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Drop the puck! NHL season kicks off Saturday with Ducks and Kings in London

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LONDON - Now it's for real. The first points of the 2007-'08 NHL season are at stake Saturday when the Los Angeles Kings get first crack at taking down the Stanley Cup-champion Anaheim Ducks.

Practice for both teams seemed to have a little more edge on the eve of the NHL's regular-season opener (noon ET). "There's a subtle feeling that comes over a team," said Kings head coach Marc Crawford. "And you can see it in the players, there's a little more focus in their eyes.

"There's more energy in the practice. I felt that today."

The Kings and Ducks meet again Sunday as the NHL plays its first-ever regular-season games in Europe before a sold-out crowd at the new 02 Arena.

"Every team is excited on opening night but this has a little more lustre because of the locale," said Crawford.

Regular-season games in North America get going next Wednesday. For now the focus in here in London, where the NHL hasn't exactly taken this city by storm - the NFL's Miami Dolphins-New York Giants game here later in October is generating more buzz. But the two hockey games did sell out and after minimal media coverage earlier this week the local press were out in decent numbers Friday.

Will it be enough to come back? The NHL hasn't committed yet to doing this again next year or in future years elsewhere in Europe.

"What we're going do to is debrief once the experience is over, talk to the teams, talk to the players and make sure, not so much today and tomorrow, but next week when they're back and they've re-adjusted to the time zones that everything is OK," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Friday at a news conference.

"If this works well, we're going to want to use this as a stepping stone."

After some initial misgivings about making the trek overseas, the players have bought in.

"It's an honour for us to be over here and try and market the game to a new group of fans who hopefully will become dieheard NHL fans," said new Ducks captain Chris Pronger.

Pronger and 12 other Ducks teammates went golfing at Royal St. George's on Thursday, a famous club that will host its 14th British Open in 2011.

"We saw a lot of the country side on the way to the golf course," said Pronger. "It rained the first half. We got the full British Open experience - cold, rainy and windy. And then it was pretty nice the second half."

Teammate Todd Marchant gave up before reaching the turn.

"I golfed six holes and then it just started coming down. I looked at my playing partner Travis Moen and said, 'that's it, we're going in,"' Marchant said with a laugh.

His highlight so far was seeing the London Bridge and the Tower Bridge.

"I was talking to my kids yesterday and I said, 'You guys know the nursery rhyme 'London Bridge is falling down? Daddy was on it today,' " said Marchant. "That was neat. It's part of history.

"If we're going to come all the way here to do this why not make it worthwhile."

Ducks tough guy George Parros had been to London before and done all the usual sightseeing spots, so he took a different approach this week.

"I've just kind of tubed around the city, saw some different areas and stayed away from the touristy spots," said Parros, whose moustache and rippling muscles make it impossible to disappear into a crowd.

Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle gave the players the day off Thursday so they could explore the city.

"They're human beings and they deserve to have the opportunity to see a little bit of London," said Carlyle. "A couple of them went to play golf yesterday. If you're an avid golfer, is there a better place to come and play if you can play some of the great British courses. Why wouldn't you take advantage of that? It would be crazy to try and limit those things. I think it's important to allow your players to have the freedom to do those things."

Carlyle? Not such a great day.

"I was sick, I spent the whole day in the hotel room," he said. "I slept all day. Nice day in London, eh?"

The Kings arrived from Austria on Thursday evening and owner Philip F. Anschutz took them on a boat cruise.

"It's definitely a learning experience for them," said Crawford. "We had a trip up the Thames last night, we saw all the architecture and all the famous buildings. The guys were having a decent time doing that. This is out of the ordinary for them."

That's going to be it for the sight-seeing and touring. With back-to-back games, the focus will be on the task at hand. The hotel and the rink are all the players will see from here on in.

"Our preparation today was so different than the last month," said Kings veteran Rob Blake. "It's because the regular season starts tomorrow and things start to count now."

The intrigue surrounding the Kings is with their goaltending situation. Jason Labarbera was supposed to be the man this year but somehow 19-year-old Jonathan Bernier remains with the team with backup J.S. Aubin also making it a crowded crease. Bernier, who starred for Canada in the Superseries earlier this month, says he hasn't been told anything yet.

"We don't know what's going on," said Bernier. "I want to make the club this year.

"Hopefully I stay here. If I go back to junior it's going to be a big disappointment although I will still play hard."

The Kings have a tough decision to make at some point over the next few weeks. Keep Bernier around because he's been the best goalie of the group so far, or send him back to junior for fear of damaging his development.

"You watch him and assess it day to day. You have to keep on gauging it," said Kings GM Dean Lombardi.

Crawford says Bernier will answer that question.

"His play is going to dictate what happens," said Crawford. "We know we've got gold there . . . we're also all very conscious of the fact we know he's going to be a great goaltender and we want to do the right thing for him.

"You want young kids to come in to your training camp and make it very difficult for you to anything but keep you. And he's done that."

So who starts in net Saturday?

"I'm leaning right towards rewarding the guy that really deserves it," Crawford said with a smile.

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