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NHL's opening weekend full of pomp and emotion

Photo: Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

With fans and players still carrying a torch for the game, Montreal was the place to be this weekend.

One Saturday night in November, not long before Thanksgiving, I really missed hockey. It might have been the chill in the air or because Daylight Savings Time had finally given way to earlier sunsets. Perhaps years of conditioned response to these things made me want to settle in over dinner and get lost in an NHL game. For the first time since the lockout had started, I felt a strong, familiar urge to spend a Saturday in front of the TV, starting with the pregame show from Hockey Night in Canada, figuring out which game might be the most interesting, and which I'd switch to if it wasn't.

But unlike having a craving for Mu Shu Pork and phoning Empire Szechuan for takeout, this was one hunger I couldn't calm, not that Saturday night or any Saturday night until this past weekend.

Saturday night and hockey fit together for millions of people. The misconception that this only holds true in Canada may never be fully comprehended south of the 49th parallel, and even in Canada itself, but it's a fact. The NHL's growth over the past few decades -- cautious and uneven as it may be -- proves it. It's one reason the lockout was so senseless.

This Saturday was finally different -- the start of the abbreviated schedule. After a couple of weeks filled with rushed preparations and lingering questions, with apologies and acts of contrition -- not to mention one typically smug Twitter hashtag, "#hockeysback" (emanating from the league, although hockey hadn't gone anywhere, only the NHL had) -- one couldn't help but wonder how the first steps of this return would look and feel.

In my imagination, I envisioned a dam breaking. After four months of frustration and restraint, pent-up emotions would wash over the game -- at least until the puck dropped. And then, all the game's usual chaos would merge with this season's unique uncertainty. After that, who knows?

But it was the welcome back that interested me and we didn't even need to wait for Saturday night for the first impression. It came in the afternoon from Los Angeles, where the Kings celebrated their Stanley Cup championship, in a ceremony of both hits and misses and one that NBC showed the entire country.

The hits? Having Bob Miller, the Kings' longtime TV voice, MC the event, including all-time Kings greats Rogie Vachon and Marcel Dionne in the banner-raising (and paying tribute to the victims of Sandy Hook, CT in the process), and the terrific sight of the players stretched out around the boards as they passed the Cup to each other and held it aloft to the crowd. SI.com's Al Muir believes this could become a new tradition when teams raise their banner. Why not?

The misses? The redundancy of introducing each player twice, once to get his Cup ring and also as he passed the Cup; it unnecessarily elongated the party. Additionally, the overproduction of blasting music through the Staples Center during the Cup's passing. Why not let the fans hear their own cheers, let them feed off each other, and celebrate themselves as well as their heroes?

Well, that's L.A. and they're the champs. They're entitled to welcome the NHL back in their own fashion. Some suspect that these ceremonies don't do the home team any good by diverting the players' focus. Like any religion, hockey culture embraces ceremony and tradition, but It didn't help the Kings, who looked thoroughly outclassed by the Blackhawks once the actual game started. (The Hawks won again in Phoenix on Sunday and play 10 of their first 12 on the road, so starting 2-0 has to be encouraging.)

With TV and computer, I switched between that game and the Penguins-Flyers afternoon tilt. So did many others, apparently. NBC had a big rating; the dam had broken.

In the early evening, I turned to the pregame show on Hockey Night, satisfying my months-old desire. The best part was the video segment "Footsteps," a welcome back tribute to the link between hockey and Saturday night. This brilliant collaboration by musician/writer Dave Bidini, and Tim Thompson -- a CBC staff producer (and Bidini's teammate on their Toronto beer league team, the Morningstars) -- features a number of Canadian artists -- some whom Americans know, like Gordon Lightfoot and Jay Baruchel; and some they don't -- all reflecting on the depth of that connection in their lives and the life of their country.

Thompson told me in an email that he was asked to create this video on very short notice, once the lockout ended. Fortunately, he had lots of the interviews archived from previous productions (he did shoot Eric Lindros just last week), and hit upon the "Footsteps" theme from the song of that name by the Canadian group Petty Victories, with whom he works independent of his CBC gig. The result is a bit magical.

This isn't a uniquely Canadian experience. While not as universal for Americans as it is for our northern neighbors, a parallel experience of no small consequence exists in the United States. This has long been an international sport, Canada's gift to the world, and a sizable -- and a growing -- number of us down here feel exactly as Canadians do about the rituals of watching NHL players and their unmatched athleticism. Among those rituals is watching on Saturday night.

