After a summer that lasted far too long, the NHL is finally back on ice, beginning with Saturday’s game between the Los Angeles Kings
and the Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks
The Premiere Series, which concludes with Sunday’s game between the same two teams -- again at the O2 Arena -- arrives just in time for all of us hockey-starved fans. But the Premiere Series is a mere appetizer –- albeit a tasty one -- before the opening of the regular season in North America just days later.
Opening days remain among the most special events in any sport. The clean slate and the undeniable sense of hope that permeates the mindset of each of the NHL’s 30 teams is a big part of that. But the lure of the unknown -– what exactly will happen during the course of the next 1,230 regular-season games? –- also is a draw.
For those of us who are hardcore fans, the season is a blank canvas, waiting to be painted by the players on a nightly basis until yet another masterpiece is fully created come playoff time in early April.
Like you, I don’t know what will happen during the 2007-08 season, but I like to dream about it. Here are some of the things -- 82 to be exact (just like a regular-season schedule) -- I am looking forward to as we finish preparations for Saturday’s opening-day game. Whether they happen or not remains to be seen, but just thinking about the possibilities will make the wait for Saturday a little more palatable
1. Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby taking the next step on his journey to greatness. Can he reach 147 points this season, which would mean he accomplished the same 27-point increase Wayne Gretzky had from his second season to his third?
2. Dallas’ Mike Modano breaking the all-time record for points by an American-born player. Modano has been a standard bearer for USA Hockey for so long that he is often taken for granted. This record will assure his legacy is properly recorded for future generations.
3. The Patrick Kane show kicking off in Chicago. Is he ready? Can he follow in Crosby’s footsteps? Can he be the next American icon? We start to find out this week.
4. Anaheim’s defense of the Stanley Cup. GM Brian Burke has already said that he will not stand for the slow start that has plagued so many recent teams that have played into June. Things could get interesting quickly at the Duck Pond.
5. Speaking of Anaheim, the return of Scott Niedermayer. It looks bleaker by the day that the smooth-skating, soft-spoken defender will return, instead announcing the retirement he has been mulling all summer. If he leaves, it will be far too early and he will be missed.
6. The start of the Brent Sutter era in New Jersey. Have a team and a coach ever been more suited for each other? Sutter is the consummate disciplinarian, and the Devils seem to play best when the whip is being applied. Could this be the year that the aging Devils find a way to win a fourth Stanley Cup since 1995?
7. The Mike Keenan show in Calgary. “Iron Mike” is always good for a headline, an inflammatory quote or a bubbling sideshow. Hockey needs personality like that in the game. And Calgary, it seems, needs his autocratic ways.
8. The outdoor game in Buffalo on New Year’s Day. It sold out in mere minutes and features Crosby against goalie Ryan Miller of the Sabres. What better way to kick off a new year?
9. Speaking of winter, here’s to the World Junior Championships, perhaps the best international tournament of them all. Contested around the Christmas holidays, this year’s affair should be even better than last year’s thrilling show.
10. Young defenseman Jack Johnson playing a full season in Los Angeles. His five-game audition at the end of last season has certainly whetted the appetite.
11. Calgary’s rugged defenseman Dion Phaneuf delivering one of his board-rattling hip checks.
12. Nashville defender Shea Weber emerging from the shadows to become an elite defenseman this season. The youngster has all the tools -- especially the shot and his demeanor -- to become an elite defender for the next decade or more.
13. The rebuilding process in Philadelphia. Flyer management has aggressively remade their last-place team and it should be vastly better this season. The Flyers will be one of the most fun teams in the League to watch.
14. The All-Star Game going to Atlanta this winter. Atlanta is an underrated hockey city, and its arena is one the few barns that I have not been to yet.
15. The beginning of the Bill Guerin Era on Long Island. It’s hard to imagine that this is the vet’s first captaincy. He will bring the grit and passion that are trademarks of a Ted Nolan-coached team. The Islanders will not be an easy team to play this season, that’s for sure.
16. Wayne Gretzky finally turning the corner in Phoenix and hopefully leading his team into the playoffs for the first time during his tenure behind the bench. Gretzky has done too much for hockey to continually miss the postseason.
17. Florida’s Rostislav Olesz taking another step in his journey toward delivering on his status as a first-round draft pick. The 22-year-old center could well be one of the biggest surprises this season.
18. Sheldon Souray’s booming slap shot relocating to Edmonton and echoing across the Canadian prairies as he tries to help right the Oilers.
19. Joe Thornton’s dizzying array of passes in San Jose. There isn’t a better passer in the NHL, and watching him distribute the puck to the Sharks’ fleet of talented forwards is one of the true treats of any NHL season.
20. The understated brilliance of Nick Lidstrom. All the Detroit defenseman does is log huge minutes and win. Yes, he has won a handful of Norris Trophies for his efforts, but he is still underappreciated by the casual hockey fan.
