Hockey gets left in the dark

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

Opening night gave us a glimpse back at vintage Wayne Gretzky.

It gave us the sight of Rogers Sportsnet's HockeyCentral panel, discussing the economics of the game in a virtually vacant Corel Centre. On an evening when the buzz of a new beginning should have been in the air.

Tomorrow night, we'll see Ron MacLean in a hockey arena, but he'll be introducing movies, not matching wits with a seventysomething guy in a loud suit.

This is not your average opening week of the NHL season, to be sure. It's surely not what those involved in the game on the broadcast side had in mind for mid-October programming.

"It's sad that it's come to this," admitted Pierre McGuire, the NHL on TSN's lead game analyst, as he prepared for the first of a series of classic hockey fill-ins on Wednesday night.

McGuire counted himself among the optimists back in January, when labour storm clouds began to seriously gather over the NHL. But that all changed in March, after McGuire and his partner in the booth, Gord Miller, along with TSN hockey insider Bob McKenzie, had a sit-down session with some NHL Players' Association executives.

'DEPRESSED'

"I left that meeting seriously depressed," said McGuire.

"The more I hear the rhetoric, the more I get the feeling there won't be a season."

Instead, we're left with movies on CBC, old hockey games two nights a week on TSN, more AHL and junior hockey on Sportsnet, and whatever else the networks can come up with to fill the NHL void.

Programming holes aren't the issue -- sports networks have been preparing for hockey armageddon for at least a year, and there's plenty of other options out there. The audiences won't be the same and there's ad revenue to make up, but life will go on in TV land. It simply has to.

Experts like McGuire fear the long-term damage the NHL might suffer in the wake of a lost season. Already, he says, "Hockey is not even a pimple on an elephant's behind in the U.S. right now. That's how far things have fallen."

Canadians, passionate as they are about the puck game, won't fall by the wayside so quickly. There is the world junior championship to get excited about, for starters. But it's when the calendar turns that even the most hard-core hockey lovers in these parts may find it hard to care about an NHL not open for business.

TOUGH TO CARE

"All bets are off after Dec. 31, in terms of how people perceive the game at the professional level," said McGuire.

McGuire would just like to see some effort made toward a resolution.

"The most frustrating thing is that there are no discussions going on," said McGuire, a Senators assistant coach during the 1994-95 lockout. "I used to negotiate player contracts and I know that in order to get something done, you've got to talk. If there's no dialogue, you can't get anything done."

Naturally, McGuire and Co. missed being at the Corel Centre on Wednesday night for what should have been the season-opening Sens-Canadiens game. It was the first of what the network believed was a TV schedule packed with quality matchups.

"When Gord called me this summer and told me our assignments, I was doing cartwheels," said McGuire. "This is the best schedule we've had by far. I was so revved ... I was excited for the fans and our crew."

So much for that thought.


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