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Hockey is back and fans are in love all over again

Tyler Macfarlane, Cody Laschyn and Norman Lavallee celebrate before NHL action between the Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets in Winnipeg on Saturday, January 19, 2013.


Hockey fans from across Canada can shake the dust from their jerseys and put on team-coloured face paint again in celebration of the NHL's first day of the season.

Four miserable months have passed for hockey fanatics, who have been unable to watch their favourite sport due to the National Hockey League lockout. While teams play 82 games in a typical season, this year each will play only 48.

The Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets were the first Canadian teams to start off the season at 3 p.m. ET.

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But fans in Toronto made their way to the downtown bar Wayne Gretzky's almost an hour before Saturday's game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens at 7 p.m. ET.

John Caruso, 24, said he came from New York for the weekend solely to honour the return of hockey, and visited the Hockey Hall of Fame after arriving in Toronto on Friday.

Still - as a season-ticket holder - he said he won't forgive NHL commissioner Gary Bettman for the lockout.

Other fans at the bar said they were also bitter about the lockout, but were happy with the sport's return.

"I know there are a lot of people boycotting it," said Brandon McGinnis, 25, sporting a Leaf's jersey and tuque. "But give them three games and they'll be back."

He added that the winter season has been a miserable one since he hasn't been able to cheer on his team.

"It's the only thing we've got to do in the winter!" he said with laugh.

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Unlike Mr. McGinnis, other fans in Canada are cheering for the Habs tonight.

Ryan Mallough, 23, said he lost his faith in the Toronto Maple Leafs in senior kindergarten when they blew a 1995 playoff series to the Chicago Blackhawks.

"They broke my heart," he said. "I could never cheer for them again."

As a result of childhood heartbreak – and his father living just outside of Montreal – Mr. Mallough now cheers for the Montreal Canadiens.

A resident of the Toronto suburb of Oakville, he described cheering for his team as a "religious experience."

"To get together with other Habs fans and to watch the Habs is like going to church," he said. "The old players are like saints – everyone tells stories about them. There's no other fan base like the Montreal fan base."

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Tonight, Mr. Mallough is excited to relive his usual game-watching ritual: Having friends over, ordering pizza and watching the game in French.

He will also be wearing his usual outfit to watch a game: slippers, pajama pants, a hat, jersey, gloves, and scarves that all bear the Montreal Canadiens' logo.

Mr. Mallough isn't the only one who will be dressed up.

Chelsey Getz, 23, will be dressing her cat – named Kesler after Vancouver Canuck Ryan Kesler – in her favourite team's gear.

A resident of Abbotsford, B.C., Ms. Getz said that she could barely sleep last night from all the excitement over Saturday's game, when the Canucks and Anaheim Ducks play at 10 p.m. ET.

"Ever since elementary school, people have known me as 'the girl who's obsessed with the Canucks,'" she said. "[The Canucks] got me through everything throughout my life. All the hard times, I always went and watched hockey. And I just owe them for that."

Beyond the fans, some Canadians are excited about hockey for different reasons.

Adam Lardner, general manager of Oasis Pub & Eatery, says he is thankful for the season's return, as both a fan and a hospitality insider.

His bar - one of the biggest sports bars in Halifax - will be showing every game Saturday to ensure that hockey fans won't miss a moment.

"[The lockout] clearly means a downturn in business," he said. "The loss of something that huge is always going to impact your bottom line."

But Mr. Lardner said it's likely that the 400 seats of his bar will be filled tonight with enthusiastic hockey fans.

On the other side of Canada, another bar manager expressed similar sentiments.

Taylor Downes, manager of Legend's Restaurant and Sports Bar in Winnipeg, Manitoba, said she is also excited to see a positive atmosphere return to the bar – one that often comes when hockey fans showing up to watch the game.

"The whole mood shifts," she said. "It just becomes a more positive, exciting place to be."

"Exciting" is just one way to describe the atmosphere outside of Winnipeg's MTS Centre Saturday afternoon: Fans started lining up two hours before the doors opened despite the -28 C weather, sporting green hair, painted faces, and Jets gear. Even the MTS restaurant had a 90 minute wait for a table.

But the pain in the hockey lovers' frozen fingers and toes was soon forgotten when the doors finally opened, and they burst into a roaring rendition of God Save the Queen.

Not all fans have forgiven the NHL for taking away four months of hockey, though.

Patrick Houlihan, 28, said he will not attend any games or purchase any merchandise during this year's 48-game season.

"There is no decent revenue sharing amongst the league," said Mr. Houlihan, of St. Louis, Missouri. "This money would not go to the Blues and would not stay in St. Louis. It would go to the league...and I just cannot support that this year."

He added that the agreement between the NHL and the National Hockey League Players' Association could have occurred before October to save months of "arguing over salary caps and pensions."

While Mr. Houlihan said he will continue to support the St. Louis Blues through watching their games, he is afraid the NHL has lost the more "casual" hockey fan base.

Nonetheless, some fans at the Toronto bar Wayne Gretzky's said despite their mixed emotions, they're happy about the season's return.

"It's hard to choose a side because it is a business," said Adam Gordon, 26, of Toronto. "But now that it's back, I welcome it with open arms for sure."

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