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Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins waits for the linesman Tony Sericolo #84 to drop the puck for a face off against the Florida Panthers on November 23, 2009 at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida. (File Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images) (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins waits for the linesman Tony Sericolo #84 to drop the puck for a face off against the Florida Panthers on November 23, 2009 at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida. (File Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images) (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

The Look Ahead

Puck ready to drop on NHL's season of uncertainty Add to ...

There must be a palpable sense of relief around the NHL’s headquarters in New York now that the regular season is upon us.

Over the past nine months, from the point Sidney Crosby sustained a hit to the head he is still recovering from, professional hockey went into a freefall. Bob Probert died at 46 from a heart attack. Then three other current or former players, also known as fighters, died either by their own hand or by their addictions. The worst came a month ago when the entire Jaroslavl Lokomotiv team was killed in a plane crash.

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“It’s as if a dark cloud descended on our game,” an NHL general manager said while discussing a player accused of making a homophobic slur, which came days after the same player was on the receiving end of a racial slur.

Finally, then, with the arrival of opening night on Thursday, there is a chance to put the worst off-season in memory in the past. The traditional optimism that fuels all 30 NHL cities on opening night can be embraced.

Or maybe not.

At this point, the only feel-good story in sight is the Winnipeg Jets. Even if they don’t make the playoffs, their move from Atlanta should make them every Canadian fan’s second-favourite hockey team.

But if the preseason is any indication, there is little relief in sight for a league buffeted by tragedy and stupidity. Every few days, it seems, an issue blows up that makes headlines across North America, whether it’s hits to the head or the recent racial and homophobic controversies.

Crosby may provide some good news by returning to the ice within a month but the fact remains the NHL is opening the season still without its biggest star and still grappling with concussions. That war on head injuries looks like it will disrupt the first half of the season at least.

Brendan Shanahan, the NHL’s new judge and jury for on-ice conduct, is aggressively enforcing new standards for hits to the head. He suspended a long list of players for such hits in preseason games, extending their punishment into the regular season, and shows no sign of slowing down, at least not until the players adapt to the change in culture. The goal of Shanahan and the league is laudable but the process is sure to be uncomfortable.

As the season moves on, the spectre of another long labour dispute will come into view. No, it really doesn’t seem that long since the 2004-05 season was lost to a lockout and the possibility of another one will be back when the collective agreement expires almost a year from now.

Fans and the media may tell themselves the sport barely survived that lockout and neither players nor management would risk alienating U.S. fans with another one, but it cannot be ruled out. The most important fight here, at least in the early going, is not between the players and owners but between the have and have-not owners. The have-nots are looking for big concessions from the players.

Behind the scenes, NHL insiders say, the small-revenue teams are marshalling their forces, vowing not to be pushed into an agreement they don’t want by their richer colleagues.

FIVE GAMES TO WATCH

THURSDAY Philadelphia Flyers at Boston Bruins, 7 p.m., Eastern, Versus. One of the consequences of the Flyers finally facing up to years of goaltending problems and signing Ilya Bryzgalov was the loss of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter to make room for him on the payroll. He needs to be good or he’ll be a handy scapegoat.

Montreal Canadiens at Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m., Eastern, CBC, RDS. Both teams in the NHL’s oldest rivalry have a lot of questions to answer. Can the Leafs shed years of mediocrity and finally make the playoffs? Can the Canadiens avoid regressing?

Pittsburgh Penguins at Vancouver Canucks, 10 p.m., Eastern, CBC, Versus. Get ready to tell the boss you’ll be late for work on Friday. Both teams have much to prove, so it’s worth staying up late and sleeping in.

FRIDAY Anaheim Ducks vs. Buffalo Sabres at Helsinki, 1 p.m., Eastern, TSN2. The first look at the new Sabres comes live from Helsinki. New owner Terry Pegula spent a lot of money on players and the locals are seriously jazzed.

Nashville Predators at Columbus Blue Jackets, 7 p.m., Eastern. The only way you’ll see this is if you have the NHL Centre Ice package or go to your local sports bar, and neither team is compelling enough for that. But there is a curiosity factor because the Predators have to build on their brief playoff success last spring and the Blue Jackets have to finally make the playoffs or there’ll be trouble in both cities.

FIVE GOALTENDERS TO WATCH

Dwayne Roloson. He was a welcome addition to the Tampa Bay Lightning last season and was a big reason why they made the Eastern Conference final. But he’ll be 42 in nine days and the list of 42-year-old all-star goalies is awfully short.

James Reimer. Toronto Maple Leafs management put its goaltending eggs in the basket of this engaging 23-year-old based on 37 games of mostly excellent work last season. He needs to prove he can be the man over a whole season or the Leafs’ playoff hopes are dead. His preseason work was not reassuring.

Ilya Bryzgalov. The Philadelphia Flyers dealt with their annual goaltending crisis by handing him $51-million (U.S.) over nine years. He needs to match his playoff numbers to his excellent regular-season numbers or this gets nasty for the Flyers.

Jaroslav Halak. He was good at times and okay at others for the St. Louis Blues in the season following his other-worldly run for the Montreal Canadiens in the 2010 playoffs. He needs to show that spring form all season to get the Blues back in the playoffs after three years.

Tomas Vokoun. Washington Capitals GM George McPhee was lauded around the NHL for landing this standout veteran for next to nothing. Now that he’s finally on a good team, Vokoun has to show he’s more than a good player on a bad team.

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