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The lockout is over, NHL Hockey is back - and there's nothing quite like it

Last night, I went to an AHL game in Albany.

Richard Wolowicz

It was a pretty good game, to be honest. Albany won 3-1 over Springfield, and there were lots of Devils and Blue Jackets futures playing. Ryan Johansen, otherwise a certain lock to make Columbus, played for Springfield, as did Michael Chaput, former Memorial Cup MVP. Adam Henrique and Adam Larsson, surefire Devils if there weren't a lockout on, played for Albany.

See, this is what life became during the lockout, for those of us lucky enough to live in regions with lower-level hockey around; life became a series of trips, from rink to rink in search of a quick fix, from AHL to OHL to NCAA and back. And while I for one will never say no to a good hockey trip - it wasn't the same, not by a long shot.

Any hockey is good hockey, of course; travelling to Oshawa to see the team Bobby Orr, Marc Savard, and Nathan Horton all started their careers with was cool, as was travelling to Oklahoma City to tailgate an ACHA game and see a handful of young NHL stars play for the AHL team there. It's been really interesting to travel to new places and visit teams and people I wouldn't otherwise see. And of course, there's Providence; Providence, which feels like a shade of home. It's familiar, comfortable; but Providence games will never give me chills. I'll never be able to completely emotionally attach myself to the P-Bruins, as much as I love watching that team. There's just something missing, and it's hard to put a finger on just what exactly that missing element is, but here's a try.

When I go on a trip, I want to see the Bruins in their road whites, with boos raining down from the arena. I want to know everyone on both rosters for optimal loving and mocking purposes, and not waste gigabytes of data on hockeyDB (and also spend prime game-watching time poking around on my phone; these games make me the person that I hate) because I don't recognize half the team. When I go to a game, I want to know every player's stat lines, for prime anticipation purposes. I want to watch absolutely unreal pre-game videos and surround myself by fans wearing the same logo on the front of their sweater; while it was cool to see 23 different NHL sweaters in one day in OKC, there's a sense of unity missing at other-league games that you don't get outside the NHL.

I want vicious rivalries. Not Providence-Worcester type rivalries where a handful of people in the arena scream obscenities at the other team's players while the rest of the glassy-eyed fans don't know what's going on, although those are fun sometimes too; no, I want full-blown, knock-down, drag-out, 17,565 people taunting Carey Price, PK Subban vs Brad Marchand, douche-off RIVALRIES. I want to pour my heart and soul into hating a team so much that it siphons off all my hate-energy from every other aspect of my life. Did anyone else notice how amicable rival fans were to each other during the lockout, and how all that hate seemed to shift elsewhere - usually to somewhere less pleasant? Rivalry-hate is fun and healthy and invigorating; other hate is a drag.

I love the AHL. I love college hockey; CHL hockey is super fun as well. But I want to love those leagues for what they are - development leagues. Leagues where the ultimate goal is to get to The Show - leagues where you can spend hours analyzing young players and trying to guess who the Next One is. (Hint: Jonathan Drouin is really good.) They're fun and interesting but neutral - and the end goal, the be-all-end-all of hockey leagues, that National Hockey League we all know and love - is where I want to invest my heart, where I want to expend my lung power hollering at players and opposing goaltenders and other teams' fans.

So yeah, NHL hockey is back, you guys. That thing we love is back. It's time to shift out of prospect analysis mode, out of attempting to emotionally invest in teams we rarely see - and throw our hearts back at Patrice Bergeron and Tuukka Rask, at Shawn Thornton and Nathan Horton (ahh!) and Tyler Seguin. People will be cynical and snide because of the process it took to get here, and yes the season will be shorter - but it's NHL HOCKEY. It's an emotional outlet, a reason to care - and I, for one, couldn't be happier.

(Oh yeah...and who else is excited for Dougie Hamilton???)