A season of what might have been

Updated: October 13, 2004, 4:40 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

What stories might have been told? What sights seen?

Would you have marveled at the sight of a Stanley Cup banner, slowly rising from the ice at the St. Pete Times Forum as the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning prepared to host the Philadelphia Flyers in a rematch of last spring's titanic seven-game Eastern Conference finals?

Still sounds a bit funny, no?

Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

But on October 13, 2004, frenzied Bolts fans would have seen the first-ever Stanley Cup banner raised in the state of Florida, a nod to an organization that built a champion out of the ashes of a laughingstock and in doing so revealed the seemingly limitless possibilities of the game.

Oh, that it were so.

Surely Flyers fans, still bitter over their team's Game 7 loss, or Calgary Flames' fans, who still feel their chance at Stanley Cup glory was stolen by officials after a non-call on a potential series-clinching Martin Gelinas goal in Game 6 of the final, would have loved to see that banner raised given the alternative -- nothing.

The loss of training camps and a tedious exhibition schedule is hardly a loss. But Wednesday, the day the season was to start, the pain sets in for real.

Real pain for players whose pay checks start to evaporate. Real pain for the owners whose buildings are empty of meaningful hockey. Real pain for the fans in Phoenix who would have seen their re-made Coyotes take on the Dallas Stars as part of a back-to-back, home-and-home set to kick off the new season.

Brett Hull, Mike Ricci and Sean O'Donnell were all added to the fold by general manager Mike Barnett, Wayne Gretzky and Hall of Fame-bound Cliff Fletcher, who hoped to build a playoff contender for their sparkling new arena in the desert. How fans would have greeted Hull, who blew off hockey fans in general during the World Cup of Hockey, would have made for an interesting opening night sidebar.

In terms of personality reclamation projects, what would have been more interesting than tuning in to watch Dominik Hasek skate out to his new home in the Ottawa Senators' nets at the Corel Centre? The Dominator now the The Senatator? It doesn't exactly roll off the tongue but hey, it would have been just the first night of the season, lots of time to get it right.

The Senators, who brought in Ottawa-area native Bryan Murray to coach after last spring's annual playoff collapse against the Toronto Maple Leafs, were to have hosted the neighboring Montreal Canadiens whose offseason moves included the acquisition of longtime Ottawa whipping boy and chronic underachiever Radek Bonk.

Looking for a little fairytale scenario to mark the start of the season? How about a clash of Cinderellas past and present as the Anaheim Mighty Ducks hosted the aforementioned Flames?

A year ago the big question was what the Ducks would do for an encore after taking the New Jersey Devils to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. But the clock struck midnight on the Ducks' season almost as soon as it began as they sputtered their way to a 12th place finish in the Western Conference. Not even Sergei Fedorov's arrival helped. Will Fedorov have bounced back and show he is the leader the Ducks envisioned when they signed him away from Detroit? We'll have to wait and see.

As for the Flames, they hit everything that moved from the moment the puck dropped at the start of last season. Once the playoffs began, they hit everything that moved twice as hard, and dispatched Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose en route to their first finals appearance since 1989. Falling one goal short, the Flames' playoff run captured the imagination of an entire nation starved for a Stanley Cup champion.

Whether the Flames' tank might have been empty to start this campaign is now a moot point.

As for tanks, how about over in the Shark Tank where San Jose would have opened their season Wednesday against Vancouver.

Under Ron Wilson's first full year as coach, the Sharks far exceeded expectations with a franchise-record 104 points. Without Ricci's leadership and with the element of surprise no longer part of their arsenal, the speedy Sharks would have been hard-pressed to match last year's performance.

The Canucks, meanwhile, remain one of the NHL's great enigmas.

A textbook example of how to build an exciting, winning franchise, the Canucks have fallen short of playoff expectations the past two seasons. Critics will insist the talented Canucks lack one key ingredient, a top-notch goaltender, although timely scoring was the issue as they fell to the Flames in the first round in what was perhaps the best series of the spring.

One of the reasons for Vancouver's demise was the absence of Todd Bertuzzi, whose suspension for attacking Colorado's Steve Moore carried through the playoffs. What his actions cost the team in lost playoff revenue -- not to mention the damage done to the game's already fragile reputation across America -- is anyone's guess, but suffice it to say it was and remains significant.

Whether Bertuzzi might have been in the Canucks' lineup Wednesday is anyone's guess, except maybe commissioner Gary Bettman's, to whom Bertuzzi will have to appeal for reinstatement when hockey returns. There is a good chance his trial for assault, which begins on January 17, will be over before that time comes.

If there is a tantalizing element of every opening night it's that the future is a fresh sheet of ice. It is why the game's absence is particularly maddening to fans in Atlanta, Buffalo and Florida or any of the cities where despair or disappointment about the past would have been replaced by optimism.

The Thrashers, with super-prospect Kari Lehtonen in net and Dany Heatley fully recovered from last fall's fatal car accident that took the life of teammate Dan Snyder, not to mention a revamped defense and a Russian gem named Ilya Kovalchuk, appeared ready to join the playoff fray for the first time.

Young, skilled Southeastern Division colleagues the Florida Panthers likewise seemed ready to challenge for a postseason berth under new coach Jacques Martin and the unsinkable Mike Keenan, now holding the general manager's post.

The Sabres were hoping to build on a strong second half to return to respectability and put an end to the team's dark chapter of bankruptcy and chaos.

In traditional markets like Toronto, where the aging, injury-prone Maple Leafs were set to return in tact -- if not exactly healthy -- against the New Jersey Devils on Friday before hosting the Senators at home 24 hours later, the puck dropping on another new season would have marked another bout of high expectations and low tolerance for failure from fans and the media.

A few hours away in Detroit, the Red Wings would have been boarding a flight to Edmonton for their Thursday opener, hoping to put behind them the sting of a second straight playoff loss to a lesser light, in this case the Flames.

Although given a vote of confidence by ownership, head coach Dave Lewis must be aware of the shrinking margin for error in Hockeytown, where local heroes Steve Yzerman, 39, and Chris Chelios, 42, appear close to winding out their careers.

In fact, the prospect of the great and the aged winding their way through a possible final campaign would have made for interesting subplots in a number of NHL cities.

Dave Andreychuk, still aglow with his first Stanley Cup championship, was set to return to Tampa at age 41. The incomparable Mario Lemieux showed his 39-year-old legs still have juice as he helped lead Canada to a World Cup of Hockey championship, even though his Penguins still have a long road to travel to return to playoff contention.

In New Jersey it's not so much Scott Stevens' age, although he turned 40 last April, but rather his ability to return from the post-concussion syndrome that limited him to 38 games last year.

Across the river in Manhattan where intrigue and turmoil reign, the Rangers were set to embark on a radically different course. No longer the poster boys for excess (OK, they still have a $9-million Bobby Holik and $11-million Jaromir Jagr), the Rangers were preparing for their first real rebuilding season in well over a decade. Having failed to make the playoffs for seven straight seasons, general manager Glen Sather, his reputation in tatters, divested the team of high-priced talent including Alexei Kovalev, Brian Leetch, Chris Simon, Vladimir Malakhov, Petr Nedved and Anson Carter for a passel of draft picks, prospects and unheralded youngsters.

Think Paris Hilton on a farm and you get a sense of how dramatically life has changed for the NHL's biggest spenders, who would have opened their season on Thursday in Pittsburgh.

Oh, that it were so.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE