By Steve Keating
BELLEVILLE, Ontario (Reuters) - With the Sochi Olympics, return of the Winter Classic and a new Outdoor Series it is going to be a season of grand events for the NHL as it attempts to make up for last year's lockout-shortened campaign.
But the NHL's biggest, and perhaps most important season in decades, began on Saturday with a blast of nostalgia in small town Ontario as the Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets and the Stanley Cup all paid a visit to the rural community for an exhibition game.
The Winter Classic scheduled for Michigan Stadium is expected to attract an NHL record crowd of 110,000 on New Year's Day but the first action of the season was played out in a more intimate setting in front of a much smaller but no less enthusiastic audience of about 3,300 mostly dreamy-eyed young ice hockey players and their parents at the Yardmen Arena.
The sight of some of ice hockey's most famous names and highest paid players taking the ice of the local 'barn' that is the hub of every town and across ice hockey-mad Canada made for a magical scene as kids mobbed their heroes, who patiently signed autographs and paused for pictures.
It is in rinks just like Yardmen Arena where the dreams begin and for a few members of both the Capitals and Jets the Belleville ice is where they played their junior hockey.
"I think this is the perfect place to host an event like this," the Jets Eric Tangradi, who spent three seasons playing for the Belleville Bulls, told reporters after a morning skate. "When you look at this town it's a hockey town for sure.
"There will be a lot of people packed in making a lot of noise; I think when we leave tonight a lot of the players will kind of leave with a big smiles on their faces."
For seven seasons communities across Canada have competed for the title of Kraft Hockeyville and a treasure chest of ice hockey treats, including $100,000 in arena upgrades, a visit by the Stanley Cup and a pre-season game hosted by their community and televised nationally on the CBC.
Stirling-Rawdon beat out 761 other communities in the search to find Canada's "most passionate hockey town" and where the heart of the national game truly beats.
The party atmosphere was in sharp contrast to a year ago as owners and players squared off in a bitter labor dispute that was not settled until January with the NHL on the verge of canceling the entire season.
The wounds, however, seemed to have healed as Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHL Players Association, and NHL executive vice-president Colin Campbell walked the red carpet together to polite applause for the opening ceremonies.
But it was the players that fans had come to see and at the top of the list was Washington's Alexander Ovechkin, the NHL's most valuable player and leading goal scorer from last season.
The Capitals sniper grew up learning his trade in Russia but the small town roots of the sport run deep, stretching all the way to the former-Soviet Union.
"It's good for the fans," said Ovechkin. "People are excited right and we are just going to give them a good time tonight."
Playing an NHL game in rural Canada is like staging a Formula One race on a Go-kart track but the NHL, more than any of North America's big four professional leagues, has successfully traded on the romanticism of the sport's past to help push it forward.
The Winter Classic began as a one off tribute to ice hockey's outdoor roots but has quickly grown into a marketing colossus, a New Year's Day tradition that has brought the NHL unprecedented exposure.
In an effort to recoup some of the lost momentum and revenue from lockout the NHL has put in place an ambitious schedule of six outdoor games this season including one in Los Angeles and two at fabled Yankees Stadium in New York.
It is that same nostalgia that made the Kraft Hockeyville promotion a stroke of marketing genius.
"It does kind of have that atmosphere, once we got inside the building I had some flashbacks of playing junior in Saskatoon," said Washington defenseman Mike Green. "I think it's good, in Saskatoon where I played they never had the opportunity to have any NHL game there and I know they would have loved to see an exhibition game there so I know it's pretty special."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)