By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - With the NBA trying to recover from the Donald Sterling fiasco and the NFL reeling from a string of domestic violence cases, the National Hockey League opens a new season on Wednesday free of controversy.
With a $5.2 billion Canadian television-rights deal and guaranteed labor peace through the 2021-22 season, it seems as if NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is looking forward to the 2014-15 campaign with a smile.
"The game on the ice has never been more exciting, more entertaining, more competitive," Bettman told the Canadian Club of Toronto last month. "We're coming off our best season ever and we think this year is going to be even better.
"The fact is this is the most stable our franchises have ever been, the healthiest we have been ... we're feeling good about where we are, we're feeling good about the future."
With the 2018 Olympics nearly four years away the debate on whether to send NHL players has been pushed to the back burner along with any threat of a labor dispute as players and owners agreed to a 10-year collective bargaining agreement in 2013.
The NHL will stage two outdoor contests, four less than last season, starting with the Winter Classic on New Year's Day between Washington Capitals and visiting Chicago Blackhawks. In late February, the San Jose Sharks play the Los Angeles Kings at the home of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers.
Certainly the NHL's problems have not all suddenly vanished in a blur of billion-dollar rights deals, record revenues and soaring attendance.
There is still the troubling issue of concussions and threat of a costly lawsuit as well as the debate over fighting which is sure to resurface the next time a player is left bloodied and unconscious on the ice.
The Canadian dollar has taken a pounding in recent months and the NHL will surely keep a close watch since the seven teams in the game's spiritual home and financial engine earn revenue in Canadian dollars but pay players in U.S. currency.
The big concern for hockey-mad Canadians, however, is not how well their currency is performing but how well their teams will play since no Canadian team has captured the Stanley Cup since 1993.
Nowhere are expectations higher than in Toronto where the Maple Leafs, who have not won a Stanley Cup since 1967, will try to end the NHL's longest active championship drought.
The Maple Leafs, who are the only NHL franchise valued at $1 billion by Forbes, have been a massive success everywhere but on the ice having made the playoffs once in the last nine years.
While Leafs supporters have suffered, fans of the Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings have celebrated with the two teams having captured four of the last five Stanley Cups.
No franchise has successfully defended the Cup since the Detroit Red Wings won back-to-back titles in 1997 and 1998 and the Kings will have an opportunity to establish themselves a true hockey dynasty if they can skate away with the trophy for a third time in four seasons.
The Blackhawks, led by captain Jonathan Toews and the Kings, anchored by defenceman Drew Doughty, start the season as the teams to beats in a Western Conference packed with contenders.
The Boston Bruins, the only team other than Chicago or Los Angeles to lift the Cup since 2010, again look the class of the East but will have to fill the void left by Jarome Iginla, who tied for the team lead in goals with 30 last season but has signed with Colorado.
Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby and Capitals sniper Alex Ovechkin remain the NHL's marquee names piling up individual honors but the two captains have had not had the same success leading their teams to championships.
Ovechkin, a three-time league most valuable players, has yet to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup while Crosby, the reigning league MVP, hoisted his only Cup in 2009.
Now 27-years-old and about to enter his 10th NHL season, Crosby, who led the league in scoring last season, is no longer 'Sid the Kid' and, like Ovechkin, is a player in his prime under pressure to deliver a championship.
Detroit have made it the playoffs for 23 consecutive years and there is no reason that run should end this season with Mike Babcock, who piloted Canada to gold medals at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, behind the bench.
With an Olympic gold medal winning netminder in Carey Price, one of the top defenceman in P.K. Subban and a crop of solid forwards, the Montreal Canadiens remain the best bet to end Canada's Cup drought while the New York Rangers could make to the finals for a second consecutive year.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)