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Will Skate for Food

In the first week of the lockout, NHL players were taking games wherever they could find them

Mike Comrie, who plays for Phoenix when the NHL is not summarily locking out its players, scored four goals and had three assists for Detroit on Sept. 17, then was traded to Montreal three days later, just in time to face Boston in a game played in suburban Toronto. "Montreal got Mike at the deadline for a conditional draft choice," cackled Comrie's dinner partner, renowned Colorado Avalanche pot stirrer Matthew Barnaby, while wolfing down a grilled bacon-and-cheese sandwich with fries two hours before taking the ice for Boston, which beat Comrie's Montreal team 14-11. If Barnaby's was an unconventional pregame meal, the geographically--and financially--challenged Original Stars Hockey League is an atypical league.

The OSHL, which was organized by Ontario hockey impresario Randy Gumbley, began barnstorming a mere two days after the NHL went dark on Sept. 15, presumably to satisfy the hankering for hockey of Canadian fans while also allowing out-of-work players to stay in shape. Unfortunately this flimsy four-on-four league with more originality than stars wasn't exactly storming Ontario hockey barns. On Sept. 22 the OSHL announced it was canceling its early games and would return in October.

The stuttering start underscored the shambolic state of hockey as the lockout took effect. The OSHL opener between Toronto and Detroit--the team designations are an homage to the NHL's so-called Original Six--half filled an arena in Barrie, Ont. But the second match in Sarnia attracted only 700 fans, and a mere 300 or so rattled around a 5,000-seat Brampton junior-hockey rink to see that Boston-Montreal game. The sight of NHL journeyman Derek Armstrong (Boston) trying to deke Nashville Predators backup goalie Chris Mason (Montreal) hardly evoked memories of Cam Neely bearing down on Patrick Roy.

Rosters were even more fluid than these games of high-end shinny. On the day before the reorganization, the OSHL could find only four goalies to spread among its six teams, although league officials insisted that Dominik Hasek would play after finishing his conditioning stint with Ottawa's AHL team. Meanwhile, the morning after Boston defeated Montreal, Dave Andreychuk, the league's biggest name, flew home to Tampa because he had promised to drive his daughter's school car pool, and Comrie returned to Los Angeles to train. Such is life at the low end of the hockey totem pole.

The OSHL wants fixed rosters with 12 skaters and a goalie when it restarts, a workable formula in theory given the surfeit of NHL players with no inclination or offers to play in Europe (roughly 170 NHLers have signed overseas) and no labor settlement in sight. The real problem is the kind of players who have signed up. With three 17-minute periods, no center-ice red line and a penalty shot on all penalties, the league has a free-skating All-Star Game style, but its players are mostly third- and fourth-line non-All-Stars.

For locked-out players with limited options, the OSHL seems a get-poor-slow scheme. They are scheduled to receive a per diem of $75 Canadian, with hotel and travel covered--NHLers Ian Moran and Andrew Raycroft were reimbursed their gas money after driving from Boston to Toronto--and to share in profits. "The only way we'll see any money," Moran said, "is if each guy puts up $100 a game." The irony that the NHL has offered a similar, albeit more lucrative, revenue-sharing arrangement in its $2 billion enterprise was not lost on OSHLers living the cliché of playing their beloved game for free.

"In Sarnia, I heard a few people shout 'Go back to work,'" said Thrashers vet Bill Lindsay as he rode the OSHL bus to Brampton last week. "It's tough facing the fans, like trying to avoid your mother after she thinks you've done something wrong. Even when you shake their hands, you feel they're questioning you. A lot of people I talk to, they don't get our position."

But they can get an official OSHL game puck--$5.95 Canadian. At least as of Sunday.

Original Stars Hockey League

Where the Stars Are

How five prominent NHL players are spending the lockout.

Ilya Kovalchuk
The Atlanta Thrashers' winger and 2003--04 NHL goal-scoring coleader will join 37 Russian NHL players in their homeland's Superleague this season.

Olaf Kolzig
The former Vezina Trophy winner and the highest-paid player on the Washington Capitals has joined his onetime junior team, the WHL's Tri-City Americans, as an unpaid goaltenders coach.

Peter Forsberg
While most NHL players have clauses in their overseas contracts allowing them to return once the lockout ends, the Colorado Avalanche center has agreed to play for Swedish club Modo for its entire season.

Jaromir Jagr
The New York Rangers forward will suit up for Kladno of the Czech league, one of an NHL-high 49 players signed to play in the Czech Republic.

Joe Thornton
Jumbo Joe will be joined by Columbus Blue Jackets star Rick Nash skating for Davos of the Swiss league.




Few turned out to see NHLer Scott Walker (42) suit up for "Montreal."