to invade the rink to watch regardless of whom is playing. Junior hockey in Canada is strong, but high school is starting to take off, as well. I have relatives playing at all levels and just can't get enough. This is a slow weekend in our family with only six games in two separate cities. I won't make them all, but will be there in spirit. Go Wolverines, Wheat Kings (WHL) and Wheat Kings (Bantam A)!
--Cheryl Douglas, Brandon, Manitoba
Cheryl, you certainly will be busy this season. And, I find that women fans are jut as passionate, if not more so, than their male counterparts. Have a great season.
Just wanted to tell you I loved your blog. You summed up everything that is great about the game of hockey and why we all love it, even if our football loving co-workers can't seem to be able to even see the puck, let alone understand the nuances of a perfectly executed left-wing lock.
--Brian Morgan (A Red Wings fan trapped in Blue Jackets land)
Brian, non-hockey fans just need to be educated, that is my belief and my quest. Never give up preaching the hockey Gospel. Eventually, the game will sell itself. As you and I already know, it is impossible to remain ambivalent once you experience the true majesty of this great game for yourself.
For shame! Saku Koivu's returned from multiple knee and shoulder injuries, then returned from cancer. And not just wussy cancer, but big, bad turn-your-body-into-a-waste-of-flesh cancer. Then he returns from almost losing an eye. And his return to the competitive game doesn't make a top 82 list?
Nothing on Joe Sakic? Bad call.
You mentioned Jagr, Shanahan, and Brind'Amour reaching career milestones. I'm looking forward to Mike Modano reaching career milestones, such as 500 goal (15 short), 700 assists (2 short), and 1,200 points (17 short). He is, arguably, the greatest American hockey player in history and a future hall of famer. He should not be forgotten with the other greats.
--Brandon Peterson, Red Hook, N.Y.
You can't find one thing out of 82 to say about the Oilers after last year, Are you a Canadian? I think NOT.
How about Joe Sakic scoring his 600th career goal? Perhaps the classiest guy left in the NHL and he will have to carry that team at 37 and you forgot him? He is the captain of Team Canada and the longest tenured in the league now. Sweet list when you forget that one little milestone.
--Patrick D. Salvas
Jay McKee? Who the heck is Jay McKee? You must've gotten him confused with Karlis Skrastins, the NHL's perennial shot blocker and current Iron Man (433 games and counting).
Ladies and gentlemen, it was a list of 82 things, and, more importantly, it was 82 things I was looking forward to this season. So, obviously, more people, places and things are going to miss the cut than make it. No offense to any of the aforementioned players was intended.
Maybe this year you should change your travel plans from Toronto to Montreal, because as every Canadian hockey fan knows, Montreal is the "Mecca of hockey". The city lives and breathes hockey 365 days of the year! The electricity in the Bell Centre on any given night, whether the Leafs or Bruins are in town -- or if it's the Blue Jackets -- is second to none.
Try going to a hockey game in Edmonton if you want to see atmosphere! The fans there are actual fans not heads of corporations that could care less if the Leafs win or lose. Otherwise, your list is pretty good.
You don't say anything about the Oilers in your list of 82 things to look forward to. And you incorrectly suppose that Toronto has great hockey atmosphere. I've been to games there, it is BORING, you can hear a pin drop, people are stuck up, and everyone's standing around waiting for them to get a competitive team. I don't understand things like Mike Peca talking about taking a pay cut to go play in Toronto. Shawn, you should come to Calgary and Edmonton for some games, maybe Calgary vs. Edmonton. Then, you'll see atmosphere. Half the fans in each building are wearing the other teams' jersey!
--Brian Maksymetz, Calgary
I have been to Calgary, Montreal and Edmonton to see NHL games. Each has a great atmosphere -- on par if not better than the one in Toronto. But, Toronto has the Hockey Hall of fame, which means an annual November trip up there for Induction Weekend. So far, I have never been disappointed in my trips up for the hall of Fame game or the Inductions. That was my point, not a slap at the atmosphere in any of the other 29 NHL cities.
Other letters concerned coverage from the Penguins home opener:
Just wanted to say what a great read your article was on the Penguins home opener. It gave me goose bumps. I'm from Nova Scotia, but have been a Penguins fan all my life and it was such a treat to read something positive about the Pens for a change.
