By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - The National Hockey League is back, and so are the fans, as the puck finally dropped on a season that nearly never was because of bitter labor dispute.
From sunny California to wintry Quebec, 26 of the NHL's 30 teams were in action on Saturday.
The Los Angeles Kings raised their massive black-and-white Stanley Cup banner before opening the defense of their crown against the Chicago Blackhawks, while in Montreal, two of the league's flagship franchises, the Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, renewed their storied rivalry.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players Association chief Donald Fehr, who had held the ice hockey spotlight through nearly four months of negotiations, slipped into the shadows and left the stage to the players.
"Last week we announced that we reached an agreement on a new CBA (collective bargaining agreement) and tonight the Bruins are back on the ice," said Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs shortly before his team got a 3-1 win over the New York Rangers.
"When the puck drops, we put the last four months behind us and celebrate the return of hockey to Causeway Street.
"The fact that we were unable to reach an agreement until just recently is a disappointment.
"I want to personally apologize to our fans and others who depend on this team for their livelihood. But these are just words. The best way to make it up to you is to play hard and win."
The season began the way the last one ended -- in Los Angeles, with the Kings doing one final victory lap around a jubilant Staples Center with the Stanley Cup before a poignant banner raising ceremony assisted by the family of Ana Marquez-Greene, a fan and victim of the Sandy Hook massacre.
There was one big difference, however, as the Kings, who never gave up more than four goals in their championship run, surrendered that many in two periods as the Blackhawks spoiled the party with a 5-2 win.
In some markets, bitterness from the 113-day lockout is sure to linger but not in Canada where an ice hockey buzz swept across the country like a massive winter storm and fans welcomed back teams with open arms.
The return of the NHL also meant the return of hundreds of jobs as fans slipped into their favorite jerseys and packed bars and pubs providing a jolt to local economies.
The league and teams have worked hard to win back disgruntled fans and their wallets, offering everything from free tickets and parking to discounts on beer, hotdogs and merchandise.
Even the Maple Leafs, who last year were rated by Forbes as the first ice hockey team to be worth $1 billion, extended an olive branch by giving away 1,000 tickets to Monday's home opener against Buffalo and offering free skate rentals at the Toronto city hall outdoor rink that same day.
For opening day the NHL took out full page newspaper ads in major cities across Canada and the United States, offering yet another apology for dragging fans through a fourth work stoppage in 20 years.
FANS TO THE FORE
At nearly every arena, teams thanked fans for their patience and standing by the sport through trying times.
Fans were also front-and-center at several openers.
In Los Angeles, 10 fans were selected to escort the Stanley Cup in the Staples Center while two San Jose Sharks supporters were chosen to drop the ceremonial puck at their home opener.
The league-wide charm offensive generated enough goodwill to make opening day a success but most of the initiatives do not go further, leaving it up to the product on the ice to keep the turnstiles twirling and television ratings climbing.
With a shortened 48-game regular season there will be little margin for error, with even a minor slump or injury capable of tripping up a team up during a 99-day sprint for a playoff spot.
With only a six-day training camp, there was plenty of rust on display on Saturday.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, the odds makers favorites to replace the Kings as champions, got off to solid start beating their great rivals the Flyers 3-1 in front of a record Philadelphia crowd.
The Maple Leafs, who have not hoisted the Stanley Cup since 1967 and failed to make the playoffs the last seven seasons, gave their fans hope the postseason drought might be coming to an end with a 2-1 victory over the Canadiens.
The New Jersey Devils, losing finalists a year ago, beat the New York Islanders 2-1.
(Editing by Gene Cherry/Peter Rutherford)