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Welcoming the NHL back with open arms

The NHL season kicks off Thursday night with three games. (Getty Images)

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The NHL season kicks off Thursday night with three games. (Getty Images)

Spend enough of your life covering the professional hockey business and you’re bound to get a little jaded. We don’t forget how fortunate we are, but it’s only natural the demands of your job encroach on and dilute the love for the game you had as a kid.

But as the 2011-12 NHL season kicks off, things feel different. After what Jonathan Toews told me was “the worst summer ever for hockey,” the sentiment around the return of the sport is one of abject relief, the kind you see in a parent whose child gets lost at a mall for a few frantic minutes.

There you are – I was worried sick about you.

Who can blame any hockey watcher for feeling bone-deep weary after the past few months put them through an emotional wringer like never before? The sport and the hockey world lost so much, so tragically, in a very short period of time. And we can’t expect to compartmentalize our grief and just continue on as if there hasn’t been an irreversible scar left on our collective psyche.

We won’t and can’t forget Daron Richardson, Tom Cavanagh, Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak and the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team. We can’t and won’t pretend we’re the same hockey fans we were this time last year.

We know now the NHLers we idolize are immortal and infallible only in our minds. We now know strong young people can be dragged down and swallowed up by fate and demons none of us can put a harness on. All we can do is be there for one another as best we can and hope for good fortune and good health.

The losses hockey has sustained should make those who adore the game more mature and realistic about those who play at its highest levels. The deaths of the three enforcers should forever disabuse certain hockey fans of the idea that the price paid by designated fighters is limited only to busted-up knuckles and orbital bones. The overwhelming outpouring of sorrow in the wake of the Yaroslavl plane disaster should snuff out any embers of xenophobic nonsense that routinely denies European players their dignity and humanity.

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Just as importantly, we should appreciate the game more than ever and recognize the gifts it gives: a distraction from our daily drudgeries; an outlet for emotions otherwise inexpressible; a vehicle – one of the last in this modern, shrink-wrapped, cocooned world – that connects us to one another; a uniting force that should erase all arbitrary boundaries.

That’s what I’ll be thinking of as the puck drops on another NHL season. This awful summer has made me see the game as if it were a friend or family member striding through the arrival gates at an airport after a long absence and harrowing ordeal.

You know that person has some baggage and may not be quite the same as you remember them, but their absence and brush with danger makes you appreciate how they filled your heart with wonder and joy like no one else can, so you bear hug them with everything you’ve got as soon as they get within your grasp. And you recognize that sacred connection could be disrupted in an eye’s blink, so you squeeze them even tighter.

So be sure to hug hockey a little bit harder this season. To eyes cataracted by cynicism, the sport represents just another entertainment option for your disposable income. But to those in the know, the game means everything because of the wonderful, fragile people who breathe life into it.

Regardless of the team you root for, that’s something worth celebrating all season long.

Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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