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Hockey fans in frenzy as NHL action returns after lengthy lockout

Montreal Canadiens' fan Will Thrall, left, and Toronto Maple Leafs' fan Jonny Wright cheer on their teams outside the Bell Centre in Montreal Saturday, January 19, 2013 ahead of the Canadiens' NHL home opener against the Leafs. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes.

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Montreal Canadiens' fan Will Thrall, left, and Toronto Maple Leafs' fan Jonny Wright cheer on their teams outside the Bell Centre in Montreal Saturday, January 19, 2013 ahead of the Canadiens' NHL home opener against the Leafs. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes.

MONTREAL - Hockey fans from coast-to-coast were celebrating the return of NHL action on Saturday, with many saying they were ready to forget the lengthy lockout that nearly cost the season.

Across the country, teams opened the season to frenzied crowds that cheered–and sometimes booed–the product on the ice. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield even sent out a series of Tweets from space welcoming back NHL hockey.

At the opening night game in Montreal, many Canadiens and Maple Leafs fans said they were far too excited about the matchup to harbour any anger over the work stoppage.

"I've played hockey my whole life and I can't live without it," said Myles Resnick, an 18-year-old Leafs fan who made the trip from Toronto with friends.

Resnick said he was angry during the lockout but loved hockey too much to stay away.

"As soon as it was over I jumped right back on," he said.

The Canadiens lost 2-1 at the sold out Bell Centre and left the ice to boos from fans disappointed in their performance.

Meanwhile, in Winnipeg, the city's famously loud fans welcomed their team back for a second season.

The Jets played the Ottawa Senators on Saturday afternoon in front a sellout crowd, with the Senators winning 4-1.

The team reached out to fans by offering half price food and drinks. Draft beers were $4.25 instead of $8.50, and $8 hot dogs were $4.

Kasia Dolna, who was wearing a Daniel Alfredsson Senators jersey in a sea of Jets gear, said she appreciated the gesture and had no misgivings about supporting the league.

"Not at all,'' Dolna said as she headed into the arena. "I'm a huge hockey fan. (The lockout) sucked... but I can't wait for the game."

Another fan, Billy Kent, whose family has season tickets, said he wasn't about to stop being a hockey fan—especially with the Jets back in town.

"It's a little frustrating," he said.

"I don't even know what side to side really with, I guess. But it's back now, and it's over with."

There were some signs of discontent, however.

A scattering of boos greeted Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey during the pre-game introductions. Hainsey was the team's representative during the labour negotiations with the league and was often front and centre during talks with the owners.

The game in Vancouver against the Anaheim Ducks was also sold out.

In an effort to win back fans, the Canucks handed out free scarves and adults were offered one free beer per person. The team let a longtime season-ticket holder drop the puck for the ceremonial opening face-off.

The Canucks also held a draw for a team road trip giveaway on the Canucks' chartered airplane with players.

The one important thing the team didn't give their fans was a win, as the Canucks lost 7-3 to the Ducks.

Before the game, Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis thanked fans for their patience, support and loyalty, but did not apologize for the 119-day lockout.

In Boston, though, Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs began by saying he was sorry.

At a press conference prior to his team's opener against the New York Rangers, he said the delay in opening night was "a disappointment." He said the Bruins would try to make it up to their fans by playing hard and winning.

And in Philadelphia, the Flyers thanked fans for sticking with them in videotaped messages aired throughout the game. About 20,000 fans filled the Wells Fargo Center.

The excitement in Montreal began early in the day.

Despite steady snowfall, thousands turned out to see the Canadiens and Leafs during their game-day skates, which were made open to fans as part of an attempt to make amends.

Later on, the rock band Simple Plan played a free concert outside the arena, while a nearby boutique offering 50 per cent off Habs merchandise attracted a crowd three people thick.

All seven Canadian teams were slated to play over the weekend.

The Calgary Flames host the San Jose Sharks on Sunday, while the Canucks play against the Edmonton Oilers.

- with files from Avi Saper and Judy Owen in Winnipeg, Monte Stewart in Vancouver, and The Associated Press

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