Why we need this season to start

A new season is like a frozen pond blown clear by a chilled breeze.

It says welcome -- all things are possible here.

Around that unblemished frozen pond that will be the 2011-12 National Hockey League season, though, are dark reminders that no matter how often we try to separate the game from the rest of the world, the two intersect more often than we'd like.

"Obviously it was a summer that had tremendous sadness and tragedy," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told ESPN.com.

It's commonplace to suggest the game is a refuge from things such as unemployment and tragedy and personal grief and loss.

If that is at least partially true, the coming season will be a welcome respite for those who knew Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard and Wade Belak and all those who lost their lives on the Lokomotiv jet crash in Russia.

We look to the game not so we may forget the losses of hockey lifers such as Brad McCrimmon, Ruslan Salei, Pavol Demitra and the rest, but we look to this new season to somehow celebrate their passing.

Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero said early in training camp that there hasn't been a day go by without some discussion about how to help the families that have lost loved ones and how to remember them, how to honor them.

It is not just a challenge for the National Hockey League and its teams and players, but a duty.

Maybe because of those losses, we look to this season with even more hunger than in the past, after a season that saw record ratings and attendance and wildly exciting playoff series.

"Looking at the game and the business end of that game, we're coming off what might have been the best season ever," Bettman said.

"I think we can take what we had last year and feel very good about what we have this year."

Still, as we ponder the return of five-time scoring champ Jaromir Jagr to Philadelphia, the ability of the resilient Boston Bruins to defend their championship and when or if Sidney Crosby will return to the ice after missing the last half of last season with a concussion, there remain myriad off-ice issues that will permeate the storylines and intrigue and enthrall us in the coming days.

At the risk of appearing hyperbolic, this might be the season that defines Bettman's long tenure as NHL commissioner. Certainly it's a season that has the potential to shape how the league looks for years to come.

"It's going to be a wild one," one prominent agent told ESPN.com.

There remains the troubling specter of what led three players who essentially fought for a living to die far too soon. Rypien suffered from a long bout of depression; Boogaard died as a result of an overdose of alcohol and prescription pain medication, and Belak's death remains shrouded in at least some mystery after he was found hanging in a downtown Toronto condominium where he was preparing to shoot a popular reality television show for the CBC.

The league and the players' association have pledged to look further into what ties, if any, connect the men and their deaths, and to examine the existing programs available to players to deal with a host of personal issues. It will be interesting to see whether the combined investigation reveals deeper issues such as lack of sleep, travel and the use of pain medication play a significant role in players' personal struggles. Regardless, the deaths of the three players (Belak had recently retired) has certainly focused more attention on the long-standing debate over the place of fighting in hockey, while bigger-picture player safety in general remains one of the great challenges facing the NHL.

The league continues to try to walk the fine line between neutralizing the physicality and violence that are part of the game's DNA, and making the game safer while squelching those players who consistently cross the line with reckless and dangerous play.

Crosby's absence since early January, after the game's best player sustained a concussion from a blow to the head, brought the already hotly debated issues of concussions and dangerous play into the spotlight. The players and league officials continue to work to make the game safer, and we already have seen evidence the league's approach to supplemental discipline will be more transparent, not to mention harsher, than in the past. New Lord of Discipline Brendan Shanahan has appeared on video more often than Justin Bieber this fall, explaining a slew of suspensions he's handed down during preseason contests. Most dramatic among those suspensions was James Wisniewski, who signed a whopper six-year, $33 million deal in Columbus on July 1 and now will miss the first eight games of the regular season after an altercation with Cal Clutterbuck of the Minnesota Wild. Wisniewski is a multiple offender, and as Shanahan told ESPN.com, that's the mandate he's been given by players and team officials -- go after the guys who don't learn their lessons.

More to the point, perhaps others finally will take notice of the changing landscape, assuming that landscape continues to be as unrelenting for players who cross the line.

To that end, Shanahan said he hopes to be highlighting plays in which players don't take advantage of a vulnerable player or do hold up on a potentially dangerous hit.

