By Shane Frederick
The Free Press
The National Hockey League finally returns this week after a lengthy lockout and embarrassing labor dispute that nearly wiped another full season off the books.
In Minnesota, a lot of people have been waiting for this week since the Fourth of July when the Wild signed free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to big contracts.
All will be forgiven when the puck drops and Nos. 11 and 20 jump on the Xcel Energy Center ice for the first time.
Saturday's game against the Colorado Avalanche may be the most-anticipated in team history, save its very first home opener back in 2000.
The NHL is hyping the start of season with an advertising and marketing campaign geared around the phrase "Hockey is back."
Well, the NHL is back. But hockey, the sport, never really left us this year.
If you or your kids play youth hockey, hockey never left you, and you probably have the winter miles on your odometer to prove it.
If you follow high school hockey, Minnesota's favorite version of the game hasn't gone anywhere. Around these parts, the Mankato East/Loyola girls are in the midst of a great season, while the Mankato West boys have risen in the rankings, too, and both teams have their sights set on a playoff run next month and maybe even a state tournament berth.
If you're a fan of college hockey, it's been business as usual since early October, whether you have a regular seat at the Verizon Wireless Center or have been watching the Mavericks (and several other options) in high-def from the comfort of your home.
And what a year it's been to watch the Mavericks, even with their two heartbreaking overtime losses to red-hot Wisconsin this past weekend.
Minnesota State dropped from 11th in the country to 14th in the rankings after getting swept by the Badgers but remains in the midst of a great race in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in which just four points separate the first-place teams from the eighth.
With or without the lure of a Wild or other NHL game, it will be hard to ignore what surely will be a fantastic race to the finish over the rest of the WCHA season's second half.
The Mavericks' hope is to get back and stay in the top six, get home ice for the playoffs and earn their first spot in the Final Five and the national tournament since 2003.
So enjoy the return of the NHL. Enjoy the Wild and their new superstars. Enjoy a competitive short season in which every game will carry importance.
But don't forget about the players and teams that have been there all along this season.
Hockey is back?
Nah, it didn't go anywhere.
Shane Frederick is a Free Press staff writer. Read his blog at mankatofreepresshockey.blogspot.com, and follow him on Twitter @puckato.