NHL emerging from deep freeze

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TORONTO -- A year removed from a crippling labor dispute, the NHL is back on its feet ready to take the next step down the road to recovery on Wednesday as a new season opens with as much angst as anticipation.

Helped by rule changes designed to open up the game, the NHL's comeback campaign ended in record attendance, glowing reviews and a riveting Stanley Cup final won by the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games over the Edmonton Oilers.

In the aftermath of a bitter lockout that wiped away the entire 2004-05 season, all seemed forgiven as the NHL quickly reconnected with its hardcore fan base -- particularly in hockey-mad Canada.

Emerging from the labor turmoil with an improved product, competitive balance and financial stability secured by a salary cap, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman boasted: "Our vital signs are strong and we have tremendous optimism about the future of our game."

But as the 'new' NHL prepares for its second season there are still dark clouds hovering on the horizon.

In the United States where the NHL has struggled to leave its mark on a crowded sporting landscape, hockey retains a cult-like status and is in danger of slipping even further off the radar screen with American television ratings at all-time lows.

Opting for improved coverage over distribution, the NHL agreed to a post-lockout deal with the Outdoor Life Network (OLN), a speciality channel which reaches into just over 70 million American homes and caters more to cycling and outdoor enthusiasts than mainstream sports, further cementing ice hockey's perception as a niche sport.

The lack of a presence on U.S. television has had an alarming trickle down affect with some of the top American newspapers, in the country's biggest markets, deciding to reduce NHL coverage.

The Los Angeles Times will not send reporters to cover away games with the Kings or Anaheim Ducks while the New York Times told the Toronto Star it is also considering staffing only home games as it did for most of last season.

The responsibility of elevating the NHL's profile -- along with the fortunes of the two struggling franchises that pay their salaries -- rest on the young but sturdy shoulders of Washington Capitals' dazzling Russian Alexander Ovechkin and Pittsburgh Penguins all-Canadian boy Sidney Crosby.

Handsome and gifted, Ovechkin, the playful goalscorer with a nasty streak and Crosby, a business like playmaking magician, are the NHL's two most marketable commodities capable of drawing squeals of boy band like excitement from young female fans and profanity-laced outbursts from burly, toothless defenders.

Both have been placed on the front line in the battle to win over new fans, appearing on magazine covers and the late night talk show circuit beating the drum for the new NHL.

"Of course, there's going to be expectations," Crosby told reporters during a teleconference. "I think I've dealt with those throughout my life.

"I have to look at myself in the mirror and see what mine are. I can't worry about other expectations too much.

"Of course, I want to be a good role model, be a good person, but at the same time as far as hockey's concerned, all I can do is be my best.

"To be honest, I don't really think about the outside expectations. I think about my own. I know what I'm capable of doing and what's right and what's wrong. I try to go with that."

Groomed for stardom ever since the 'Great One' Wayne Gretzky spotted the mop topped kid playing minor league hockey and tipped him as the player who might one day break his NHL records, Crosby has somehow managed to live up to the hype.

Although he lost rookie of the year honours to Ovechkin, Crosby's professional debut was nothing short of sensational, becoming the youngest player to score 100 points in his first season.

Ovechkin's arrival was even more spectacular.

A pure goal scorer capable of dishing out as many punishing hits as he receives, Ovechkin became just the second rookie ever to score 50 goals and 100 points.

"My goal is the same, work like last year, play hard all the time," said Ovechkin. "Try and score goals."
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