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NHL in 2011: Rain, riots and a Winnipeg revival

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The year can't end fast enough. It began Jan. 1 with rain falling on the Winter Classic, the NHL's annual outdoor showcase, and the first hit to the head of Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, the league's best player and soon the face of its concussion crisis. It continued with a relentless downpour of bad news, sometimes shocking in scale. An entire team perished in Russia when the plane carrying Lokomotiv Yaroslavl crashed shortly after takeoff, touching lives around the world.

[Yahoo! Year in Review: The standout news of 2011, top 10s and more]

For all the brightness – the playoff thrillers, Brendan Shanahan's suspension videos, the skills of stars old (Jaromir Jagr) and new (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins), the decision to realign the league into four conferences and balance the schedule for 2012-13 – the darkness lingers. Soon, the hockey world will have another chance at a new beginning.

But before we look ahead, a look back.

Here are the top five NHL stories of 2011:

5. Three enforcers die

Derek Boogaard died accidentally after mixing alcohol and painkillers. Rick Rypien reportedly committed suicide. Wade Belak was found dead – some saying he committed suicide, some saying it was an accident. Their cases were different, and no one knows how fighting contributed to their deaths.

But there is ample anecdotal evidence that enforcers face unique mental and physical stressors, and Boston University researchers found Boogaard had a degenerative brain disease they believe is caused by repeated head trauma. Except for pledging to evaluate their existing assistance programs, the NHL and the NHL Players' Association have done nothing while the fighting debate rages.

4. Crosby concussed

Crosby took two hits in five days in early January. At first, he was supposed to miss about a week with a mild concussion. But he missed about 10-1/2 months – unable to shake off symptoms, resorting to unconventional therapy. And though he made a dramatic return with two goals and two assists on Nov. 21, he lasted only eight games before he didn't feel right and left the lineup again.

Crosby had separated himself from his peers before he was injured. He was the runaway leader for the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player. But now he is like so many of his peers dealing with concussions – more careful in the short term, more fearful of the long term. Is this the new normal for Crosby, who, at 24, should have so much great hockey in front of him? Is this the new normal for the NHL?

3. Vancouver riots

The greatest season in Vancouver Canucks history ended in civic embarrassment. The Canucks dominated the NHL in 2010-11 and came within one victory of their first Stanley Cup. But after they lost Game 7 of the final … chaos. Burning cars. Broken glass. The enduring images are of young people in Canucks gear participating in the riot or posing in front of it.

The next morning, volunteers swept the streets, while the city began searching its soul. Why did this happen here – again? It had happened after the Canucks lost Game 7 of the '94 final, too. Were these Canucks fans or anarchists? People studied photos and videos to identify the rioters. Can Vancouver hold public gatherings anymore?

2. Bruins win first Cup since '72

The Boston Bruins went from chokers to champions. After an epic fail in the 2010 playoffs – blowing a 3-0 series lead to the Philadelphia Flyers, then a 3-0 lead in Game 7 – the Bruins became the first team to win three Game 7s in one year and won the Cup for the first time since the days of Orr.

Their backbone was Tim Thomas, a ninth-round pick and former journeyman who had off-season hip surgery. He reclaimed his starting job and the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender. Then he turned 37 on April 15 and claimed the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player, stopping the Canucks, the NHL's top offensive team.

1. NHL returns to Winnipeg

For 11 seasons, the NHL tried a second time in Atlanta. But amid bad ownership, bad management and bad performances, somehow the game never caught on. The Thrashers couldn't survive in the Deep South.

Waiting with open arms was Winnipeg and True North. The city had lost its beloved Jets to Phoenix in 1996, but now it had an ownership group and a new arena. It was ready for its own second chance. True North bought the Thrashers, moved them to Winnipeg and renamed them the Jets in response to a public outcry.

Winnipeg is the smallest market in the NHL. It has the smallest rink in the NHL. But season tickets sold out in minutes, and you never heard a roar like the one on Oct. 9 when Canada's game returned to its heartland. The Jets lost their home opener, 5-1, but the fans gave them a standing ovation. At least for one night, a happy ending, a league redeemed.

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