--Andrew Fraser, Stellarton, Nova Scotia
Thank you for giving everyone else in the hockey world such a wonderful and positive look into our town. A lot of negative things have been said over the past year -- OK, longer -- about the Penguins and Pittsburgh as a hockey town, so it is so nice to hear such a glowing report about a hockey night in Pittsburgh. The title could not have been more appropriate either, for so many reasons.
I will be short and sweet. In the past years, in the media, all people have done is slam the Penguins organization. Well, this article of yours brought a smile to my face. Even at 2232 local time in Iraq, it is good to read a positive article about my team. Well done, and thank you. It was definitely a great day for hockey. I am sure Badger Bob was watching. This team is going to require lots of respect in the coming years. I think you just kicked it off. Well done!
--RYAN P. WAGNER SGT, USA
82D AIRBORNE DIVISION PUBLIC AFFAIRS OFFICE BROADCAST DEPARTMENT
And still others were just general inquiries and observations.
"The Carolina Hurricanes and their fanatical fans..." Come on, the words 'Carolina' and 'hockey' should never have been put together in the first place. During the Sabres-Hurricanes series last spring, when games in Buffalo were selling out in a matter of minutes, seats for games in Carolina were available a few hours before faceoff. Now here is something to look forward to this season -- The Cup returning to a city that truly appreciates and deserves it.
--Michael Tiso, Buffalo, NY
As Noda said in a previous letter -- for shame, Patrick! I have been to Carolina on several occasions, including all four games in the Stanley Cup Finals last spring, and I stand by my statement. The Hurricanes have their share of fanatical fans. They certainly made the RBC Center one of the loudest NHL barns I have visited. They may not have the numerical force of the Buffalo fans, but they are just as passionate. To bad-mouth them does a disservice to you, your team and your city. Carolina proved on the ice -- the only place it needs to be proven -- that it is championship caliber. Its fans should be allowed to revel in that accomplishment and be acknowledged for their part in the process. They will be celebrated here.
The "die-hard" Chicago fans have some hope for this season. The League doesn't expect much, but beware. Cellar dwellers no more. 7-1 in the preseason might not seem important, but it is real. Power play is stellar. You even slighted them by placing only a blurb about their two sophomore defensemen, but like our Bears, no one picked them as contenders.
There is reason for hope in Chicago, Brandon. But, it will be a long process as the team rebuilds from its low point of the last few years. And, there was no slight from these quarters regarding your team. Me thinks you protest a wee bit too much.
Who do you think will take the No. 1 spot in the long run between San Jose's Vesa Toskala and Evgeni Nabakov? If they do trade one of these guys, what prominent defenseman do you think that Doug Wilson will go after in the Eastern Conference?
--Michael Brock-Alexander, San Francisco
Michael, I think that the Sharks will hold on to both goalies. The Carolina Hurricanes showed how important a competent backup goalie is in today's NHL. With Toskala and Nabakov, the Sharks have one of the best one-two punches in the League. If they were to move one, they would most likely wait until the trade deadline to pull the trigger and maximize the payoff. At that point, it is possible that Ottawa, Boston or, perhaps, Washington could at least be kicking the tires.
Can you please explain the importance of penalty minutes as it pertains to players' stats, especially enforcers? In the layman's mind it doesn't seem to be too hard to get called for a penalty, so if you could explain why it's so important, I'd appreciate it.
Anthony, you make a valid point. High penalty minute totals no longer define a player's toughness. Today, it is possible to pile up impressive minutes because of the abundance of obstruction penalties that are being whistled. So, the PIM is no longer an absolute. Now, GMs must look at what type of penalties the player is taking to understand his worth. In the case of enforcers, penalty minutes have always been a barometer of a player's willingness and ability to answer the bell. That, too, has become less important in the new-look NHL. Now, those tough guys must cut down on their penalty minutes and bring some offense to the table in order to hold on to their job. I hope this explanation helps.
Stay tuned for another mailbag in a couple of weeks. Keep those e-mails coming and enjoy the games.Tuesday, October 10, 2006
The response to my season-opening blog -- making a list of things to appreciate -- was overwhelming. In fact, I am humbled by all of those who took the time to write e-mails, which overflowed my mailbox upon my return from a season-opening trip to Pittsburgh for a pair of games.
