At the end of a long, loud night, maybe the loudest night ever at the Air Canada Centre, there was only an empty arena and almost everywhere there was silence. An uncomfortable, funereal silence on this, the night that hockey lived then died.
One minute it seemed there was chest-thumping and celebration with a vase disguised as a trophy and then no one knew what or how to feel. The honking horns that close a Toronto hockey season throughout downtown are supposed to be heard in the spring, not in autumn.
Last night, the horns sounded more like a 21-gun salute for the great Canadian pastime about to disappear.
The hockey armageddon that Pat Quinn got in trouble for talking about more than two years ago begins today, and not suddenly. Television psychics could have predicted this.
But it is here, and for how long, no one can honestly say. We can speculate -- the optimist can claim there will be NHL hockey by January of next year, the grim pessimist thinks January of 2006 -- but not even those at either end of the non-negotiating table know.
Whatever happens, this isn't going to end tomorrow. This is Chapter 1; both sides seem headed toward Chapter 11.
And the sad truth is, no one knows who will blink first in this distasteful battle between rich and richer. There is enough money to make the National Hockey League work. That much is certain. But the bullies who run the league and bullies who run the players' association can't agree on what day it is let alone how to line each other's pockets.
The rhetoric hasn't changed as both sides have skated methodically to this day. The owners put money away to prepare. The players were told to do the same. The synchronized interviews with player voice Ted Saskin and owner voice Bill Daly already have grown old -- and this thing doesn't officially begin until tonight.
With the World Cup final acting as a sad and arm's length reminder of the last piece of co-operation between NHL and NHLPA. And somehow it seems both fitting and troubling that there stood Mario Lemieux, smack in the middle of an argument he sees from both sides.
He is both player and owner, operator of a franchise in disrepair, one-time the highest paid of his peers, and still, with a puck on his stick, remains the most skilled player in his sport, the most creative, the most unique, and last night his game was shut down when the final buzzer sounded and so was his business.
A career with something left and no season to play. He will turn 39 next month, and you are left to wonder when we will see him and hockey again.
"When you're in the prime of your career, it's hard to accept," said Canadian goaltender Martin Brodeur.
Imagine what it is for Lemieux.
In the celebratory pileup and perfunctory photo op that follows, there was Lemieux on the ice, with Wayne Gretzky beside him. One man retired, the other straddling the sport, his team with his game on hold.
And you wonder: Will it ever be the same again?
Can it ever be?
This wasn't a World Cup for the ages, despite the unlikely noise of the Air Canada Centre. This wasn't any kind of emotional ride. It was almost too easy, almost anti-Canadian in nature. But it was all we had. The last waltz. For now.
Typically, there were 19,370 seats filled for the Canada-Finland game, and there were millions watching at home on television. Last night, was one of those Hockey Nights In Canada, the kind we grew up on, with families together, flags everywhere.
This is who we are and what we do.
Until the next time. Whenever that will be.