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ON HOCKEY

Bruins, fans have open ice to discover

Now that wasn't so bad, was it? The Bruins last skated off Causeway Street ice some 18 months ago and, bang, just like that, here we are again at the dawn of a new season.

Life sure has a way of zipping by when you're watching two sides clobber themselves into near-irrelevance at a negotiating table. In case you tuned out in the midst of the Great CBA Debate, the final score for the final time: NHL Owners 1, NHL Players absolutely embarrassed. In lieu of a shootout, union boss Bob Goodenow was sacrificed in the Toronto boardroom of his Just Say No Players Association and was last seen, air tickets in hand, signing off on his multimillion dollar buyout package (non-membership has its privileges).

Despite all the bile, baloney, and downright bad karma of the lost 2004-05 season, a full house is expected tonight at the Vault when the Bruins face the Canadiens in what is step No. 1 in the attempted renaissance of the local team and the beleaguered league at large.

If the joint is full -- and there is no reason to doubt that -- it once more underscores just how passionate the Hub of Hockey is about the team that first opened for business at the Boston Arena Dec. 1, 1924. Montreal was the leadoff opponent that night, too, and the Bruins edged the Maroons, 2-1.

Eighty-one years later, with the lockout an ugly footnote in the timeline, the game looks as though it will still be embraced by the locals. It says loads for the game, but even more about the ardent fans, those who have seen the best of times (Eddie Shore and Bobby Orr), the worst of times (the Locked Door of '04-05), and tonight will show up for more.

Aside to hockey-hating bloggers: don't be afraid to change your pajamas, back away from the keyboard for a second, and examine the truth about hockey's place in Boston sports history. On a season-by-season basis, there have been far more disappointments than sweet, Cup-winning endings. But still, the fans come. And why? Not because they fear the wrath and damnation of the Gallery Gods, but simply because they like it, for its wonders and its warts.

There is no telling how the latest rendition of the distant sons of Charles Francis Adams will play -- on the ice or on the eyes. Following the first-round playoff knockout at the hands of the Habs in '04, general manager Mike O'Connell stripped down the payroll in anticipation of the lockout. In the end, he was the one caught naked when the new CBA left two of the team's stars, Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov, only 49 weeks removed from unrestricted free agency.

Come the end of July and early August, O'Connell was forced into management crisis mode, leaving him little choice but to dole out lavish deals to Thornton and unrestricted free agents Glen Murray, Alexei Zhamnov, and Brian Leetch. O'Connell, most of his $39 million budget quickly eaten up amid his frenzied wheeling and dealing, attempted to bring back Nick Boynton at about a $500,000 discount from the $1.9 million option Boynton would have been forced to accept.

As of last night, the sides still hadn't agreed to a deal, and now the season is about to start with raw rookies Kevin Dallman, Milan Jurcina, and Andrew Alberts positioned to try to fill Boynton's void. His absence, should it become permanent, could prove to be a debilitating blow. He's the No. 2 defenseman, behind the 37-year-old Leetch, and there isn't a team in the league that could shrug off the loss of its second best blue liner. Perhaps if Kyle McLaren, now 28, were still around . . . but that's another sad story.

Inside the Bruins dressing room at Wilmington yesterday morning, the hope and promise of a new season was nearly palpable. There was wide-eyed wonder among the rookies, including Pat Leahy, filling in at practice for the ailing Zhamnov. Thornton, the team captain, carried out his obligatory media duties, a job he abandoned the day before the last Bruins-Habs matchup. Players came and went, getting massages, signing autographs and working on sticks, creating the usual beehive of activity in an NHL room. There was just a little more buzz with opening night slightly more than 24 hours off.

How will this Bruins team differ from the last Bruins team?

Coach Mike Sullivan was asked that in several different ways, and each time he quickly switched the focus from anything that happened in April 2004 to what is about to happen in the months to come. If he has a lingering headache from the Game 7 loss to the Habs in Round 1 of the '04 playoffs, the best remedy he knows is to have an entire team chasing a four-inch pill of vulcanized rubber.

''I think we probably have better puck movers," he said, ''and we'll have better opportunities to create a transition game," he said.

It was one of Sullivan's predecessors, goalie-turned-coach Gerry Cheevers, who lived by the mantra, ''Everything in the game comes from skating." If the league remains committed to its many rule changes, and strict enforcement of the rulebook, teams that can skate, and move the puck while doing so, should be rewarded. Since his arrival in the fall of '03, Sullivan has preached puck possession and the headlock on control of offense that it can deliver.

There were stretches of his rookie season behind the bench when Sullivan, and his message, brought results.

Now we see how it fits, in a new season, a new era, and with an overhauled cast.

''I'm not into comparisons," said Sullivan. ''I'm happy with the team we have right now."

Will happy beginnings lead to the same sort of ending? A question we've asked around here since the days prior to the start of the Great Depression.

The best news is, we're still asking.

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