More than 150 readers took the time to respond to that blog alone. Some took up my invite to add their own hockey moments to the list, others to correct perceived mistakes and biases and still others to simply thank me for setting the tone for the upcoming season. As I mentioned, it is this passion and love for hockey by our fans that make the game so special and my job so rewarding. As promised, here are some of the best responses regarding things to savor during this upcoming season. Many responders offered up more than one option, so I was forced to pick the best one to include. Never an easy task, I hope those affected agree with my decisions. If not, I apologize in advance.
***Going to the local bar and instantly being best friends with anyone that is there to watch the game.
Seeing Michael Handzus, Bryan Smolinski, and Martin Havlat in Blackhawks jerseys.
-- John Ruhnow.
Seeing the Oilers play that run-and-gun style that made them famous in the '80's.
-- Gerry Noullett.
A French-Canadian goalie once again winning the hearts of Colorado Avalanche fans.
-- Mike Morgan, Denver Colo.
Watching Scotty Niedermayer skate -- as beautiful as any woman.
-- Jonta Lindquist.
Getting to start off the season and end the season watching the Battle of Alberta.
-- Chris Poole, Edmonton.
Hobey Baker winner Matt Carle's first full season in the NHL.
-- Kris McConkie, San Jose.
Watching the brilliance of Michel Therrien with the young guns in Pittsburgh.
-- Ryan Stumph, Hollidaysburg, Penn.
Not being able to talk at work the day after a great game due to cheering my vocal chords raw.
-- Brian Kolis, New Brighton, Minn.
Approaching the Saddledome on a cold dreary winter's night and passing through the gates into a sea of burning red.
-- Chris Sillito, Calgary.
The nachos at Mellon Arena. Even though they are overpriced and probably not very good for me, I get them every time I go to a game.
-- Ryan Wolf, Pittsburgh.
Watching as many games as possible because there is no better time spent than watching the greatest game in the world!
-- Jason Dickmeyer, Eagan, Minn.
Seeing Ottawa's Ray Emery finally get the chance to shine like he deserves to.
-- Mike Dowd, Victoria, B.C.
Previewing the night's games on Xbox360 before heading out.
-- Paul, Winnipeg.
The Swedish trio of the Sedin twins and Naslund tearing it up in Vancouver.
-- Tim Selles, Lethbridge, Alb.
Barry Melrose's suits.
-- Chris Cornwell, Lebanon, Tenn.
Patrick Marleau leading the Sharks to a well-deserved Stanley Cup victory in 2007.
-- Rob Pederson, San Francisco.
The Hershey Bears raising their ninth Calder Cup banner!
-- Pam Clauser.
Listening to the great commentary on NHL radio when a goal is scored, while hearing the buzzer on the background.
-- Kevin Brunings, Zoetermeer, Netherlands.
Miikka Kiprusoff when he's in a zone between the posts for the Calgary Flames. The look and the twitch.
-- Jeff Tedesco, Union City N.J., via Calgary.
Laughing as people realize that Alaska does have a hockey team and, hey, we're pretty good.
-- Jeremy Spires, Anchorage.
Hearing Rick Jeanneret calling a Buffalo Sabres game.
-- Matt Holden.
Road trips that bring you home at 3 a.m. because you had to see "the boys on the road".
-- Veronica Haran, Raleigh, N.C.
Pronger and Neidermeyer along with Selanne, McDonald and Kunitz on the first-line PP in Anaheim.
-- Mike Battaglia, Orange, Calif.
Watching the Montreal fans go crazy every time something happens to their Habs.
-- Richard Brodeur, Montreal.
Talking to the one person a year that had never watched hockey/been to a game and hearing them try to put into words how they never realized how truly amazing and fast hockey is.
-- John Mirtle.
J.S. Giguere, healthy and ready to tear up the NHL again, leading the Ducks through the season.
-- Annie Donaldson.
The night that Brett Hull's jersey is retired in St. Louis.
-- Aaron Vicar.
Realizing that it doesn't matter who's playing on TV, I'll watch it!
-- Carolyn Tubbs, University City, Mo.
Seeing how Dominik Hasek does in Detroit this season.
-- Jakub Kloucek, Prague, Czech Republic.
