Feast for the hockey hungry

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:34 AM ET

Here, in this place where hockey matters most, all the outrage of the lost season seems gone.

Everywhere you looked last night, you saw excitement.

Eric Lindros felt it when he went for his morning coffee. Darcy Tucker understood it when the people doing work in his house were giggling like school children. Outside the Air Canada Centre, on the night the National Hockey League came back to play, there was music and dancing and, as Pat Quinn said, "it seemed like a playoff atmosphere ... it was like a party outside. It's still the game for (Canadians). It's their boys playing the game."

The lights came on last night and the Maple Leafs were home and there was hockey once again in Canada. There have been other season openers for the Leafs, most of them distant memories, so many of them forgettable. Just not last night's historical game.

Historical for being the first to be settled by a shootout.

Historical for being the first time a season started with every team playing.

Historical for being the first time a league came back after an entire season lost to an elongated labour dispute.

This may be a new game and a new team, but it is an old love.

"People on the streets are ready for hockey," said Lindros, who almost was the hero in his first game as a Leaf, home at last, playing 30 shifts with 24 minutes 52 seconds of ice time and scoring the goal that should have won Toronto the game.

"We didn't give them what they wanted."

Which happens to be both true and false. The game is what people want. The team is what they want to see. There are 81 more games to determine results, only one night to start all over again.

A night where there was something for everyone, just not a shootout victory for Toronto. The evening began with Stompin' Tom Connors belting out The Hockey Song, live and in person. The only performer older last night happened to be Ed Belfour.

Then, in no particular order, the 48th Highlanders worked their way through the neutral zone playing the bagpipes prior to the game and the Barenaked Ladies followed up by giving great anthem.

Everywhere, there was Canada. Our Canada. Heroes and celebrities who may not be heroes and celebrities anyplace else were in vogue. Something for the old, the young, the hip, the strange people who groove to the bagpipes.

Everything but a victory and a definitive diagnosis on the state of Mats Sundin's left eye.

The durable captain dropped to the ice, threw off his gloves and drew his hands over his eyes in pain and in fear, all on just his third shift of the night. On what otherwise was a night to remember, the Sundin injury dulled the senses.

"He's pretty shook up," close friend Tie Domi said. "Seeing it happen, we are all pretty shook up."

This is the supposed new NHL, but still with some old NHL ideas. The league has a new collective bargaining agreement, but eye protection for its players remains a choice. There is a salary cap, but health issues remain the option of the player.

Not everything can change all at once. Not the rules. Not the fact that obstruction was called tightly until the final minutes of regulation play and not at all in the overtime. Not the notion that an employer should have a say over the safety of its employees.

You can't change everything at once.

Last night was a start. In spite of the defeat and in spite of the injury, it was a better start for the Leafs than most anticipated. It seemed like old times, only with more excitement around opening night, more nervousness, more anticipation.

The NHL is back in this place where it never stopped being news.

Strangely, a year away has only seemed to feed the hungry.


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