The National Hockey League is back. After a pay disagreement between the players and the owners wiped out the 2004-05 season, big league hockey finally returned to the ice this week.

To win back fans, the NHL has a new look. Let's see what is different about the league this season.

New Rules. Fans like goals, so the NHL changed some rules to help the league's faster skaters and stick-handling wizards show off their offensive skills.

First, the goalie's pads are smaller. Smaller pads mean more pucks will find the net. That's good. NHL goalies were getting so puffed and padded that they were beginning to look like the Michelin Man.

Next, the league moved the blue lines and the goals to make the offensive zones bigger. This extra space gives attacking skaters more room to maneuver and make plays.

Players also now can pass the puck across the blue and red lines without being whistled for a "two-line offsides." Hopefully, this new rule will mean more long passes and exciting breakaways where a player skates in on the goaltender alone.

No Ties. The NHL has done away with ties. If a game is tied after three periods, the teams play a five-minute sudden-death overtime, with four skaters (and a goalkeeper) on each side. If the game is still tied after overtime, each team picks three players for a shootout. The shootouts -- with their do-or-die, one-on-one matchups -- should be super exciting.

New stars. Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins is being touted as "the next Wayne Gretzky." Crosby can score. He notched 120 goals in two seasons of junior hockey. But the 18-year-old forward will have to go a ways to top Gretzky. During the Great One's first season (when he was also 18), Gretzky scored 51 goals, had 86 assists and was the league's most valuable player.

The Washington Capitals also have a high-scoring new star. Alexander Ovechkin, a 20-year-old left wing from Russia, was the first pick in the 2004 hockey draft, and he scored two goals in his first game Wednesday.

New Players. Of the current players who were around in the 2003-04 season, more than 25 percent are now on different teams. When Jeff Halpern, the Capitals' center from Rockville, looked at all the new faces in his team's locker room, he said, "I feel like I've been traded."

All these new players give teams new hope. The Capitals are hoping that a fresh group of young, talented players, plus steady Olaf "Olie the Goalie" Kolzig, will bring excitement back to MCI Center.

New rules, new players, new stars. Lots of things will be new and different for this NHL season. Of course, the biggest and best difference is that they are playing hockey again.

Fred Bowen writes KidsPost's Friday sports opinion column and is the author of sports novels for kids.

Alexander Ovechkin, 20, is the Washington Capitals' newest star. He had two goals Wednesday.The next Gretzky? Pittsburgh Penguins rookie

Sidney Crosby, 18, scored big in junior hockey.Who is that masked man? Goaltender Olaf Kolzig gives the Capitals a familiar presence.