Watching Simon Gagne and Peter Forsberg play against Scott Neidermeyer and Chris Pronger in my first Flyers game because I'm no longer a poor college student and my company has season tickets to the Ducks.
-- Katie Gallagher, Aliseo Viejo, Calif., via Ocean City, N.J.
Tape-to-tape outlet pass from the goal line all the way out to the opposing teams' blue line.
-- Scott Carmichael, Vancouver.
Evgeni Malkin, when healthy, in any one-on-one situation.
-- Jeff Twardy, Pittsburgh.
Watching Ilya Kovalchuk, on the Atlanta power play, fire one-timers past every goalie in the League.
-- Chris Sullivan, Michigan.
Watching Mike Modano's jersey going flappity flap as he flies up the ice. He is old, but it still goes flappity flap.
-- Murray Utas, Edmonton.
Catching a Wild vs. Canucks game at the always-sold out Excel Energy Center!
-- Brody Busho, Ellendale, Minn.
Hearing Pittsburgh's Mike Lange call a hockey game.
-- Jason Corley, Jackson, Miss.
Watching Ales Hemsky, likely the most exciting player in the NHL when at full flight.
-- Mike Moher.
Spending a night crowding into a living room with friends in front of a big-screen TV, watching good Canadian hockey.
-- Nathan Stetski, Winnipeg
Watching Michael Ryder light the lamp over 30 times this year.
-- Dwayne Antle, Newfoundland.
The new-and-improved Bruins showing all the naysayers that hockey LIVES in Boston.
-- Greg, Midland Park, N.J.
When the goalie gets pulled and it actually works.
-- Chris Ray, Philadelphia.
Not shaving until after that 16th win in (June).
-- Peter Augusterfer, Mechanicsburg, Penn.
Thanks again to all that responded. Next week, we will roll out the first official Mailbag of the season and get to some of the complaints, compliments and questions I have received in the past month. Till then, have a great hockey day.Saturday, October 7, 2006
There was a serious case of Tiger fever running through Mellon Arena this weekend.
The Detroit Red Wings arrived in town Friday night after a tough opening loss to Vancouver and many of the players made sure to catch up with what the Tigers were doing in the American League Divisional Series against the New York Yankees.
Needless to say, smiles were the order of the day Saturday morning after the Tigers took an improbable two-games-to-one lead in the best-of-five series. In fact, several players were supporting Tiger warm-up shirts under their equipment after Saturday's practice. Others have been donning Tiger warm-up jackets. Coach Mike Babcock was sporting a Tigers pin and has been wearing a Tiger cap during television interviews.
And it was more than just paying lip service to the good fortunes of the Tigers, which, like the Red Wings, are owned by Mike Ilitch.
"At the end of season, we ordered up Tigers stuff, the warm-up coats and all that stuff," Kris Draper explained Saturday morning. "The whole city is caught up in (the Tigers), so it's pretty neat. For me, I have been here 14 years and this is the first time the Tigers are in the playoffs, so it's a big deal. It's pretty cool. I watched the game last night and it was an unbelievable atmosphere."
Draper, it seems is a pretty big baseball fan, and the Toronto native has taken the Tigers into his heart.
"I loved going down to Tiger Stadium, just the classic ballpark," he says. "I really enjoyed that. Now, I like to take my family to Comerica Park."
After years of leaving the woebegone Tigers in their wake as they owned the Motor City for much of the past dozen years, the Red Wings are happy to share, or even cede, the spotlight to their baseball peers -- at least for a little while.
Babcock said Saturday morning that he had put a call out to Jim Leyland, the Tiger manager. Babcock has never met the larger-than-life Tiger skipper, but wanted to wish him well.
"No, I've never met (Leyland), I just left him a message," Babcock said. "I called him. He's done a heckuva job there. (Tigers GM) Dave Dombroski, too. Mr Ilitch has gotta be proud as hell."
Needless to say the smiles were even wider Saturday night as the Red Wings earned their first win of this young season, a taut 2-0 victory against the Penguins, just hours after Tigers knocked the heavily favored Yankees out of the postseason with a one-sided 8-1 victory in game 4 Saturday afternoon at Comerica Park.