"I think we've done a really solid job of focusing on player safety," Bettman said, noting the physical changes in arenas with different glass structures that also should make the game safer.

In addition, ownership issues will continue to dog the NHL on a number of fronts, most notably in Phoenix, where the league continues to operate the Phoenix Coyotes. Potential owners come and go like leaves in the wind. But one way or another, this will be the final season of this great, sad tale.

Either a new owner will be found to take advantage of a team that has made the playoffs the past two seasons or the league will move early in 2012 to relocate the team.

That will open another issue of where the team could/should go, including debate over Seattle, Quebec City and Kansas City among others.

As much as the return of hockey to Winnipeg this fall is seen as a victory for Canada, the reality is the loss of a major media market like Atlanta is a blow to Bettman's plan for a pan-American NHL footprint. The loss of another major market like Phoenix to another smaller Canadian market like Quebec City would be a hard sell for the other owners.

The Coyotes' ownership issue also will have a significant effect on the ongoing debate over realignment. With Winnipeg jammed like a round peg into a square hole in the Southeast Division this season, the assumption is the team will move to the Western Conference next season.

That's assuming there is an entity known as the Western Conference. Owners and GMs already have begun the debate over what the NHL will look like in terms of realignment, and it's bound to become a lot more emotional as the days pass. Detroit wants out of the West so fans don't have to stay up until the wee hours watching most of the team's road games, but a move to the East would threaten the traditional balance of power between the two conferences and would be a blow to Western Conference teams that thrive on the Wings as a strong box office draw in their buildings. Columbus would like out of the West, and given that it is a perennial weak sister, it seems like a good trade-off for the perennially weak Jets. Nashville makes sense as a replacement in the Southeast, at least geographically, although it is a Central Time Zone team. Dallas also apparently wants to get out of the Pacific Division.

There's also the issue of the six-division format, which works given the number of teams in the league (30), but not necessarily when it comes to establishing playoff matchups, given that the regular-season schedule is heavily weighted to divisional play.

Bettman said the board of governors already has had constructive discussions on how to proceed on realignment but added that one overriding message has been that most favor the current divisional system and that any changes should be kept as "simple" as possible.

This season also will bring with it the end of the current collective bargaining agreement and the specter of another protracted work stoppage.

The NHL Players' Association has a new leader in Donald Fehr, and many fans fear his hard-line stance during his time as executive director of baseball's union bodes ill for a speedy resolution to labor talks that are expected to begin sometime after the All-Star break. But it's important to point out baseball has not had a major work stoppage since 1994, and both Fehr and Bettman are men whose reputations already have been forged at the bargaining table. Bettman allowed an entire season to pass without a puck being dropped in 2004-05 in order to deliver the salary cap his owners demanded. The cap is here to stay, that much is certain. Although Fehr will represent a worthy adversary in negotiations, there is not the motherhood issue of a cap or anything like it that suggests another stoppage is as imminent as was the case in 2004.

One reason to suggest the game will not be interrupted is that it continues to arc upward in terms of revenues, profile and general positive reviews around North America, something that's been the case since the end of the lockout.

The league recently announced HBO will again follow teams, in this case the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers, in the days leading up to the fifth annual Winter Classic, to be held Jan. 2 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

The outdoor game continues to evolve and grow, and has become firmly established as a must-see on the hockey calendar. Ratings suggest it has reached a level of being a must-watch on the national sports calendar, something that could have been only dreamed of when the first Winter Classic went off at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Jan. 1, 2008.

With a new, long-term television deal with NBC and the network's plans to revamp its cable arm, Versus, the cable carrier of NHL games, the league has achieved a kind of security in terms of television exposure that likewise seemed inconceivable after the lockout when broadcasters showed little interest in committing to the league.

The league also remains on the cutting edge of technology when it comes to attracting fans and fans in the most desirable demographics.

"All of those things I think bode well for the future of the game," Bettman said.

Throw in what looks like it will be a long labor stoppage for the NBA, and the NHL should be poised to collect even more fans during the winter to come.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.