TORONTO – The NHL hopes the healing process starts as soon as the puck drops on its 94th season.
After an unprecedented summer that saw more than two-thirds of its teams lose a current or former player in a tragic manner, there were no shortage of heavy hearts to be found around the league.
“This was a sad and tragic time that virtually everybody in our game felt,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “The impact of this summer’s events (affected everyone) in some way or other. But people and the game are resilient. The best way to honour those who are no longer with us is to focus on making next season even better.”
Every team was also sent a tribute video from the league that is to be played in its home arena and accompanied by a moment of silence.
They’ll be honouring Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak along with the victims of the plane crash involving KHL team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, which included a number of former NHLers: Pavol Demitra, Ruslan Salei, Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek, Karlis Skrastins, Alexander Vasyunov and coaches Brad McCrimmon, Alexander Karpovtsev and Igor Korolev.
The NHL’s 1,230-game schedule kicks off Thursday with the Boston Bruins raising their Stanley Cup banner at TD Garden prior to facing the Philadelphia Flyers. In other games on opening night, Toronto hosts Montreal while Vancouver faces Pittsburgh.
Winnipeg officially makes its long-awaited return to the NHL after 15 years when it hosts the Habs at MTS Centre on Sunday afternoon.
“I think there’ll be a little bit of hype,” said Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff. “It’s kind of like everything for us this year: There’s been a lot of preparation and a lot of time that’s gone in, but at the end of the day you just want to get things started.
“I think that’s where everyone is at.”
The NHL schedule also includes four regular-season games in three different European cities this month, an outdoor game at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Ballpark between the Flyers and Rangers on Jan. 2, and the all-star game at Ottawa’s Scotiabank Place on Jan. 29.
Players around the league start the year on high alert after a renewed focus on safety that began with the hiring of Brendan Shanahan to handle supplemental discipline in June and included the broadening of rules governing boarding and checking to the head.
Shanahan didn’t hesitate before putting a stamp on his new position by handing out nine suspensions during the pre-season. Each of them accompanied the release of a video with him explaining the ruling—an aspect Bettman added to the job because he felt decisions by predecessor Colin Campbell were often “misunderstood.”
“This gives everybody an opportunity to look at the video the way the person dispensing supplemental discipline is looking at it,” said Bettman. “There are a lot more tools in Brendan’s toolbox—including the amendments to rules 41 (for boarding) and 48 (for head checking)—because of the nuanced differences about what will be tolerated and what is expected.
“My understanding is players are watching these videos religiously in the locker-rooms and that’s a good things as we’re trying to change the culture and try to make the game a little bit safer.”
The safety of the sport was repeatedly questioned last year, especially after Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby had his finest NHL season halted by a concussion. He remains sidelined 10 months after suffering the injury but expects to return at some point this season.
“I wouldn’t bet against it,” said Crosby.
With opening night rosters still to be finalized by Wednesday afternoon, it appeared that at least five players drafted in June would start the year in the NHL: top pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers, Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog (No. 2), New Jersey’s Adam Larsson (No. 4), Ottawa’s Mika Zibanejad (No. 6) and Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele (No. 7).
Philadelphia’s Sean Couturier, Carolina’s Ryan Murphy, Chicago’s Brandon Saad and Ryan Strome of the New York Islanders were also bidding to make the jump.
The NHL marked the end of an era over the summer when Mark Recchi and Mike Modano each announced their retirement. They were the final two active players who made their debuts in the league during the 1980’s.
While the sport has trended towards younger players in recent years, a few old-timers remain: Tampa Bay Lightning No. 1 goalie Dwayne Roloson, who turns 42 this month; Anaheim Ducks winger Teemu Selanne, back for another season at age 41; and 39-year-old Jaromir Jagr, who signed with the Philadelphia Flyers after spending three years in the KHL.
The strongest teams from a year ago all remain in contention to make a bid for the Stanley Cup. Neither the Bruins or Vancouver Canucks suffered many significant losses to the rosters they used during a seven-game championship series in June.
Once again, Vancouver appears to have the best chance among Canadian teams to end the country’s Stanley Cup drought at 19 years. The biggest challenge it will face is moving on from the disappointment of losing to Boston.
“We have to turn the page on last year,” said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault. “At the end of the day we didn’t win. We’re in this to win. I know we are going to have a very motivated group.”
Washington, San Jose, Pittsburgh and Chicago also fancy themselves as contenders.
Off the ice, it will be big news when Bettman and Donald Fehr, the executive director of the NHL Players’ Association, sit down to start negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. The current deal expires in September 2012.
The league also plans to undergo a realignment for the 2012-13 season and Bettman hopes to have that contentious process wrapped up by December. Winnipeg will spend this season in the Southeast Division of the Eastern Conference before being moved West and a number of franchises are vying to take its place.
Reminders of the tragic losses endured by the sport throughout the summer will be a constant this season.
At least three goaltenders have had tributes painted on their masks—Jaroslav Halak of the St. Louis Blues, Jimmy Howard of the Detroit Red Wings and Josh Harding of the Minnesota Wild—and a number of teams plan to wear stickers on their helmets or patches on their sweaters to honour former members of their organization who were killed.