21. A quick return to health for Philadelphia’s Scottie Upshall, who could be out up to six weeks with a fractured wrist. A forgotten part of GM Paul Holmgren’s makeover of the roster, Upshall is a better player than he is usually given credit for. That should change during his time in The City of Brotherly Love.
22. The debut of Scott Gomez and Chris Drury as New York Rangers. These two slick-passing, speedy pivots should give the Rangers one of the most dynamic attacks in the League.
23. Speaking of Drury and Gomez, their respective debuts against their former teams -– New Jersey for Gomez and Buffalo for Drury -– will be can’t-miss affairs.
24. Toronto’s Vesa Toskala finally being given the opportunity to lose the label of quality backup and grab the No. 1 job with the Maple Leafs in what should be an entertaining season-long battle with incumbent Andrew Raycroft.
25. An annual pilgrimage, with my father and my son, to see the Providence Bruins play an American Hockey League game at the Dunkin Donuts Center. Does it get better than that?
26. The music at the Nassau Coliseum. It remains the most eclectic soundtrack in the NHL, in my opinion.
27. Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo continuing his campaign to be recognized as the best goalie in the game today.
28. New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur holding off Luongo for at least another season and likely setting a few more records in the process.
29. Ottawa’s Jason Spezza once again serving as the engine that makes the Senators’ offense go at full speed.
30. As a result of Spezza’s brilliance, Ottawa’s Dany Heatley having the opportunity to chase his third straight 50-goal season.
31. Claude Julien proving that he had much to do with New Jersey’s success last season, before his shocking firing in the season’s last week. He can do that by supervising the Bruins revival in his rookie campaign behind the Boston bench.
32. Buffalo’s Derek Roy stepping seamlessly into the vacancy made by the departure of high-scoring center Daniel Briere, who signed with Philadelphia in the summer.
33. Buffalo’s second-year man, Drew Stafford, quickly emerging as one of the most talented power forwards in the Eastern Conference.
34. Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf turning the same trick out West. He might be the most underappreciated player in the Western Conference.
35. Colorado’s youth brigade carrying the Avs to new heights this season. No team may have the depth of young talent that Colorado possesses in Marek Svatos, Paul Stastny, Wojtek Wolski and, perhaps, T.J. Hensick.
36. Carolina shaking off last year’s Stanley Cup hangover and returning to elite status this season.
37. Watching the “Alexander squared” show in Washington. Dynamic Russians Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin are among the most fascinating one-two punches in the League today.
38. Staying in the Southeast, it’ll be a blast to watch Atlanta try to defend its first-ever divisional title and shake off the shock of a first-round sweep at the hands of the Rangers.
39. A rebound season from Brad Richards. He is too good to get down on himself like he did last season in compiling a 70-point season. A happier, more confident Richards will restore the “Big Three” concept to the Lightning, combining with 100-point men Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis to give opposing coaches a three-headed monster to try to slay.
40. Ah, Vincent Lecavalier. How about his quest to become the acknowledged best all-around player in the League? It’s a title that has been handed to him by several influential commentators -- interesting stuff, for sure.
41. The ascension of Carey Price in Montreal. It may take a while, but Price is the franchise-goalie-in-waiting for the Habs. How soon will he inherit his position remains of the most intriguing questions of the new season.
42. St. Louis’ Erik Johnson joining the list of quality young defensemen flooding into the League and surpassing many of the others on that list before the season is complete. Johnson, no relation to Jack Johnson, should be a Rookie of the Year candidate when all is said and done.
43. Watching David Vyborny playing sound, fundamental hockey in Columbus. Maybe this is the season that he will be recognized across the League for how good he is.
44. Speaking of underrated, how about Brian Rolston out in Minnesota? Is there any forward that does more things well and makes it look easier than Rolston? I don’t think so.
45. The same can be said for Sergei Brylin in New Jersey. It will be interesting to see how many minutes he gets under Brent Sutter, who values hard-working, disciplined and fundamentally sound players. Nobody works harder and is more fundamentally sound and disciplined than the man they call “Sarge” in New Jersey.
46. The wild and wacky race for playoff spots down the stretch. Four teams finished within six points of the final playoff spot in the East. Colorado, with an amazing finishing kick, missed by a point bin the West. Just goes to show that every point does count.
47. Another Staal joining the League. New York’s Marc Staal, a defenseman, will be the third Staal to play in the NHL, following in the familial footsteps of Eric (Carolina) and Jordan (Pittsburgh).
48. Speaking of Jordan Staal, what’s better than watching the teenager kill penalties in that relentless hound-dog style that netted him a rookie record of seven shorthand goals.
49. As for Eric Staal, here’s to watching him continue the maturation process that will see him take over for Rod Brind’Amour as the team leader in Raleigh.
50. And here’s hoping that transition lasts a few more years. Brind’Amour is still too good and too fit to be brushed aside. If you want to learn how to win a faceoff, watch Brind’Amour, who seems to take every draw for the ‘Canes.
