DENVER -- He's an elder statesman now, a 34-year-old right wing about to begin his 12th NHL season, but opening night never gets old for the Colorado Avalanche's Milan Hejduk.
"It's always a special game, the anticipation," Hejduk said following Thursday morning's skate at the Pepsi Center in preparation for this evening's regular-season opener against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
"I think it helps that we're playing a really good team right off the bat," Hejduk said. "Last year we (opened with) the Sharks and this year we play the champs. The atmosphere should be great. The '96 Stanley Cup team will be here. We are pumped. We are ready to go. It should be a great night."
The Avalanche's 1996 championship team held a 15-year reunion dinner Wednesday night and will be honored in a pregame ceremony.
A back problem hampered Hejduk in the preseason, when the Avalanche scored just 11 goals while losing five of seven games, but he pronounced himself fit to play against the Hawks.
Colorado is coming off a surprising 43-30-9 season and second-place finish in the Northwest Division after getting off to a 10-1-2 start.
"We have a lot to look forward to with the Hawks coming in," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said. "It should be a very easy game for our guys to get motivated for and to get up for. We had a real good night last night with the '95-96 Stanley Cup team. I don't think there's a lot to be said from my end to get our guys motivated."
The same could be said of the Hawks, who are defending a Cup title for the first time since previously winning it in 1961.
"I'm excited to play," right wing Patrick Kane said. "You play in the preseason, especially coming off playing in the Stanley Cup Finals, the preseason is tough to get up for. It's going to be exciting to get back on the ice and play games that count."
The Hawks went 3-0-1 against the Avalanche last season, but three of the games were decided in shootouts.
In a bit of a twist, Hawks coach Joel Quenneville attended the Avalanche's reunion dinner Wednesday night because he was an assistant coach with that championship team. He'll also take part in Thursday night's pregame ceremonies.
"It was a great night last night," he said. "It was great seeing everybody again. Everybody looks great. I think everybody had some great stories reminiscing. It's amazing how quickly 15 years goes past you. It was fun sharing that time and we'll do a little bit before the game, but once it starts it's back to trying to beat each other."