By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - With the Sochi Olympics, the biggest Winter Classic and a new Stadium Series, the National Hockey League (NHL) launches its most ambitious season since expansion on Tuesday looking to regain lost momentum and fans.
For NHL players, winning an Olympic gold medal and having their names engraved on the Stanley Cup will be the big prizes this season but for a league in recovery mode there is much more is at stake.
After last year's lockout-shortened campaign the NHL is back with a full action-packed 82-game schedule designed to put the league in the sporting spotlight and keep it there with a daring lineup of glossy events.
"One of the most important things to come out of the negotiations was 10 years of labor peace and that is allowing us to begin to execute the plans we have for growing the game and growing revenues," John Collins, the NHL's chief operating officer, told Reuters.
"We've added a lot of blue chip partners on the broadcast and the sponsorship side, who said they like where the game is and like where it's going and want to spend money promoting and activating around hockey.
"They need events like the Winter Classic and Stadium Series to do that."
From the great Olympic stage to an unconventional outdoor game in sunny Los Angeles, the NHL appears determined to leave no marketing stone unturned in an effort to rebuild its brand and repair the damage done by a bitter labor dispute.
A fresh start deserves a new look and the NHL has given itself a makeover for 2013-14, moving from the old six-division format to four (Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central and Pacific) with the top three in each plus two wild cards in each conference making the playoffs.
The curtain goes up on Tuesday with a classic Original Six matchup in Montreal with the Canadiens facing off against the Toronto Maple Leafs while the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks meet the Washington Capitals and the Winnipeg Jets take on the Edmonton Oilers in another all-Canadian tilt.
But there will be plenty of other dates circled on the hockey fans' calendars, the biggest being the outdoor Winter Classic which is expected to attract an NHL record crowd of 110,000 on New Year's day at Michigan Stadium.
The NHL, more than any of North America's four major professional leagues, has successfully traded on the romanticism of the sport's past and will be counting on that appeal to help the league regain the momentum it lost during the lockout.
The Winter Classic began as a one-off novelty tribute to hockey's outdoor roots but has quickly grown into a marketing colossus that has brought the NHL unprecedented exposure.
Capitalizing on that appeal, the NHL has scheduled six outdoor games.
The outdoor extravaganza begins in Detroit on New Year's Day with the Winter Classic between the Red Wings and Maple Leafs and ends with the Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators squaring off in the Heritage Classic at BC Place, the venue used for the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
In between, the NHL will stage a four-game Stadium Series with contests at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Soldier Field in Chicago and two games at New York City's Yankee Stadium.
The most important hockey event of the year, however, will take place in Sochi, the exotic Black Sea resort that will host the 2014 Winter Games.
"Obviously the Olympics presents a unique opportunity. The fact that we have the best players in the world playing on that stage and we want to create as much momentum as we can going into the Olympics and as much as we can coming out as we possibly can," said Collins.
"That's why we bookended the Olympics with games at Dodger Stadium, Yankee Stadium on the front end and Soldier Field and BC Place on the back end."
After tense negotiations with the International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation, the NHL has decided to remain part of the Olympic program and will use the Sochi Games to promote its players and league.
Hockey's biggest names will back on the Olympic ice from February 9-25 with Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby set to lead Canada's gold medal defense against a Russia team that has made standing on top of the Sochi podium a top priority.
All that glitters, however, is not gold and the chase for the silver Stanley Cup will be the main target for all 30 NHL teams, particularly those based in hockey loving Canada.
Not since Montreal celebrated the last of their 24 Stanley Cups in 1993 has the treasured trophy been paraded through the streets of a Canadian city and the country is determined to see hockey's 'Holy Grail' return to its spiritual home.
Nowhere are expectations higher than in Toronto where the Maple Leafs will try to end the NHL's longest active Stanley Cup drought.
The Maple Leafs, the only NHL franchise to be worth $1 billion, have been a massive success everywhere but on the ice.
It has been 45 years since the Leafs last sipped from the silver mug and fans, who pay the NHL's highest ticket prices, are demanding more for their money.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)
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