NHL buzz is back!

ROBIN BROWNLEE --

, Last Updated: 8:25 AM ET

"They missed a six-inch putt and now they want to play on the big circuit."

Given the winds of optimism blowing in this direction from The City of Cows this summer, Edmonton Oilers president Patrick LaForge can be forgiven for taking an obligatory poke at the Calgary Flames.

LaForge was flogging tickets yesterday when he unkindly referred to the Flames' close-but-no-cigar run at the Stanley Cup against Tampa Bay in 2004 before the NHL lockout began.

TIMELY PITCHING

Nothing like some timely pitching to boost business -- the Oilers open their pre-season against the Flames at Rexall Place Sept. 16 and face them eight times during the 2005-06 regular season -- just when many predicted fans would stay away after an entire year was lost to the lockout.

The truth is, at least in cities like Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa, to name three, there hasn't been anything remotely resembling a backlash by jilted fans. In fact, pitchmen like LaForge have plenty of angles to work with in selling seats and bringing customers back.

The Flames have reloaded. Darryl Sutter's outfit looks every bit as good as the team that pushed the Lightning to seven games. The Oilers, out of the playoff mix after finishing just five points back of Calgary, have improved with the addition of Michael Peca and Chris Pronger. The Battle of Alberta, no matter which end of the province you're aligned with, is alive and well.

That's an easy sale around here.

"We'll be ready to play the exhibition game," LaForge said of the Sept. 16 tilt against the Flames.

"There's a lot of guys who want to make our team and a lot of guys who want to make their team. The game is going to be a big one and our customers won't want to miss it."

With almost 13,000 season tickets sold, it seems all is forgiven where Oiler fans are concerned. There's as much buzz around coffee machines in town as there's ever been.

Likewise, you think fans in Ottawa aren't jacked after Wednesday's trade that landed Dany Heatley? Calgary faithful are crowing about adding Tony Amonte, Darren McCarty and Roman Hamrlik to an already impressive lineup. Has anybody even uttered the term "small-market" lately?

With free agents changing teams, the salary cap dictating trades, divisional rivalries stoked by scheduling and the CBA, at least on paper, delivering on the "level playing field" talked about during the lockout, business is brisk.

Nowhere is that more true than in the Northwest Division, where the Flames, Oilers, Vancouver Canucks, Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild will have at each other eight times.

Will the Flames ignite the Red Mile again like they did after seven years out of the playoffs? Do they have an encore in them? Have the Oilers improved enough with Peca and Pronger to close the gap and get back into the post-season? Maybe.

Once thing LaForge can take to the bank -- there aren't very many fans in Edmonton who aren't waiting to find out.

"We've had some people who have been very good customers for a lot of years who have taken the situation very personally, as we knew they would," he said of business lost to the lockout.

"We've only had 100 cancelled tickets, but it's disturbing to have any customer who has been with you walk away. I feel bad about that. At the same time, I very much respect the emotion."

OPEN THE DOORS

Given the retirement of Paul Coffey's No. 7 on Oct. 18, the night Wayne Gretzky makes his NHL coaching debut in Edmonton, four pre-season games against the Flames and Peca and Pronger making their regular season debuts Oct. 5 against Colorado, it's looking like LaForge need only throw open the doors.

With fans in Calgary equally pumped about the prospects of their team, LaForge didn't really need to bump the Battle of Alberta yesterday.

Then again, what the hell?

"This is one of those moments where you wish you had 18,000 seats in the building," LaForge said.

That six-incher isn't a gimme, pal.


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