Habs get it right

After the Hockey Night pregame show, I had planned to watch the Rangers play the Bruins in Boston, but "Footsteps" had captivated me and I didn't change channels. The Canadiens hosted the Maple Leafs -- and nowhere is ritual stronger than in Montreal. The Habs welcomed back their fans with a ceremony typical of their storied past, which they never neglect to celebrate, even if the results on the ice haven't lived up to the pedigree for some time.

Unlike in L.A., the ambient noise of the crowd breathed life into the show. It wasn't necessary to pump the tunes or even introduce the former captains who carried the torch to the ice. The fans know them by sight -- and no sight was sweeter than that of Jean Beliveau, the game's greatest captain and one of its greatest ambassadors, back at the Bell Centre for the first time since he suffered a stroke last February.

For the uninitiated, the torch motif bears great significance for this franchise. Going back decades, the walls of the Canadiens dressing room have borne this verse from the famous poem "In Flanders Field," by John McCrea, a Canadian officer who honored the victims of World War I in part with these words, "To you from failing hands we throw a torch. Be yours to hold it high." The inscription in the Habs room is accompanied by pictures of the team's many Hall of Famers, men who helped the franchise amass 24 Stanley Cup championships. No other club comes close.

Only the chords of an organ accompanied the introduction of the players, each of whom in turn held the torch high at center ice. You couldn't ask for a better welcome back, so much so that I ended up watching this game instead of Rangers-Bruins. But as with the Kings, the rite didn't provide the home team with any more pizzazz than it showed most of last season, the Habs generating little by way of an attack and falling 2-1 to their rivals.

Before the game in Boston, the Bruins' owner and Chairman of the Board of Governors had a welcome of his own. Jeremy Jacobs met the press and after saying, "When the puck drops, we put the last four months behind us and celebrate the return of hockey on Causeway Street," he used his sliver of time to strongly imply that the players were to blame for the lockout. Jacobs refused to comment on the owners' initial harsh offer in July and erroneously said that the deal they presented in October was largely the same one agreed upon earlier this month. (Here's the transcript from Jeff Z. Klein of The New York Times).

Jacobs painted himself as something of a martyr, unfairly taking lots of heat and claiming that he didn't want the lockout, but only advocated it for the benefit of the lower-revenue clubs in the league. His concern for the have-not clubs didn't extend to a better revenue sharing agreement, however, than the one agreed to, which was $50 million less than what the NHLPA had initially proposed.

He did say, however, "We've got to work not to have (a lockout) happen again. We've got to work with the players and have them recognize that we've got a common direction, a common goal. Wehave to have credibility between one another." Let's hope.

Vintage Grapes

There may be no hope for Don Cherry, though. In the first intermission of Hockey Night's telecast, he characterized Brian Burke's tenure with the Maple Leafs a failure because the deposed GM had acquired too many "U.S. college guys, Finns and Swedes." He added that Burke gave in to his coach on player decisions because the two had been "roommates at Harvard," which certainly must be a surprise to them and the man who was their coach at Providence College, Lou Lamoriello. He also rambled incoherently about the CBA and the lockout. That was our welcome back from Don. Nothing has changed with him.

Saturday night finished with the Canucks hosting the Ducks, another ceremony for the home team, this one unusual because GM Mike Gillis took the microphone and thanked Vancouver fans for the patience, support and loyalty during the lockout.

Then the game started and the home side once again fell flat. The Canucks lost again on Sunday to the Oilers in a shootout, setting off the emergency alarms in which Vancouver specializes when things don't go according to plan, which is most of the time in this world.

Wanting to experience a welcome back in person, I ventured down to the newly renovated Madison Square Garden Sunday night to watch the Penguins and Rangers. The emotional dam broke early durimg a well-scripted intro that kept the music low and let the fans take control.

Again, once the welcome concluded, the home team floundered, taking their second loss in two days. For only a couple of spurts in the first and third periods did the Rangers get much going. Besides that, the Penguins, led by their strength down the middle of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Brandon Sutter, had their way with New York. In the second period, the Pens were so dominant that the Rangers spent some long minutes trapped in their zone, unable to get the puck over the blue line.

The booing was loud and angry, and it will only get angrier if the Rangers continue to play this way. They and their fans may believe their team is a Cup contender, but not on the evidence of their games against Boston and Pittsburgh, who truly are.

Yes, it's still early, but the season is short. The hockey hasn't been great yet, no one expected it to be. It's scrambly, the defensive zone coverages have often been erratic, the flow and pace have sometimes been tentative.

But it's back and it should get better. These are the first few footsteps of a season and a league we gladly welcome back.

That's Petty Victories, playing the song that inspired Tim Thompson and Dave Bidini's great video segment.

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