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What we lost when the NHL lost Opening Night

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If professional sports are one of our most celebrated forms of escapism, then Opening Night is like the first moments of an intoxicating daydream.

It renews us, it tantalizes us; it's when hope is sold to us and we willfully devour it, eager to believe. It's when the cancer of pessimism has yet to spread beyond the perpetually jaded.

Beginning Thursday night, the Opening Nights for NHL teams will be passed over rather than played, their scheduled games canceled in the current schedule format.

True, many of us believe that the dream has simply been deferred. That there will be 30 opening nights around the NHL at some point, rather than seeing the entire season die on the vine. But those games will be marinated in the bile of a labor war. Opening Night demands a clean sheet of ice; the lockout will have left it chipped, stained and sluggish, and no superficial groveling "THANK YOU FANS" advertisement near the blue line can obscure the flaws.

It'll be called Opening Night, but it won't be Opening Night. We've lost Opening Night this season.

We've lost the weeks of steady transition from the summer shopping spree to the preseason to the finalized roster, as players you've never heard of and rookies you've yearned to see earn their right to play. Also lost: New line combinations, which are as alluring to a hockey fan as a reinvented classic entrée is to a foodie.

We've lost those gloriously tacky red carpet entrances for the players. Cheesy and presumptuous? Totally. Honoring our pasty-faced ice heroes as they awkwardly strut through lines of fans like they were at the premiere of the latest "Twilight" movie? There's just something very hockey about it.

We've lost the fanfare around the arena; the extra mile to which teams go in order to make the first night of the season feel like an event rather than a pedestrian regular-season game. Who knew bag pipes and face-painters and a terrible local cover band was the recipe for comfort food?

We've lost the kinetic combination of the home arena's fresh intro music and video — either setting the tone for the season, or the latest source of ridicule for cynical puckheads — segueing perfectly into the boys skating out faster than they would for any other regular-season home game.

We've lost the player-by-player introductions, in which Ben Lovejoy and Evgeni Malkin share the same spotlight, if not the same ovation:

We've lost the thrill of seeing Rick Nash in his New York Rangers jersey or Jaromir Jagr as a member of the Dallas Stars for the first time, the progression of their NHL careers interrupted by Nash looking like a billboard on skates in Davos and Jagr slumming it with HC Kladno.

We've lost the hours counting down to game time, like a child anxiously hoping for Christmas morning to arrive.

We've lost that spiritual moment right as the puck drops, when thousands of fans in the building and watching across the continent allow last season to slip into memory's abyss and embrace the new. The moment of rebirth, of hope and the unknown. (Of course, that moment will itself tumble into the abyss once it becomes apparent your team doesn't have the goods.)

We've lost the thrill of seeing Alex Ovechkin or Ilya Kovalchuk score their first goals of the season, because they've already done so in Russia.

We've lost that first fight that we all know was set up by the fourth-line lunkheads during warmups just because it was Opening Night.

We've lost the reunion of fans, friends, co-workers, teammates and peers that occurs on Opening Night when the congregation reconvenes in the local church. Some might not come back, depending on the lingering bitterness from the lockout. Those that do won't immediately engage in the annual conversations about what's happening on the ice — at least not until after they angrily renounce what happened during the lockout.

We've lost the chance to make sure they didn't [expletive] with our PA announcer, goal horn or goal song.

We've lost that moment as the final horn sounds, when no matter the result we know that there are 81 more chances for them to either get it right or keep it going. We've lost it because we might not have 82 games this season; or, if we do, it'll be in a condensed, non-traditional form that leads to an imperfect schedule.

We've lost the point in the NHL season that's furthest away from having to see the commissioner hand out the Stanley Cup through cascading boos.

We'll gain some of these back when the lockout ends and the season openers begin. But they'll feel perfunctory or diminished, a forced rite of passage rather than a celebration — well, outside of Los Angeles.

But that's what lockouts and strikes do across the landscape: They shake us violently from our daydream, reveal that escape only goes as far as the dollar can carry you.

We've lost Opening Night this season, and with it our equilibrium.

The standard calendar defines the official starting point for winter as Dec. 21.

Hockey fans know better.

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