51. The Hall of Fame Class of 2007. Has there ever been a better class than Mark Messier, Scott Stevens, Al McInnis and Ron Francis? I think not.
52. Watching Jim Gregory get inducted into the builder’s section, with those great players. You would be hard-pressed to find a finer gentleman in the game, and he has done more for hockey than most people will ever realize. It is a just reward for a fine career. Congrats, Jim.
53. Speaking of fine careers, let’s all take a minute this season to appreciate the body of work laid down by referee Mick McGeough, who is retiring after this season. Love him or hate him, there is no denying that he is a true great. In this corner, he will be missed.
54. Don Cherry finally returning to our television sets. Coach’s Corner is a can’t-miss segment every Saturday. The bombastic and controversial Cherry loves the game, and that passion comes through in his commentary.
55. Hockey Night in Canada doubleheaders every Saturday. Enough said.
56. The Center Ice package. Every game, every night. A hockey-holic’s fix.
57. Game summaries in the morning. Perusing the box scores on the train each morning, imagining how the events unfolded is a perfect way to pass the morning commute on the train.
58. Checking your imagined scenarios about the box scores against the actual highlights, provided by NHL.com, of course.
59. Running into old friends at rinks across the country –- be they sportswriters, team personnel or players.
60. The stories. Nobody tells better stories -– or have better stories to tell -– than hockey people. Listening to these tales –- for the first or 50th time -– is one of the perks of this job.
61. Speaking of stories, that’s usually what you get listening to hockey on the radio. There is simply no better way to pass the time on a long drive through the night than listening to a hockey game on the radio.
62. NHL Live. The afternoon hockey show on XM, which is also streamed on NHL.com, is a perfect fix for hockey news around the League. Don LaGreca and the boys do a great job getting good guests and having some fun during the two-hour show.
63. Hockey Day in Canada. The CBC scores big marks for its annual hockey marathon, spotlighting the game at all levels in the hockey-mad country. It is the perfect pick-me-up in the dead of winter.
64. The trade deadline. It has changed some in the past few years, but it remains the most exciting day of the regular season. The rumors, the intrigue, the gossip and the speculation warm a hockey junkie’s heart in late February.
65. Eric Perrin finding a home in Atlanta. The journeyman forward has chased his dream for more than a decade before finding a modicum of success last season. Now, he’s signed with Atlanta, hoping to make an even bigger contribution.
66. The Newfoundland connection continuing to have an impact on the NHL. Montreal’s Michael Ryder, Detroit’s Dan Cleary and San Jose’s Ryane Clowe are among the Newfoundlanders that have found success in recent years.
67. Montreal’s Chris Higgins playing a full season. If not for injuries, Higgins would have likely had the best season of his young career in 2006-07. He is an adept penalty killer that plays well in all three zones. He should be the foundation of Montreal’s attack for years to come.
68. Boston’s Phil Kessel being healthy for a full season and delivering further on the promise he showed after courageously returning from testicular cancer, which was diagnosed and treated during the season.
69. Seeing Jacques Lemaire behind the bench in Minnesota. Still among the sharpest minds in the game, Lemaire is the reason Minnesota has found so much success so quickly. Plus, he was meant to coach, so it is always reassuring to see him leading the troops
70. The Battle of Alberta. Calgary vs. Edmonton is still what the game should be about.
71. Anaheim vs. the Kings. It doesn’t matter that the first two games will be played in faraway London, these two teams don’t like each other and the games are always intense.
72. The first visit to the Prudential Center in Newark. When completed, the Prudential will be the benchmark for all arenas that follow.
73. Devils vs. Rangers. It became a legitimate rivalry in 1994 and it hasn’t lessened since. Now that both teams are playoff contenders again, it is even more bitterly contested.
74. Boston vs. Montreal. Original Six drama and intrigue.
75. The Battle of Ontario. Ottawa and Toronto slugging it out for provincial bragging rights is always grand hockey theater at its best.
76. Blogs. The new frontier of hockey journalism is finding its feet and feeling its oats. More in-depth information on teams is available now because of these dedicated and independent posters.
77. The voices of hockey return, For some, it is Mike Emrick, for others it is Ric Jeanneret, for others, someone else. The particular voice doesn’t matter, only that the soundtrack of our winter has again returned.
78. Walking into the O2 Arena Saturday night to hear and see passionate hockey fans from all over welcome the NHL to London.
79. The shootouts. Agree with them or not, they are spellbinding.
80. The penalty shot. So rare, during game play, and so much darn fun.
81. Taking my 2-year-old son, Alex, skating for the first time later this fall and passing on the hockey jones to yet another generation.
82. Every day of the season. That should be self-explanatory.
There it is; 82 reasons to be even more excited for Saturday’s opener. Let’s drop the puck already.