Ice Hockey: Red Wings hope to take flight again

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The National Hockey League opens its 81st season with a 10-game programme today, after which the spotlight shifts to Japan.

The Vancouver Canucks play the Anaheim Mighty Ducks on Saturday and Sunday at Tokyo's Yoyogi Arena in games that count in the NHL standings. Taking the face-off for the Canucks will be centre Mark Messier, the former New York Ranger who signed as a free agent with Vancouver.

The Canucks/Ducks encounter is an appetiser before the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, from 7 to 22 February, which will feature NHL players for the first time. The league will shut down in mid-season to allow its players to take part, with no NHL games scheduled during the Olympics. The NHL will contribute players to Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman, cited the NBA's great success with its Dream Teams at Barcelona and in Atlanta. "We expect the same success, but with one difference." Bettman said. "There will be multiple Dream Teams - and most importantly no one will be sure who will win."

Domestically, the question is, can the Detroit Red wings repeat their Stanley Cup triumph of last season? The Red Wings are attempting to become the first team to repeat victory since the Pittsburgh Penguins and Mario Lemieux won back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992.

"Colorado was as good a team as I had seen in 10 years, and they couldn't repeat," Steve Yzerman, the Wings captain, said. "First of all you have to have the desire."