The Red Wings flew home after Saturday's game and knew they would find a mob scene downtown as the city eagerly embraces the renaissance of the Tigers. To a man, they were looking forward to the still-rollicking celebrations in the city Saturday night, as well as the tense games to come as the postseason drags deeper into October in Detroit -- a most unlikely scenario at the start of this season.
For the Red Wings, like the rest of the city, will be happy to suffer Tigers fever for another three weeks.
After spending three full days around the Penguins, it is clear that this team is living up to its evolution-themed marketing strategy.
This year's Penguins are a far different club than the one that struggled through last season. Most importantly, they are a much more difficult team to play against. It appears there will be very few easy nights playing against these hungry Pens.
It's core group of young players -- Sidney Crosby, Ray Whitney, Colby Armstrong and Marc-Andre Fleury -- are a year older and a year wiser. The veteran leadership, exemplified by Marc Recchi and John LeClair, has bought into this youth movement and done everything possible to support it.
Plus, the Penguins made some smart acquisitions in regards to role players. Dominic Moore has the makings of an elite checking center and plays a thinking man's game that will serve him well under coach Michel Therrien. Winger Jarkko Ruutu is already a fan favorite because of his rambunctious playing style. Mark Eaton, meanwhile, is a consummate stay-at-home defenseman who plays the conservative game necessary to allow Sergei Gonchar the opportunity to play his high-risk, high-reward game.
Plus, the Penguins have an additional wave of young players that are already proving they are ready for prime time. Evgeni Malkin, considered the best player not in the NHL last season, has yet to play for the Pens because of a shoulder separation. Jordan Staal, this year's first-round pick, has looked comfortable in his first two games and has been entrusted with penalty-killing and power-play duty. Defenseman Kris Letang has displayed a strong skating style and decisive mind in his time on the NHL stage.
Most importantly, Therrien has placed his confidence in this developing team and has it believing it can be an immediate winner.
A great day for hockey
Sometimes, special games just fall into your lap.
Thursday night was one of those special times at Mellon Arena.
Home openers always have the potential for greatness as the optimism of a fresh start tints the whole of the proceedings. But, mere optimism cannot alone carry a game to the level of greatness. There must be more.
Thursday, the Penguins delivered the "more" required in dramatic fashion as a wild day was capped by an even wilder night.
News that the Penguins had been sold broke during the morning skate, bringing with it a myriad of emotions throughout the city.
There was sadness that Mario Lemieux, the team's former franchise player, was abdicating his current role as owner. Their was hope that Jim Balsillie's willingness to pony up the $175 million necessary to sign Thursday's purchase agreement would kick-start the process of landing the team a new downtown arena, something everyone agrees is necessary to keep this wonderful team in this deserving city. There was apprehension, unfounded at this early stage, that the new owner has plans to relocate the team in the not-too-distant future.
For several hours, that cauldron of conflicting emotions simmered at a high boil throughout the region. But at 7:30 p.m., joy overtook all those other feelings as the Penguins dropped the puck on another season.
Just like that, the 2006-07 season was suddenly upon the city of Pittsburgh and the 16,957 fans that packed the old barn greeted its arrival in uproarious fashion as their beloved team enters the season with a collection of young stars and a bright long-term future.
And to make things extra sweet, the Philadelphia Flyers -- a hated Atlantic Division and in-state rival -- was on hand to play the villain this night.
Surely, a better recipe for an instant classic could not be configured. That is unless you threw in an emphatic shutout by the "good" guys for good measure, which is exactly what happened.
"It's about time we opened up the season," Michel Therrien, the Pittsburgh coach, said after the dust settled on Pittsburgh 4, Philadelphia 0. "We got a new owner, a big win, a shutout and it's a rivalry game. It's a great day."
By the way, did we mention that it was Lemieux's 41st birthday and the team re-raised his No. 66 sweater to the Mellon Arena rafters before the game in a raucous ceremony. Le Manifique, indeed!
Balsillie, on hand to see his new potential investment and meet the Pittsburgh press for the first time, had to like what he saw.
The pre-game ceremony, which featured actual live penguins waddling out onto the playing surface as part of a clever takeoff on the hit documentary, "The March of the Penguins," was brilliant.
The game itself was even better.
But, it was just the beginning.
