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New NHL season begins Wednesday with three games including Ottawa at Toronto

Players have had a full season to grasp that hooking and holding are taboo and that speed and playmaking are the requirements for success in the new NHL.

Stickhandlers are in, and goons are out, although a few teams retain the neanderthal notion that a lineup spot must go to a brawler rather than a scorer.

There were seven players with more than 100 points last season. There hadn't been that many in 10 years. It'll be interesting to see how many can do it this time as the shackles on the skilled players come off, hopefully, for good.

"The feedback we've got from all our business partners, particularly our broadcast partners both north and south, is that the product on the ice has never been better, that everything we did last season seemed to work, seemed to energize the players and the fans," commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday.

The regular season begins Wednesday night with Ottawa at Toronto, Buffalo visiting Carolina and Colorado hosting Dallas.

The remade Maple Leafs start anew with the old bagpipes of the 48th Highlanders and the traditional rendition of The Maple Leaf Forever. A pre-game ceremony will see banners raised in honour of franchise heroes Borje Salming, Red Kelly and the late Hap Day.

For the first time since the 1930s, the Leafs' starters will be led onto the ice by a minor hockey player at each home game. Austin George, 11, who plays for a Kitchener peewee team, will stand on the blue-line with the NHLers during the opener's anthem, which will be sung by Eva Avila of Canadian Idol fame.

New Leafs coach Paul Maurice, who will be behind an NHL bench for a regular-season game for the first time in more than two years, can't wait.

"I'm really looking forward to that feeling of anticipation and excitement of a full house in the National Hockey League with something on the line," Maurice said after a practice to prepare his club for the opener. "I can already feel it coming.

"I'm looking forward to that more than anything - that buzz just before the game."

Ottawa has never lost a season opener on the road.

The Carolina Hurricanes, who are at home against Buffalo in the only other game Wednesday, will hoist their Stanley Cup banner.

"It's definitely going to give me some goose bumps," star centre Eric Staal says in anticipation of the raucous fan reaction he and his teammates expect in recognition of their title run last spring. "I'm sure everybody on our team that was part of that will remember all the hard times that we went through, the ups and the downs and, of course, the finish.

"It's going to be exciting to see the banner, for our fans as well. It'll be something I'll remember forever."

There are 10 games Thursday including Toronto at Ottawa, Calgary at Edmonton and Vancouver at Detroit.

The Governor General's Foot Guards band is to perform in Ottawa, where Lyndon Slewidge always sings the anthem powerfully.

Don Cherry returns to Coach's Corner on Hockey Night In Canada, and national women's team star Cassie Campbell makes her debut in Edmonton as a rinkside reporter.

New Flames forward Alex Tanguay will be wearing 40 on his back because the 18 he wore last season with Colorado is the property of incumbent Matthew Lombardi.

Montreal opens at Buffalo on Friday night.

When Anaheim begins play Friday, at home against Los Angeles, Chris Pronger will pull on 25 instead of the 44 he'd worn throughout his career because Rob Niedermayer had 44 before Pronger was acquired.

Colourful new helmets will be on some goalies' heads.

New Leafs No. 1 Andrew Raycroft will have depictions of former team greats and of Maple Leaf Gardens on his helmet, while Boston's Hannu Toivonen sports a mask that pays tribute to Denis Lemieux, the goalie in the 1977 movie Slap Shot.

Less visually noticeable will be sticks that now can be three-quarters of an inch curved - an addition of one-quarter of an inch.

"They want more goals and it should be up to the player what kind of curve he has anyway," says Martin Havlat, the former Ottawa forward who makes his Blackhawks debut at Nashville on Thursday.

The league didn't make any substantial changes during the summer. After all the changes last year, it was time to step back.

"All the research we did during last season and over the summer in terms of fan approval and satisfaction with what we did was astoundingly high," said Bettman. "It was in the 80 to 90 per cent range in terms of fans approving the game on the ice - the shootouts, the various things we had done.

"Upon review this summer, that's why there weren't a lot of changes made this year. It worked well and was well received."



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