Darren Eliot
Monday October 13th, 2008

For so many this past weekend, the dream of donning an NHL jersey or standing behind the bench as an NHL head coach came to fruition -- a moment of shared reflection and reverie for family and friends and participants alike.

Yes, the possibilities on Opening Night are exhilarating. But now the business of readiness rolls on. The regular season is a daily, weekly, month-by-month endurance test -- an amalgam of practice, games and travel that taxes an individual's resolve and a team's resiliency. The ebb and flow is a physical strain and a mental drain -- the ultimate team-sport challenge simultaneously embraced and endured.

Guiding the process for the first time at the NHL level are Todd McLellan in San Jose, John Anderson in Atlanta, Pete DeBoer in South Florida and Scott Gordon on Long Island. Then you have several coaches who have returned after time away for various reasons -- Terry Murray in LA, Tony Granato in Denver, Craig Hartsburg in Ottawa, and Barry Melrose in Tampa. Throw in Ron Wilson in Toronto -- who served as the bench boss in San Jose through last season -- and you have a mixed sampling of who felt the emotion of opening night most, and who is more aware of how quickly that emotion is tempered by the reality of the task at hand.

Wilson had the thrill of seeing his Toronto Maple Leafs play a strong game in winning at Detroit, prevailing 3-2 on a night when they watched the Stanley Cup champs raise their banner. Wilson had his team watch the ceremony and personally connected with the event as his uncle, Johnny Wilson -- a Red Wing icon from the 1950's -- was part of the pageantry. Two nights later, Wilson and his Leafs lost 6-1 to the Montreal Canadiens on home ice.

In a 48-hour span, Wilson's weekend became a microcosm of the NHL experience -- ups and downs with another game looming. As Wilson put it to local reporters after the rout by Montreal, "We have more teaching points to work with after a game like this. We'll move on; get ready for the next game."

It is a constant exercise in address mistakes and reinforce the correct way of doing things, then clear minds and restore confidence, or some facsimile thereof.

For variation, John Anderson coached over a thousand minor league games before stepping behind a bench as the man in charge of an NHL team. Nervous before the proceedings in Atlanta on Friday night, the build-up fortified by a multitude of family and friends in attendance plus the side story of coaching against his lifelong friend Bruce Boudreau of the Washington Capitals -- Anderson was at last able to flash a broad smile as the final horn signified a 7-4 victory.

It was a genuine, spontaneous reaction signifying satisfaction on so many levels. But, as Anderson stated afterwards, "It is only one game. Sure I'm happy for a lot of reasons. But we cannot be satisfied. We have to change the culture here. Mediocrity is the enemy of success."

Playing back-to-back games with travel to Florida in between doesn't give a guy much time to enjoy the moment. Indeed, the thrill was short-lived as Thrashers fell to the Panthers 3-2 in overtime on Saturday night.

That same fleeting buzz holds true for 18-year olds like Toronto's Luke Schenn and Atlanta's Zach Bogosian making their NHL debuts, and rookies like Boston's Blake Wheeler or Kyle Turris of Phoenix scoring their first goals. It's all congratulations on the memory made, but now let's get back to business, kid.

While McLellan's Sharks at 3-0 entered the first full week without yet feeling the sting of defeat, Melrose, Granato and Murray are still awaiting the feeling of fleeting euphoria that the first win produces. But win or lose, there is always another task at hand -- a practice to run or attend, a video session to oversee or view, a plane to catch, a game to manage.

That's the process that commenced over the weekend. The idea -- the challenge, really -- is to enjoy the long journey to spring and, hopefully, the playoffs. There is nothing like it.

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