The National Hockey League begins its 75th season tonight and will even get some help from Michael J. Fox to go back to the future.
Fox will be one of 22 "celebrity team captains" (Yogi Berra, John Candy and Larry King are some of the others) who will help the league celebrate the milestone.
The glitz begins tonight, when the league's six original clubs have the opening-night stage to themselves. The New York Rangers will be on the road to play the Boston Bruins, the Toronto Maple Leafs will visit the Montreal Canadiens and the Detroit Red Wings will travel to the Chicago Blackhawks. Each of the teams will wear replicas of their original jerseys.
But, not far removed from the celebration, the NHL has big problems, including no national television contract in the United States and the never-ending criticism that too many teams (16 of 22) make the playoffs. Also, the NHL has no collective-bargaining agreement with the NHL Players' Association, and there is a threat of a strike or lockout during the season.
The players, whose contract expired Sept. 15, have said they will open the season, play without a contract and continue to negotiate. Then in November if there is no real progress, the players say they would be prepared to walk out for as long as it takes.
The NHL has grown from 21 to 22 teams this season with the
addition of the expansion San Jose Sharks in the Smythe Division.
Two additional teams, the Ottawa Senators and the Tampa Bay Lightning, are scheduled to begin play in the 1992-93 season. But neitherteam has yet to turn over $22.5 million payments, which were due in June. The NHL has said it plans to have 28 teams by the year 2000.
As for this season, an emotional scenario surrounds the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Pittsburgh coach Bob Johnson, 60, has been seriously ill since late August when he learned he had two brain tumors. Johnson is undergoing treatment at his Colorado home and has vowed to coach again.
The Penguins waited until two days ago to name an interim coach. But, in selecting Scotty Bowman, they chose the winningest coach in NHL history.
Bowman (739-327-210 with the St. Louis Blues, Canadiens and the Buffalo Sabres and five Stanley Cups with Montreal) was entering his second season as director of player development and recruitment for the Penguins.
Bowman inherits a team that stunned the NHL last season, advancing past the second round of the playoffs for the first time and winning its first Stanley Cup.
Some say Johnson did it with mirrors and a hot Mario Lemieux in the playoffs. Others say he did it by teaching the Penguins to pay more attention to their zone and to make defensive instead of offensive decisions.
The spotlight also will shine on the Los Angeles Kings and their two superstars, Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri, who are together again thanks to Kings owner Bruce McNall.
Gretzky at center and Kurri on right wing played eight seasons together for the Edmonton Oilers before being separated after the 1987-88 season when Gretzky was traded to the Kings.
In those eight seasons, the two combined for 2,712 points (1,057 goals, 1,655 assists) and four Stanley Cup titles.
Kurri, 31, returns to the NHL this season after spending onseason playing in Italy.
McNall and the Kings engineered a three-team, multi-playetrade with the Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers to acquire, in part, the rights to Kurri.
Two weeks before the trade was announced, McNall jokingly said at the NHL Awards Night in Toronto on June 5: "I heard Wayne wasn't going to be named the Most Valuable Player in the league. I thought I had better get him a consolation prize, so we went out and got him the Jari Kurri Trophy."
Brett Hull of the Blues won the Hart MVP Trophy that night, and two weeks later Gretzky had his consolation prize.
Stanley Cup odds
Team.. .. .. .. .. Odds
Calgary.. .. .. .. 5-1
Chicago.. .. .. .. 5-1
Los Angeles.. .. .. 5-1
Pittsburgh.. .. .. 5-1
Boston.. .. .. .. . 6-1
Montreal.. .. .. .. 6-1
St. Louis.. .. .. 12-1
Rangers.. .. .. .. 15-1
Edmonton.. .. .. . 20-1
Minnesota.. .. .. 25-1
Detroit.. .. .. .. 30-1
New Jersey.. .. .. .. 30-1
Buffalo.. .. .. .. .. 40-1
Washington.. .. .. .. 40-1
Philadelphia.. .. .. 50-1
Vancouver.. .. .. .. 75-1
Quebec.. .. .. .. .. 100-1
Winnipeg.. .. .. .. 100-1
Hartford.. .. .. .. 150-1
Islanders.. .. .. .. 150-1
Toronto.. .. .. .. . 150-1
San Jose.. .. .. .. 250-1
The only players the Pittsburgh Penguins lost from last season's Stanley Cup championship team were checking C Randy Gilhen and D Randy Hillier. That shouldn't hurt too much. But missing is the enthusiastic coach Bob Johnson, who is fighting 2 brain tumors. Scotty Bowman, the winningest coach in NHL history, has been named the interim coach and will try to provide the same kind of spark.
If C Mario Lemieux and the Penguins slip, the New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals and New York Rangers are considered good enough to fight for first place.