Sidney Crosby, the 19-year-old superstar, scored a "Sidney Crosby Special" to put the game away at 3-0 in the second, turning on the afterburners to get behind the Philly defense and than rifling a laser beam that ticked off the inside post and left Flyer goalie Robert Esche shaking his head.
Crosby's running mate, the equally young and precocious Colby Armstrong, shook the very foundation of the building with a thunderbolt of a mid-ice hit on Sami Kapanen that was immediately followed by a wild bout of fisticuffs with rugged Flyer defenseman Nolan Baumgartner. Armstrong received a standing ovation on his way to the penalty box for a well-deserved rest.
In all, eight different players registered a point, with Crosby, Jarkko Ruutu and Michel Ouellet recording two-point nights.
Rookie Jordan Staal, the second overall pick in this past June's draft, and the younger brother of Carolina star Eric Staal, did not score, but played solidly in his NHL debut. He saw time on both the power-play unit and on the penalty kill, showing hints of the greatness that is projected for him.
Pittsburgh's new-look penalty-kill unit proved to be a huge departure from the unit that struggled so mightily last season. In fact, Pittsburgh killed all 10 power plays it encountered by playing old-fashioned, get-your-nose-dirty hockey. Ruutu earned an ovation of his own, in fact, for blocking slap shots on back-to-back kills.
Several minutes after it was all over, many of the Penguin faithful remained in the arena, serenading their new heroes as the players celebrated quietly in the dressing room.
The consensus among those players matched the summation of their coach. Thursday was, indeed, a great hockey day in Pittsburgh.
Making a list of things to appreciate
Opening Night promises to be an exciting time as the NHL kicks off its 2006-07 season with three contests with abundant story lines.
Carolina hosts Buffalo in a rematch of their epoch seven-game Eastern Conference Final series from last spring. The Hurricanes will raise their well-earned championship banner to the rafters of RBC Center, putting in place a permanent reminder to the hockey excellence they achieved last season.
Toronto will host the Ottawa Senators in the latest reincarnation of this bitter Ontario rivalry. For the first time in recent memory, Toronto enters one of these games as the decided underdog, a club that missed the playoffs last spring now rebuilding under new coach Paul Maurice. The Senators, meanwhile, appear to be among the strongest teams entering the fray this fall.
Finally, Dallas visits the Avalanche still stinging from the upset Colorado sprung on the favored Stars in the first round of last season's playoffs. That little bit of extra zing should add some additional spice to an already passionate rivalry.
Then, during the course of the next few days, the League's other 24 teams will open play, each harboring hopes of taking the first step in a journey that it hopes will culminate with the Stanley Cup being paraded around the ice by its players.
Because, in the end, that is what Opening Night is all about -- hope. The past, as painful or glorious as it might be, is done -- relegated to just another chapter in the game's long and glorious history. The future, meanwhile, remains to be written by the deeds of the players entrusted to bring glory to their franchises. The present, for too short a time for most, is flush with possibilities.
So, as the League's players, coaches and front offices finish the final preparations before embarking on what promises to be a long and wild ride through the fall and winter months before culminating in the warmth of the spring, I figured it would be a good time to take a look at some of the things I am looking forward to seeing during the regular season as I embark on my 14th season of chronicling this wonderful sport.
The list, in no particular order, features 82 things -- one for each regular-season game on the schedule of each team -- that I plan to savor as we wind our way through the 2006-07 season.
82. The Carolina Hurricanes and their fanatical fans enjoying the spoils of their victory last season in what promises to be a raucous banner-raising ceremony.
81. Madison Square Garden slowly but surely coming back to life as the Rangers rebound from their fallow period. No place embraces hockey like MSG when the Blueshirts are competitive.
79. Minnesota's Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra making beautiful music together in Minnesota, providing the Wild with a new offensive dynamic that has been absent for far too long.
78. Nashville's Jordin Tootoo wearing No. 22. Get it?
77. Eight more installments of the Battle of Alberta. All the grace, passion, and brutality that make hockey the beautiful game it is.
76. Speaking of Calgary, watching Alex Tanguay make nifty little passes to Jarome Iginala, reawaking the goal-scoring beast that is the Calgary captain.
75. Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger manning the points on the Ducks' power-play first power-play unit. Poetry in motion at warp speed.
