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Sakic's jersey retirement, two all-Canadian matchups kick off NHL season

As the curtain raises on another NHL season, there could be a sight seldom seen over the past two decades.

Might stoic Joe Sakic lose his composure on opening night?

The longtime Avalanche captain will be on the ice at Pepsi Center in a suit rather than a hockey jersey as the team raises his No. 19 to the rafters on Thursday. One of Sakic's trademarks during a Hall of Fame career was his calm demeanour, but many recent jersey retirements have become tearful occasions.

Sakic got a little choked up while announcing his retirement at a posh hotel in July. It will likely be even tougher for him to keep it together as he steps back in front of the fans that adored him.

His entire career was spent with the same franchise.

"It didn't take long to go by," Sakic said over the summer.

The same can be said of an NHL off-season that will have spanned 110 days between Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins lifting the Stanley Cup and the drop of the puck on Thursday.

After Sakic's jersey ceremony, Colorado hosts a San Jose Sharks team that is embarking on an important season. The Presidents' Trophy winners from a year ago are looking to erase memories of a disappointing playoff flameout, hoping the addition of Dany Heatley and installation of a new captain (Rob Blake replaces Patrick Marleau) can help turn their fortunes.

The other games on opening night include Alex Ovechkin's Washington Capitals visiting Boston and two all-Canadian matchups - Montreal at Toronto (CBC, 7 p.m. ET) and Vancouver at Calgary (CBC, 10 p.m. ET).

The Habs and Leafs enter this season with a number of similarities. Hockey's oldest rivals both feature revamped lineups and will be starting the year without captains.

Both teams also spent the final few days of training camp at retreats intended to help bring the players closer together.

"It's been quite the journey so far," said Canadiens goalie Carey Price. "I think we've bonded as a group. It's been a really good experience."

The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, enter the season with the stated goal of qualifying for the post-season. The team hasn't accomplished that since before the NHL lockout.

One reason for optimism comes from the off-season acquisition of defencemen Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin - players that will join Tomas Kaberle as alternate captains of the team.

"The people that we brought in all have very good leadership qualities," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. "The leadership we're talking about is the work ethic - not only at the rink, but off the ice as well."

Many view the Flames and Canucks as the Canadian teams most likely to end the country's 16-year championship drought.

Vancouver raced through the pre-season with a 7-0-2 record, but forward Daniel Sedin doesn't believe that's too important.

"It's fun to win in the pre-season, but tomorrow it's going to matter," he said before the Canucks flew to Calgary. "They will be tougher games, but that's why you are here. You are here to play games and try to win them.

"After the eighth or ninth (exhibition) game you are getting kind of tired."

Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo said starting the new season can help erase the frustration Vancouver felt after losing to Chicago in the second round of the playoffs last year.

"It's exciting," said Luongo. "It's nice to know we are going to start playing for when it counts again. We can finally start putting what happened last year behind us and focus on this season."

That prospect has hockey fans around the continent excited.

Even commissioner Gary Bettman, who has no specific rooting interest, finds this to be a refreshing time of year. He'll be in Denver for Sakic's jersey retirement on Thursday night and is excited to see the season start.

"Hope springs eternal," said Bettman. "What's going to be the next surprise story? What teams are going to fulfil expectations, what teams are going to exceed expectations and what teams are going to fall flat? To me what's exciting is that we went to the 184th day of the season last year before we knew which 16 teams were going to be in the playoffs. . . .

"What that tells you is that every game matters and the races start on the first night of the season."

Game on.

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