By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - It may have been Blue Monday, the day identified as the most depressing of the year, but in hockey-mad Toronto it was party-time as the Maple Leafs played their first home game since the end of a bitter lockout.
With Christmas bills coming in and New Year's resolutions going out of the window, Welsh researcher Dr Cliff Arnall calculated that January 21 marked the low ebb of the calendar for many people.
Hockey fans in Toronto seemed oblivious to the doom and gloom, however, and the jolt of euphoria from the return of the NHL to its biggest market was not even dampened by a 2-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres.
"I thought the fans were very energetic, they were loud even on a night where we didn't provide a lot of offense," Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle told reporters.
"If you see the work ethic, like Colton Orr steps up and takes on a very, very large man, those are the kind of things you are going to need.
"We just don't want ordinary."
Along with quitting smoking, going on a diet and working out, one of the most popular New Year's resolutions among disgruntled NHL fans was that they would make greedy owners and players pay for dragging them through a 113-day labor dispute.
But on a biting cold winter night in Toronto, all seemed forgiven as Leafs fans were quick to open their wallets.
Even with some of the NHL's steepest ticket prices, the Maple Leafs have sold out every game since moving to the Air Canada Center (ACC) in 1997.
The first NHL team to be valued at $1 billion according to Forbes, the Maple Leafs' performance on the ice has not been as spectacular, having missed the playoffs for the last seven seasons and not hoisted a Stanley Cup in almost half a century.
The lockout appears to have caused little damage to the Maple Leaf brand, which remains as popular as ever.
Toronto's season opener against the Canadiens in Montreal on Saturday drew a regular season record audience on CBC, while happy scalpers were back doing a brisk business and diehard fans lined up all night in frigid Arctic conditions for a chance to land a free ticket to Monday's home opener.
The opening night pre-game festivities were literally out of this world, as Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, with the help of technical wizardry, conducting the ceremonial opening faceoff from the international space station.
But it was back to earth with a bump for long-suffering Leafs fans as the Sabres jumped out to a 2-0 lead on goals from Cody Hodgson and Jason Pominville.
Nazem Kadri brought the arena to life with a late powerplay goal but could not put another puck past Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller, who was superb in handling 35 shots.
"A couple of times we could have easily tied it up, we applied some great pressure at the end, but unfortunately came up a little short," Kadri said.
(Editing by John O'Brien)