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Thank heaven for hockey games

A new season is dawning and life for the NHL can't get any worse ... or could it?

I'm talking about a league that in three months went from showcasing one of the greatest exhibitions of playoff hockey in decades -- the seven-game Stanley Cup Final between the Red Wings and Penguins -- to dismissing Wayne Gretzky as collateral damage in a bankruptcy case that even with a judicial decision remains unresolved. There was also the dispute between DirecTV and Versus that threatened to black out opening night games, rumors of fiscal distress in South Florida, Atlanta, Long Island and elsewhere, yet another owner (Boots Del Biaggio) doing the perp-walk for investor fraud, fallout from Dany Heatley's ugly forced trade, a hijacked players association, and a young star in handcuffs for allegedly pummeling a 62-year-old cab driver over 20 cents change.

You want to say it can't possibly sink any lower. Not even the NHL can slide so far so fast, but there is cause to wonder: If all that was what the summer brought, what's on the horizon for fall, winter and spring? Thankfully, there is some good news:

The games are back.

This is a good thing. By all accounts, and despite the NHL's ever-shifting standards, this season should be better than good. It may well be great. The league is peopled with young stars who have moved past the emerging stage and exploded onto the public's consciousness in ways not seen since Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were in their supernova stage. There are more than a handful of elite teams, and the playoff races, with one or two exceptions in each conference, are likely to be down-to-the-wire affairs that encompass even such traditional also-rans as the Maple Leafs, Panthers, Kings and perhaps even the bloodied but unbowed Coyotes.

Alex Ovechkin, with two Hart Trophies as league MVP and three 50-goal seasons, is moving up the scoring charts and commanding predictions that a 120- or even 130-point season is within his reach. He is surrounded by young talent in a Washington market that, after years of ho-hum hockey, has embraced the game with vigor.

Joining Ovechkin at the top are the twin stars of Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby (the Penguins' second coming of Lemieux, albeit in a much smaller package) and Evgeni Malkin, last season's scoring champ and playoff MVP. In Boston, Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Tim Thomas and Norris Trophy defenseman Zdeno Chara are theinspirational forces for a surging team. They are supported by the vastly underrated Marc Savard, who feeds slick passes to a player many Bruins fans consider the Next Cam Neely: winger Milan Lucic.

There is strength of size and number in Philadelphia where the complete game of Jeff Carter and heady play of Mike Richards have fans speaking in tones reserved for the days when Bobby Clarke and Bill Barber carried the Broad Street Bullies to glory. It doesn't hurt (unless you're the competition) that the Flyers brought over the much-feared Chris Pronger to anchor their improved defense. If Ray Emery competes to the level of his ability in goal, the Flyers should contend for a spot in the Cup final this spring and could well win it all.

In the West, the still-potent Red Wings will try to blend the usual mix of veteran stars and emerging talent and reach the Cup final for the third time in as many seasons. Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom anchor the group, but the supporting cast is hungry for a chance at redemption. That will happen only if the multi-talented Sharks can't find their game again in the postseason, or if the swift, determined Blackhawks of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews continue to grow.

There are many more notable story lines, but the hockey is good, almost all good. Yet the looming question is twofold: Will there be a backlash on all those offseason problems, and will the league be able to broaden its base so that people other than true puckheads will truly care?

There will be an Olympic interlude on North American soil (Hello, Vancouver) in February, but like so many things that surround the NHL, critics argue that what should be a plus is being treated as a problem despite the fact that fans and players love the Games. The NHL isn't likely to participate in the next Winter Olympics, a decision not yet announced but almost a fait accompli given that the 2014 Games are in Russia. On the business side, they don't fit the league's time frame for effective marketing. On the political side, it's Russia. The Russians, with their newly-formed leagues and resistance to a workable player transfer agreement, are fast becoming a business enemy on par with Jim Balsillie. Toss in the fact that NHL players want to go and the league feels it can use that desire in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement talks as leverage to get them to give on other issues, and Olympic participation is anything but a given after the Games leave North America.

After building on a startling jump in momentum coming out of the 2004-05 lockout and largely delivering on its promise for a better, faster, more exciting game, the league's momentum, at least regarding public perception, appears to have stalled. One might argue that it has actually crashed.

For starters, rarely has the league office been so preoccupied with "issues" through the offseason. Time usually spent thinking ahead has been spent thinking up reasons to explain why the NHL is still in court with the Coyotes. Just this week, bankruptcy court Judge Redfield T. Baum ruled against Balsillie's rogue bid to gain control and move them to Hamilton, but the good justice still hasn't decided who "owns the team" and whether it would remain in the desert under the admittedly short lease of NHL ownership or be a ward of the court subject to a new round of bidding or a breakup and selloff of assets that the NHL can't control. It has not been a pretty sight.

Then there's the deteriorating relationship between the NHL and its players, and between the players and their leaders in the NHLPA. There was a quiet coup this summer that saw executive director Paul Kelly dismissed for still unstated reasons by a small group of players, lawyers and a former autoworkers union head. It was supposed to be nice and tidy, but it's become an ugly mess that dominated training camps with many inside and outside the player ranks delivering withering criticism of the people who ousted Kelly. It remains an issue right into the start of the season with the rank and file openly wondering why they weren't consulted or even informed as to the reasons Kelly was dismissed.

A rising tide of anger doesn't bode well, especially when the league, which might have laid claim to the higher ground after the costly lockout brought the owners' much-wanted salary cap, is grieving almost every issue that comes before it, costing the players time and money and building an overriding sense of ill will. As a fan, you might argue that all this shouldn't matter, that these are professionals who are (highly) paid to play. But hockey players are people, too, and the issues that are rocking their usually secure world are taking a toll

There's also concern regarding the players' health and safety on the ice. With absolutely no input from their ranks, the league scaled back its enforcement of heavy hits, especially from behind and blows to the head. Many players were hoping for more of an advocate's voice from their executive director, and Kelly seemed to respond in kind, but with him gone there's a concern that the vexing problem of head injuries will simply get worse.

Toss in another change at the top of the always-fluid NHL officiating department -- Terry Gregson replacing Stephen Walkom who replaced Andy VanHellemond who replaced (you get the picture) -- plus a still-inconsistent standard regarding hits from behind and blows to the head, and the upcoming trial of Todd Bertuzzi for his seemingly premeditated attack on Steve Moore, and there appears to be no end to the problems that plague Gary Bettman's NHL. Most aren't likely to go away, not without another fight or three, but at least there is hockey on the ice now, hope in the hearts of fans, and a very good chance the game will produce a season every bit as memorable as the last. For those who truly love hockey, pretty much all we can do is hope...that we can see the games.

In what has become an eternal quest to find a TV provider other than ESPN, the league's current U.S. cable provider, Versus, is in a snit fight with satellite distributor DirecTV. The dispute has scuttled some 14 million viewers. It's a problem that may yet be resolved, but it smacks of the kind the league had with Madison Square Garden over internet rights, and it seems to open the door for MSG or some other regional network to cut a deal separate of league partners and concentrate on serving places where hockey draws an audience without trying to air games in areas where people simply refuse to watch.

Of course, those people will be missing some good stuff on the ice. So, yes, let us hope for the best -- especially that things don't get worse.

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