Sun, Oct 01, 2006 - Page 23 News List

NHL returns to the ice on Wednesday

PARTY STARTS Ice hockey is fun once more, and the league is doing its best to make people notice, posing star players, supermodels and the Stanley Cup together

AP , NEW YORK

Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, right, of the San Jose Sharks attempts a save against Brian Willsie of the Los Angeles Kings during a preseason NHL game on Friday at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, California.

PHOTO: AFP

Celebration replaced trepidation inside a Manhattan club.

The National Hockey League hosted a big party this week, kicking off a new season free of lockout clouds, labor unrest and lingering questions about the league's viability.

Star players posed with supermodels in front of the shiny Stanley Cup that lit up with every flash, while members of the champion Carolina Hurricanes inspected their newly engraved names.

The party starts on Wednesday.

Ice hockey is fun again and the NHL is striving to make people notice.

"Every year is always big. But I think we had a great year last year," said teenage phenom Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh's runner-up for rookie of the year last season. "There shouldn't be anyone second-guessing that."

He and rookie of the year Alexander Ovechkin, who set a first-year record with 425 shots on goal last season with Washington, provided many of the highlights.

After losing a year to the lockout, last season featured radically revamped rosters.

Some stability returned in the offseason, but big names were still on the move as the league prepared for its second season with the salary cap, which increased from US$39 million to US$44 million per team.

Pittsburgh's 20-year-old Evgeni Malkin, who dislocated his left shoulder during the preseason, sneaked away from Russian Super League side Metallurg Magnitogorsk upon its arrival in Helsinki for training camp, disappeared for a few days, then reappeared in Los Angeles with his agents -- all to play in North America.

Some simply retired, such as longtime Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, gone after 22 seasons in Detroit.

Others, such as top defensemen Rob Blake and Chris Pronger, found new teams and new challenges to go with them.

Blake left Colorado to return home to the Los Angeles Kings, the team that drafted him in 1988 and kept him on the blue line until he was traded in 2001.

Pronger also calls Southern California home now, joining the Anaheim Ducks by forcing a trade out of Edmonton after just one season with the Oilers that ended with a surprise trip to the Stanley Cup finals.

The Oilers eliminated the Ducks in the Western Conference finals, then nearly won the title.

"It's tough to sit here and think you were one game away from being the Stanley Cup champions," Pronger said. "It's difficult ... but it leaves that sense of understanding how hard it is to get there."

Besides player moves, eight teams now have brand-new coaches. Boston has picked up Dave Lewis, who is joined by Marc Crawford (Los Angeles), Alain Vigneault (Vancouver), Claude Julien (New Jersey), Paul Maurice (Toronto), Guy Carbonneau (Montreal), Jim Playfair (Calgary) and Ted Nolan (New York Islanders).

"The changes, in particular here in Boston, may be more radical than found on most other teams," said Lewis, who was let go by Detroit after the 2003-04 season.

"Everything is a real plus-plus for us. The competitive balance has changed," he said.

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