Other hockey out there

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:03 AM ET

It has been easy so far to ignore that big ugly blank spot in our social fabric usually occupied by the Maple Leafs.

The weather has been summery and we've had a nice little hockey fix in the form of the World Cup. But soon enough, like next week when the NHL would have been back in full swing, people are going to have to start looking for alternatives.

And, make no mistake: The surest way to galvanize the owners and players to reach an agreement is to make sure their absence is not missed.

For most of you, hockey is a television show. Only a privileged few, relatively speaking, have the money and the opportunity to own season tickets for the Leafs.

IT'S NOT DEAD

For this season, at least, that TV show has been cancelled. But that doesn't mean hockey as an entertainment vehicle is dead.

Within 45 minutes of where you are at this moment, there is a fabulously entertaining hockey team that deserves your attention.

Drag yourself up off the couch, get in the car and go see the Hamilton Bulldogs play. Or the St. Mike's Majors, or the Mississauga Ice Dogs or the Brampton Batallion, or the Oshawa Generals.

If you haven't been to an American Hockey League or an Ontario Hockey League game, you'll be pleasantly surprised by the quality of play and more so by the energy and hunger of the players. These are kids who desperately want to make their living playing hockey and the only way to achieve that goal is to play every game like it's the seventh game of a playoff series.

The AHL hasn't yet started its regular schedule, but the OHL has been operating the past couple of weeks.

"Our attendance is up about 30% over this time last year," Brampton Batallion president Mike Griffin said, "but I don't think we've seen the hockey appetite that I expect is to come."

The Central Division, which is the home of the Ice Dogs, the Battalion and the Majors, might well be the strongest of the OHL's four divisions and all three Greater Toronto Area teams are expected to be premier entries.

"We're not probably going to attract the corporates who are the core of the Maple Leaf appeal," said Chris Hartery, marketing and sales director for the St. Michael's Majors.

"But at some point, the hard-core fan who sits at home and watches Hockey Night in Canada with a passion, will eventually need a hockey fix.

"Once the weather outside stops being so nice, maybe another two or three weeks, when we get into what would have been the first month of the NHL season, I expect it will have a little more impact on our ticket sales."

The Hamilton Bulldogs, who haven't yet started their season, are the No. 1 farm team of the Montreal Canadiens. The AHL product is the next best thing in North America to the NHL and this winter, it will be populated by many players who would be playing in the NHL if a collective bargaining agreement is reached.

"There's clearly a lot more awareness on the part of the public," said Brian Lewis, Bulldogs executive director of operations. "We've had a lot of phone calls, a lot of traffic on our website. To this point, we haven't seen a spike in ticket sales but we're hopeful that the interest will grow."

The Bulldogs are marketing themselves as "the only professional hockey team in Ontario" which is absolutely true right now. In a province that sees itself as the centre of the hockey universe, that is a jarring bit of reality.

Somewhere down the road, later rather than sooner in all probability, the NHL will be back at the Air Canada Centre and in your living rooms and the Leafs will resume their position underneath the microscope.

But until that day, why not take your head out of the sand and look around. Adopt another hockey team as your own and go see them live, for a fraction of what it costs to see the Leafs. You might even find you prefer it.

And if it makes you feel a little guilty, always remember that they abandoned you, not the other way around.


Videos

Photos