Ice Hockey - NHL - Players back and so are fans as puck drops on new season

The National Hockey League was back and so were the fans on Saturday as the puck finally dropped on a season that nearly never was because of bitter labor dispute.

From sunny California to wintry Quebec 26 of the NHL's 30 teams were in action, the Los Angeles Kings raising their Stanley Cup banner to the rafters before opening defense of their crown against the Chicago Blackhawks while in Montreal, two of the league's flagship franchises, the Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs renewed their storied rivalry.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players Association chief Donald Fehr, who had held the hockey spotlight through nearly four months of numbing negotiations, slipped into the shadows leaving the stage to the players.

"Last week we announced that we reached an agreement on a new CBA (collective bargaining agreement) and tonight the Bruins are back on the ice," said Boston owner Jeremy Jacobs ahead of his team's opener against the New York Rangers. "When the puck drops, we put the last four months behind us and celebrate the return of hockey to Causeway Street.

"I want to personally apologize to our fans and others who depend on this team for their livelihood. But these are just words. The best way to make it up to you is to play hard and win."

The season began the way the last one ended; in Los Angeles with the Kings doing one final victory lap around a jubilant Staples Center with the Stanley Cup before a poignant banner raising ceremony assisted by the family of Ana Marquez-Greene, a hockey fan and victim of the Sandy Hook shooting massacre.

HOCKEY BUZZ

In some markets bitterness from the 113-day lockout is sure to linger but not in Canada where a hockey buzz swept across the country like a massive winter storm and fans welcomed back teams with open arms.

The return of the NHL also meant the return of hundreds of jobs as fans slipped into their favorite jerseys and packed bars and pubs, providing a jolt to local economies.

The league and teams have worked hard to win back disgruntled fans and their wallets, offering everything from free tickets and parking to discounts on beer, hotdogs and merchandise.

Even the Maple Leafs, who last year were rated by Forbes as the first ice hockey team to be worth $1 billion and have sold out every game since moving into the Air Canada Centre in 1999, extended an olive branch. They gave away 1,000 tickets to Monday's home opener against Buffalo and offered free skate rentals at the Toronto city hall outdoor rink that same day.

For opening day the NHL took out full page newspaper ads in major cities across Canada and the United States, offering yet another apology for dragging fans through a fourth work stoppage in 20 years.

At nearly every arena teams thanked fans for their patience and standing by the sport through trying times.

Fans were also front-and-center at several openers. In Los Angeles, 10 fans were selected to escort the Stanley Cup in the Staples Center while two San Jose Sharks supporters were chosen to drop the ceremonial puck at Thursday's home opener.

The league-wide charm offensive generated enough goodwill to make opening day a success but most of the initiatives do not extend beyond opening day, leaving it up to the product on the ice to keep the turnstiles twirling and television ratings climbing.

With a compacted 48-game regular season there will be little margin for error on or off the ice, with even a minor slump or injury capable of tripping up a team up during a 99-day sprint for a playoff spot.

With only a six-day training camp, there was plenty of rust on display on Saturday.

The Kings, who never gave up more than four goals in their championship run, surrendered that many in two periods as the Blackhawks spoiled their banner raising party with a 5-2 win.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, the oddsmaker's favorites to replace the Kings as champions, got off to solid start beating their great rivals the Philadelphia Flyers 3-1. (Editing by Gene Cherry)