73. New Jersey's Brian Gionta darting through a swarm of much-larger players to be in the right place at the right time for another goal that should not, by rights, be his.
72. A packed and frenzied Joe Louis Arena rocking the very foundation of the stately old barn as Steve Yzerman's No. 19 is raised to the rafters, the final chapter in a two-decade love affair between player and city.
71. A packed and frenzied STAPLES Center rocking the very foundation of the new barn as Luc Robitaille's sweater is raised to the roof to honor one of the great stories of perseverance that define the very soul of hockey.
70. Ted Nolan once again standing behind an NHL bench, cajoling and extolling his team, this time the New York Islanders, to play the passionate, no-quarter-given game that was the coach's calling card during his glory days in Buffalo.
69. Hockey Hall of Fame induction weekend in early November when coach Herb Brooks receives the long overdue honor of hockey immortality; wishing all the while that the man was there to enjoy another well-deserved moment in the spotlight.
68. Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller continuing his ascension to the top of the goaltending heap, playing the fluid, devil-may-care style that put an extra spring in the step of his Buffalo teammates last spring.
66. Ottawa's top line bedeviling opponents on a nightly basis with their deadly combination of speed and skill. Spurred by the singular brilliance of Dany Heatley, Ottawa's top line can do things at top speed that most lines around the NHL can only dream about.
65. Paul Maurice, so young and energetic, showing of his well-earned coaching experience as he tries to scheme a rebuilding Toronto team back into the playoffs.
64. Any interview with New York Ranger defenseman Aaron Ward. The man makes hockey fun with his quotes, observations and self-deprecating humor.
63. Talking hockey with Jacques Lemaire. Much of the little I know about the game was derived from post-practice sessions with the master tactician when I was a cub newspaper reporter and he was at the top of his game with New Jersey.
62. Reading about hockey from talented and wry observers of the game -- John Buccigross and E.J. Hradek over at ESPN, the staff at the Boston Globe, almost anything done by the Edmonton, Toronto and Calgary beat writers and by NHL.com cohorts John McGourty, Phil Coffey and blogger Paul Kukla. All provide must-read material throughout the season.
61. Hearing NHL contributor Mike Emrick calling a game. He is among the best the sport has ever had. His national telecasts are rightfully lauded, but his true brilliance comes through in his nightly calls of the New Jersey Devils.
60. Listening to Lauren Hart sing the National Anthem before a big Flyers game at the Wachovia Center. I can feel the chills down my spine just thinking about it.
59. Hearing "Oh Canada" at any time, but especially before the start of a game in any of the six Canadian-based arenas.
58. Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts. God bless the Center Ice package!
57. The Satellite Hotstove segments during the aforementioned HNIC telecasts.
56. Don Cherry. He's often over-the-top, but usually provocative and entertaining.
55. Rod Brind'Amour scoring his 400th NHL goal. He is just 18 away. It is unlikely it will be pretty, but that's OK because Brind'Amour makes ugly goals a thing of beauty anyway. Brind'Amour also has a shot at the 600 assists and 1,000-point milestones this year.
53. The ageless Chris Chelios, who has already played in 1,476 NHL games, moving up the list in all-time games played. If the Detroit defenseman misses fewer than eight games this year, he will move from 13th to 8th on that list.
52. Morning skates. Any day that includes an early-morning trip to an NHL rink is a good day in my book.
51. Having my son, Alex, just 21 months, scream "hockey, hockey" every time the game comes on TV.
50. Listening to West Coast games on my Sirius satellite radio as I drive home from East Coast games.
49. Meeting and talking to fans at every arena I go to. They are the lifeblood of the game and, without them, I don't have this job.
48. Going to a Providence Bruins game with my dad during my annual Thanksgiving trip back home to Rhode Island.
47. Watching Chris Higgins take the next step in his career with the Montreal Canadiens.
46. Taking in a live game at the Igloo. Yes, the Penguins need a new arena, but their current home has a ton of character.
45. A meal at Al Biernat's steakhouse during the All-Star Weekend in Dallas.
44. VERSUS, nee OLN, continuing its quest to become a destination for televised hockey in the United States. The network made huge strides last season and I expect even more this year.
42. Post-game quotes from John Tortorella, one of the most candid men in hockey today. You never know what he will say, but it's usually good -- unless you are a player in his doghouse.
