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Every team a potential champion as players anxious to start real NHL season

After an opening act in Europe the NHL is ready to raise the curtain on its 2008-09 season in North America on Thursday night.

It's the time of year when every team is a potential Stanley Cup champion and all the players are anxious to get started after a series of exhibition games.

Ron Wilson, the new coach charged with the task of trying to return the Toronto Maple Leafs to respectability, said now the real bullets start flying.

"It (the pre-season) has been like paint ball where you can get shot and you just wipe the paint off," Wilson said Wednesday. "Now you can get killed out there."

Vancouver's Daniel Sedin said he's looking forward to the Canucks' opening game at GM Place against the Calgary Flames.

"After a while those pre-season games, I don't want to say you get tired, but you want to get things going," said Sedin, who along with twin brother Henrik makes up the Canucks' pass-and-shoot combination. "Now we're finally here."

The Detroit Red Wings will open at home by raising their Stanley Cup championship banner prior to playing Toronto. For Detroit coach Mike Babcock, it was his first NHL championship.

"It goes up there and it's there forever," Babcock said in a conference call. "I spend a lot of time when I'm in an Original Six building . . . looking at all the history up there. To be part of history, I think, is a special, special thing."

Wilson said instead of leaving the woeful Leafs in the dressing room he may have them watch the banner ceremony as a way to inspire the team.,

"I think it's cool to watch that," he said. "Our goal is to turn ourselves into a competitive franchise where we have a shot at winning the Stanley Cup."

In other games, the Boston Bruins travel to Colorado to play the Avalanche and the Anaheim Ducks face the San Jose Sharks.

The rebuilt Canucks, who were 6-0-1 during the pre-season, are looking to rebound after missing the playoffs last season. That cost general manager Dave Nonis his job, leading to a shakeup in the team's front office and roster.

"We're hungry as a group," said goaltender Roberto Luongo, who will be the team's captain although NHL rules prevent him from wearing a C on his uniform. "We're disappointed the way things ended last year.

"We are pretty satisfied with the way we have played so far. We have to make sure we carry that over to Thursday night and every game after that."

The NHL season officially opened last weekend with the New York Rangers defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning twice in Prague, Czech Republic, and the Stanley Cup finalist Pittsburgh Penguins winning in overtime and losing to the Ottawa Senators in Stockholm, Sweden.

Many early season predictions have the Red Wings repeating as champions with Anaheim, San Jose, Dallas and even Minnesota challenging for the Western Conference championship.

The talent in the West means even making the playoffs will be a battle.

"It's going to be really challenging," said Mike Gillis, Vancouver's rookie general manager. "I was talking to another general manager. He said they are approaching the season like there are 65 to 75 playoff games before the playoffs. That's how difficult it's going to be in the West this year.

"There may be 10 games this season where you are winning by such a wide margin or losing by such wide margin it's over early. But every other game is going to be a dog fight ."

In Canada there is hope the Montreal Canadiens can be the first Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup since the Habs did it in 1993. Other Eastern Conference teams picked to advance to the final include Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and the New York Rangers.

There is excitement around the league with a crop of new, young players headed by centre Steven Stamkos, chosen by Tampa Bay first overall in the June draft. Other talented young players include centre Kyle Turris in Phoenix and defencemen Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), Zach Bogosian (Atlanta) and Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis).

Even with all the optimism there are dark clouds forming on the league's horizon.

The rising salary cap will put a burden on some of the small market teams. There also is concern over how the Continental Hockey League in Russia will impact the NHL.

The recent economic crisis will leave many people with less money to spend on sports events.

Detroit GM Ken Holland said a winning team will still attract fans.

"We're optimistic heading into this year with the ability to draw fans," said Holland. "I anticipate we're going to have to really work early, but as we get into the season, hopefully we get off to a good start and people are coming to the Joe."



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