The first hurdle for the return of the National Hockey League is how many people notice that it's back. A relative handful of fans care passionately about hockey, but the worry is that having been out of sight for a year owing to a lockout, the sport will also be out of mind.
The players and the owners insist, of course, that pro hockey will be better than ever — more competitive thanks to a salary cap, and faster and higher scoring thanks to rules changes. The immense leg and hand pads, the huge gloves and the ballooning jerseys that made goalies into space-alien-like barricades have been significantly shrunk.
And there will be no ties! Games deadlocked at the end of regulation will feature five minutes of four-on-four sudden death and, if still tied, sudden-death penalty shots with the teams' best shot artists alternating.
Plus, there has been a major addition of potential new stars and a reshuffling of veteran players among the 30 teams that, hockey insists, have made the sport more competitive and made plausible such headlines as this one in Sports Illustrated, "Nashville an overnight Cup contender."
The real test of new and improved hockey will be whether people watch it on TV. At the end of its last full season, hockey was scrapping for viewers against poker and rodeo instead of the other major leagues. ESPN declined to renew its TV contract, and this season hockey will air on cable channel OLN, the old Outdoor Life Network that is also trying to reinvent itself in a new and improved form.
Hockey has always been able to rely on its loyal core fans. The question is whether in its new incarnation it can win new friends and influence new people.