41. Any game that involves Washington's Alexander Ovechkin or Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby.
40. Any game that pits Crosby against Ovechkin.
39. The 2007 All-Star Game, which could and should feature Crosby and Ovechkin on the same line.
38. Sneaking off on an off-day to watch a local Junior game or high school game. No, it is not at the level of the Canadian junior leagues, but it is still good hockey and I guess I am a junkie.
37. Watching the Boston Bruins return to their hard-working ways under the influence of new coach Dave Lewis and new defenseman Zdeno Chara.
36. Hockey mattering again in Boston late in the season. Boston was a hockey town before it was a baseball or football town. It should be that way again.
35. The Beanpot tournament. This beauty of a tournament, featuring the four Boston-based Division I college teams, should tell you all you need to know about the love of hockey Bostonians possess.
33. Home-and-home series.
32. New Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo finally enjoying and thriving in the national hockey spotlight he has so richly deserved for years.
31. Rick Nash approaching 50 goals as he stays healthy for an entire season in Columbus.
30. Watching Shane Doan play hockey in Phoenix. Doan plays the game hard, but fair, in a style that harkens back to the rough-and-tumble style of the late '70s, when I first fell in love with the game.
29. Seeing Chicago youngsters Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith develop into an elite defensemen despite a lack of fanfare.
28. Brenden Morrow wearing the "C" in Dallas. Mike Modano was and is a great player for the Stars, but Morrow is now the unquestioned soul of that franchise.
27. Every shift New Jersey's Sergei Brylin takes. Nobody plays the game harder or with more discipline. "Sarge" is like the Energizer Bunny of hockey.
26. San Jose's Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo playing together for a full year. The two could combine for 250 points. Enough said there.
25. Marc Crawford behind the bench in Los Angeles, beginning the same quick transformation job he engineered in both Colorado and Vancouver.
23. Watching Martin Brodeur during practice. The man is so good even in practice that it boggles the mind, yet he has as much fun on the ice as any player in the League.
22. New Tampa Bay goalie Marc Denis finally getting a chance to play behind an established team with legitimate Stanley Cup hopes.
21. Beating my office mates in NHL.com's free fantasy game.
20. Watching the World Junior Championships during the holiday season.
19. Tracking the prospects that will make headlines this summer at the 2007 NHL Entry Draft in Columbus.
18. Watching the USHL continue to grow in prestige under the leadership of President Gino Gasparini and Deputy Commissioner Bill Bredin.
17. Talking to scouts at various arenas to get an insider's look at the players and the game.
16. My annual trip to Toronto for a game. Games in Toronto never seem to disappoint and the city can't be beat for hockey atmosphere.
15. Losing myself for several hours in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
14. Entering the losing dressing room after a tough game and being surprised, once again, at the grace with which players can process a monumental setback and move on.
13. Relating a story, in the written word, about a player that has never been told.
12. Sitting in an empty arena two hours before a game, headphones in my ears, visualizing what might take place in the coming game.
11. Catching up with retired players, often finding that life after hockey has been as good as life in the game.
10. Reading No. 4, Bobby Orr, by Mike Leonetti to my son before bed time.
9. Watching veteran players, past their primes, scratch and claw to remain in the game and contribute in ways they never thought would be asked of them. And doing it with unimaginable dignity.
8. Breakaway goals.
7. Hearing "I Want to Drive the Zamboni" between periods at almost every arena in North America.
6. Skating on a frozen pond as the cold air burns your lungs and toes and fingers go numb. A too rare treat in New Jersey for the past decade.
5. Arguing about the game, favorite players and favorite teams with friends who have different viewpoints.
4. Chasing down and dissecting trade rumors.
3. Following the European pro leagues with the help of the Internet and the excellent columns by Bill Meltzer here on NHL.com.
2. The last-month excitement and passion of a close playoff race.
1. Reading e-mails -- both good and bad -- from my readers. Thanks for writing and keeping me on my toes. As I said already, each of you are the reason I have this platform to pass on my love of the game. Thank you again for reading.
I'd love to hear the things you are looking forward to this season. Keep them short and sweet and I'll run the best ones in my next blog. Include your name and your hometown in the e-mail and send it to Roarkeblog@nhl.com.