By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - The re-launch of the Winnipeg Jets offers a feel-good story to start the 2011-12 National Hockey League (NHL) campaign and help push back dark clouds that hovered over the hockey world after a grim offseason.
While the Jets are back after a 15-year absence, the unknown return date for Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby remains a disturbing concern as hockey's biggest name continues a slow, tedious recovery from a concussion.
Hot-button issues like hits to the head, player safety and the financial health of several franchises will grab a good share of the early-season headlines while negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement and whether to commit to the 2014 Sochi Winter Games will creep into the hockey discussion.
But the NHL will put these nagging distractions aside to celebrate the new season in grand style with games on both sides of the Atlantic as the Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres, Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers open their campaigns on European ice with games in Berlin, Helsinki and Stockholm.
The 2011-12 campaign begins Thursday with an Original Six matchup when the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Montreal Canadiens while the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins raise their championship banner to the rafters before taking on a revamped Philadelphia Flyers squad.
The Penguins and Vancouver Canucks complete the opening night lineup but the curtain-raiser will not include Crosby, who will start the season on injured reserve.
Out of action since early January, Crosby will accompany the Penguins to the West Coast but confirmed he has not yet fully recovered from concussion symptoms and will not play, giving no date for his long-awaited return.
"When we get back from the trip, maybe I'll see a doctor then," said Crosby. "Every day I just try to go as hard as I can ... Hopefully things will keep going as they're going."
Crosby's absence has put the spotlight on hits to the head and Brendan Shanahan, the newly appointed NHL vice-president of player safety, appears to have seen the light.
No stranger to league disciplinarians during his 21-year NHL career, Shanahan has shown a zero-tolerance approach by handing out an unprecedented number of bans in the preseason, a clear signal that targeting heads will no longer be tolerated.
Hangovers, however, are acceptable and there are likely to be plenty around the Canadian Prairies next week.
There is no doubt the biggest hockey party will be in the NHL's smallest market as Winnipeg welcomes back the Jets after a 15-year absence.
The relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg sparked a burst of national pride as hockey-mad Canada reclaimed one of its lost franchises that some believed was gone forever.
Giddy Winnipeggers have been celebrating ever since the NHL made the announcement in May and the party kicks into high gear with the team's season and home opener against Montreal set for October 9.
Opening night festivities in Winnipeg, however, are likely to begin on a somber note as Jets fans remember forward Rick Rypien, whose death contributed to the NHL's dark off-season.
Over the span of four months the deaths of Rypien, New York Rangers winger Derek Boogaard and former Maple Leafs tough guy Wade Belak left the hockey community reeling.
All three men earned their living as NHL enforcers and the eerie similarities prompted the league to investigate the circumstances surrounding their deaths.
As a new season begins, Vancouver is still recovering from a crushing Game Seven loss to Boston in last season's Stanley Cup final and a post-game riot that left a black mark on the team and the city.
The Canucks, led by high-scoring Swedish twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin, have the talent to once again be the class of the Western Conference.
The 2010 Stanley Cup champions Chicago Blackhawks, led by Jonathan Toews, the Detroit Red Wings, led by ageless wonder Nicklas Lidstrom, the Los Angeles Kings, led by superb young defenseman Drew Doughty and San Jose Sharks will push the Canucks for top spot.
In the East, the Bruins will try to become the first team since the 1997-1998 Red Wings to hoist back-to-back Stanley Cups while the big-spending Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers will look to cash in.
Even without Crosby the Penguins have enough quality to challenge for a Stanley Cup but a the talent-packed Washington Capitals, led by Russian sniper Alexander Ovechkin, are many pundits' pick to win the East.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)