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The Rinks Robbery

If your favorite sport will Not Halt its Lockout and your hero's New Home is Lapland and you're Now Hating Life 'cause there's No Hockey Left and you'll Never Have Labatt's again, you might be a fan of the NHL.

If so, you know that everyone in hockey is grinding his tooth over the league's "work stoppage," in which NHL owners have locked out NHL players. As a result some 170 NHL veterans are now abroad playing hockey, while the rest--roughly 450--are at home playing hooky. Hockey has never been on thinner ice. Once we watched Lemieux-Gretzky; this winter we can watch Lemieux Jet Ski.

The NHL will not play this fall, nor very likely this season, and perhaps not even the season after. The salary-cap-seeking owners are fiddling while Rome, or at least Roman Hamrlik, burns. Players are already feeling the league's absence--physically so, like when you step in the dark for a top stair that's not there.

"It's almost become a body-clock issue," says Canucks center Trevor Linden, a 16year veteran of the league. "After Labor Day the air temperature turns cooler, the sun's a little lower in the sky, the leaves are turning, the World Series is around the corner. And for me, that also means NHL training camp." But instead of going top-shelf, Linden's putting up shelves, doing "a little renovation project" at his house in British Columbia. Which is a little like Mozart moving pianos instead of playing them.

Likewise, the 112year-old Stanley Cup might have finally retired to South Florida, where it was recently seen dining at the Turtle Club Restaurant in Naples, surrounded by other centenarian snowbirds. "It wassupposed to be at exhibition games in Montreal, Carolina and Atlanta this week," says Kelly Masse of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, the Cup's caretaker. Instead, Stanley's only upcoming engagement is its annual engraving, beginning this Thursday in Old Montreal, where the delicate hands of Louise St. Jacques will add the wonderfully Francophonic names of Lightning stars Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier to those of Maurice Richard and Jacques Plante and Jean Beliveau.

And then we'll be left with a five-hole where our hockey used to be.

In the U.S. it's already gone. "They know all about the lockout up here," says Jonathan Weatherdon, Toronto-based spokesman for the NHL Players' Association. "But I doubt it's getting coverage on CNN."

It's not getting coverage on ESPN. Even before the lockout was announced, the network planned to cut back to just 40 games, all on ESPN2, from a high of 128 games in the 1999--2000 season. Can you blame it? No Nielsen family has ever watched the NHL on TV, and that includes the Roger Neilsen family.

Except in Canada. Oy, Canada. Peter Mansbridge, anchor of CBC Television's The National, is the Canadian Peter Jennings (or rather, the even more Canadian Peter Jennings). Last week he hosted two hourlong town-hall meetings--one with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, one with NHLPA head Bob Goodenow--in prime time, on national television. "Imagine Tom Brokaw doing that," says Linden. "It's the top story in Canada."

For 52 years Saturday nights have been sacrosanct as the home of Hockey Night in Canada. Until this season, that is, when the CBC will begin showing, in its place, a movie tripleheader. (Bedtime for Boom-Boom?) The Ceeb last week also premiered a reality series called Making the Cut, in which more than 4,200 people--including one Mountie and a 58-year-old woman--showcase their hockey skills for Mike Keenan and Scotty Bowman, hoping to be one of the six hockey boot-camp finalists who have been promised NHL tryouts should the league ever resume play. It's like Canadian Idol.

Until then, Canadians idle. As the world capital of hockey, Tampa's been replaced by St. Pete--the one in Russia. Islanders goalie Garth Snow, the mellifluous-sounding Valeri Zelepukin and four other former and current NHLers are teammates in the City Formerly Known As Leningrad.

"I just talked to our center, Brendan Morrison, who was playing in Sweden," says Linden. "They just opened a new arena. His team won. He was player of the game...." Swedish hockey has a captive audience, and it's beginning to sound interesting. (Is this what they mean by the Stockholm syndrome?)

Linden is versed in both Medicine Hat (his hometown) and salary caps (as a union rep). "But fans don't really careabout salary caps and luxury taxes," he says. "They just want to know, When are you gonna play?"

Fans want less brinkmanship (from owners) and more rinkmanship (from players). Until we get it, a pox on both their houseboats. This lockout's costing us money too. I have, in a Ziploc bag for emergency use during hockey season, $18.22 in Canadian cab fare that now might as well be Confederate scrip. Most of it's in loonies (the Canadian one-dollar coin) and toonies (the two-dollar coin), which aptly describes the impending suicide of this storied, 87year-old league.


Hockey has never been on thinner ice. Once we watched Lemieux-Gretzky; this winter we can watch Lemieux Jet Ski.