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Haven't we seen this before? NHL heads to Europe, Wings head of the class

There is a feeling of deja vu as the NHL prepares to embark on its 91st season.

For the second straight year, the puck will be dropped on another continent with regular season games in Europe and few would be surprised to see the Stanley Cup presented to the Detroit Red Wings again next June. In between, there will be another outdoor game on New Year's Day.

Indeed, there's a sense that we've seen this all before, which is something the Red Wings hope doesn't change much as the year progresses. They are the unquestioned class of the league, having added Marian Hossa to a lineup that was the best during the regular season and playoffs last season.

The only difference coach Mike Babcock expects is the perception of the defending champs from the outside. Inside the Wings dressing room, everything remains exactly the same.

"I don't think being in Detroit and being an Original Six team was any different last year or the year before," said Babcock. "The difference is when we don't play well, the media's going to say it's because we've got a Cup hangover. That's not true.

"I think we won one time in 10 games last year when we were all hurt (in February). That had nothing to do with a Cup hangover, that's what happens in this league."

The season starts on Saturday with games in Stockholm and Prague. Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins take on Ottawa in the Swedish capital while Tampa Bay faces the New York Rangers in the Czech Republic. Those teams play each other again on Sunday as well.

It may be a long way for each team to go, but the NHL believes the exposure on another continent is more than worth the travel. The players certainly don't have any objections. In fact, it's an experience many of those left behind want to have for themselves in the future.

"The big issue we have is players asking me how come their teams haven't yet had the opportunity to do it," said Paul Kelly, the executive director of the NHL Players' Association. "Not that they resist it or oppose it in some fashion.

"Our guys are really very much in favour of these types of experiences."

The season gets going in North America on Oct. 9, the night the Red Wings raise their championship banner at Joe Louis Arena before playing the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The only notable omissions on this year's Detroit team are Dominik Hasek and Dallas Drake, who both elected to go out on top by retiring after the Stanley Cup win. Other players who called it quits during the off-season include Trevor Linden, Glen Wesley and Stu Barnes.

It will also be the first time since 1989 that a season starts without Jaromir Jagr playing for an NHL team. The five-time scoring champion and former Hart Trophy winner is currently in Siberia after signing a lucrative contract with Omsk Avangard of Russia's new Continental Hockey League, known as the KHL.

He's not alone. Alex Radulov, Ray Emery, Jozef Stumpel, Sergei Brylin, Chris Simon, Steve McCarthy, Niko Kapanen, Wade Dubielewicz and Mark Hartigan are also now playing in the KHL.

On this side of the ocean, a few notable players remain in limbo. Brendan Shanahan is still waiting for the New York Rangers to free up some salary cap space and offer him a contract while Mats Sundin and Peter Forsberg have yet to decide if they'll play this season.

The Sundin saga has made news throughout the summer, with several teams showing serious interest in the veteran Swedish centre. He's still trying to decide if he's prepared to do everything needed to remain an elite player.

"There's always going to be a hockey itch with me," Sundin said last week. "I love the game of hockey. It's been the biggest part of my life my whole life.

"The question that I don't really have the answer for anyone at this point is whether or not I'm ready to play at the highest level and compete at the National Hockey League level."

Expect a few teenagers to prove that they're more than ready. Steven Stamkos, the top pick in the 2008 draft, has been slotted into a spot on Tampa's second line while Mikkel Boedker and Kyle Turris will play together on a young Coyotes team.

The situation in Phoenix is reminiscent of the one Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane enjoyed as rookies last year in Chicago. Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky wants to give Boedker and Turris every chance to showcase their talent in the desert.

"We're not going to trap," said Gretzky, who enters his fourth season as coach. "We're going to go offensively and we're going to utilize our speed.

"And we're going to enjoy watching this team grow and watching this team play."

It's been 15 years since the Stanley Cup was awarded to a Canadian team and the Montreal Canadiens enter the season with the best chance of ending that drought. The Habs finished first in the Eastern Conference last year and added Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang and Georges Laraque to their roster over the summer.

The team is also celebrating its centennial season and would love nothing more than to win a 25th championship. Some fans almost expect it.

"We had a very good season last year, continue to make changes and improve the team and we're going into the centennial year - I think our fans have very high expectations and we have the same expectations," said Canadiens president Pierre Boivin. "It's a long season, it's 82 games. We've got to make the playoffs and go as far as we can thereafter.

"You cannot predict a Stanley Cup. That's what we're in it for and we'll do everything in our power to be there."

There will be plenty of focus on the city whether that happens or not. The NHL will stage the all-star game at the Bell Centre on Jan. 25 and hold its annual entry draft at the arena over two days in late June.

Consider Montreal the centre of the hockey universe in 2008-09.

"It is a marvellous opportunity to celebrate what is an institution," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. "And I didn't limit what I just said to sports institutions.

"The Montreal Canadiens are an absolute institution. As it relates to sports franchises, there's probably nothing like it in the world in terms of the history, tradition and even success."

The most successful player to wear the Habs jersey over the past two decades will be celebrated on Nov. 22. That's the night Patrick Roy's No. 33 will be retired by the Habs, ending a chilly period that has existed since the Hall of Fame goalie famously demanded a trade from the team in 1995.

Jersey ceremonies will also be held in Vancouver for Linden's No. 16 on Dec. 17 and in Washington for Mike Gartner's No. 11 on Dec. 28.

The Hockey Hall of Fame opens its doors to four new members on Nov. 10, when players Igor Larionov and Glenn Anderson, linesman Ray Scapinello and junior hockey builder Ed Chynoweth are inducted.

The Chicago Blackhawks will host this season's outdoor game, facing the Wings at the legendary Wrigley Field. Buffalo hosted last year's outdoor game.

It promises to be a busy year both off and on the ice.

Nine teams begin the season with new head coaches so there is no shortage of squads with something to prove. Even though the Red Wings are the clear favourites, the others can find solace in the parity the NHL has enjoyed since the lockout ended in 2005.

In that time, six different teams have played for the Stanley Cup over three years. Many are hoping they'll be the next to have that chance in June.

"I think you can put 30 teams in the hat at the start of the year," said Habs coach Guy Carbonneau. "I think everybody still believes that they can make the playoffs because a lot of things can happen now. ...

"You get three or four injuries to top players and your season goes down the drain pretty quickly."


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