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Original Issue


While the union and owners grope toward a meaningful dialogue, fans, players and coaches face a holiday season without NHL hockey

Eric benson is an IT administrator who, on Tuesday nights, tugs on his New York Islanders jersey--or, when the mood strikes, his rangers suck T-shirt--and visits the Champions Sports Bar in the Long Island Marriott. There someone will pop in a videotape of an old Islanders game, and with two dozen other lost souls Benson will cheer on the white-blue-and-orange-clad heroes on the screen. The good news is the Islanders of his boyhood always win these games. The bad news--other than that a 26-year-old still thinks a rangers suck T-shirt is haute couture--is that the arena across from Champions, the Nassau Coliseum, home of your New York Islanders, is dark.

If you are like Benson, your calendar's four seasons are summer, fall, hockey and playoffs. You believe. You know those TV numbers that put the NHL somewhere between celebrity ski racing and rugby are big, bald lies because no Nielsen box can measure the depth of passion for your sport.

Maybe you were faking it until now. You were distracted by the World Series or college football or Peyton Manning, and you pretended it barely mattered--a pox on both their houses, didn't you say that?--but now you zip your fleece up and thrust your hands into your pockets, and you know in your bones how much you miss hockey. You felt a flicker of optimism last week when the players' association proposed a 24% salary rollback, a two-by-four to the head of a surprised Gary Bettman (the NHL commissioner was to make a counteroffer on Tuesday), but you know that serious lockout negotiations are barely at the embryonic stage. No matter what happens this week, your Christmas will be unlike the others, a Christmas without hockey, at least of the NHL variety.

The season and the sport are inextricably linked, an organic blending of meteorological condition and memory. Veteran defenseman Chris Therien, now with the Dallas Stars, remembers Christmas morning as the official opening of the rink that his father built every year in their Ottawa backyard. "I looked forward to taking my skates outside that morning," Therien said. "In the NHL, with the Flyers, we'd always take a long road trip to Western Canada that week. I loved the atmosphere. I felt the same way I did as a kid." In Buffalo the Sabres' traditional day-after-Christmas match always seemed like the most vibrant of the season. "People leave Buffalo for opportunities down south," says Gregg Huller, who didn't miss one of those games for the past six years, "but this is a city people come back to for the holidays. That game after Christmas was special."

There are almost 300 NHL players now moonlighting in Europe, but not every displaced hockey person can find work. On Nov. 30 Huller was fired from his $40,000-a-year job in media relations for the Sabres, one of 25 team employees let go that day. Huller, whose wife, Beth, is pregnant with their first child, now lives off his severance, polishes his résumé and applies for p.r. jobs. (Note to employers: Huller had to deal with an owner, John Rigas, being led away in handcuffs, a yearlong holdout by former captain Michael Peca and the vagaries of goaltender Dominik Hasek's groin. He has lots of experience in crisis management.)

This is the human trickle-down of a $2 billion industry that shut its doors in September and has shown little inclination to reopen them anytime soon. (The season will most likely be scrapped unless an agreement is reached by mid-January.) For Hockey Night in Canada analyst Harry Neale, the lockout means the highlight of the day is when his USA Today bangs against the front door. "Someone asked me and [neighbor Don Lever, a St. Louis Blues assistant coach] what we were doing," Neale says. The answer: Not much. "When there was hockey, there were at least three or four days a week we couldn't have a beer before 11 a.m." For 16-year-old Sébastien Grenier it means losing a $9-per-hour job, plus tips, and a chance to flirt with his fellow coatroom attendants at Montreal's Bell Centre--a blow to the wallet and the social life. For Detroit Red Wings coach Dave Lewis it means he could to fly to Moscow last weekend to see the venerable Igor Larionov play his farewell game.

"I was back in Saskatchewan recently when my mother died," Lewis says. "I talked to people who told me, Saturday nights, seven o'clock, no game on TV--they hardly know what to do with themselves."

Lewis has the luxury of tending to his other line of work. Last spring he and Wings assistant Joe Kocur opened Joe & Lewie's Penalty Box in Fenton, Mich., an hour northwest of Joe Louis Arena. The roadhouse hopped during the playoffs. Now with only the lesser charms of football to fill 25 TV screens, you can almost always get a table. This Christmas there is room at Lewie's inn.

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Klitschko's hands, swollen from hitting Williams's head, needed X-rays. --FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 22