SUN Hockey Pool

The crying game

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 6:40 AM ET

Instead of patrolling Rexall Place or Madison Square Garden or wherever the Oilers would have been playing Tuesday night if they weren't locked out, Jason Smith stuck to more domestic endeavours. "I had my daughter's Christmas pageant and then came home to sit on the couch and watch The Big Break finale on tape,'' chuckled the rugged captain. "That's where my life is at these days.

"If you know anybody who's looking for a solid, offensive, smooth-skating defenceman, at home or abroad, I'm available.''

Aren't they all? With last ditch peace talks left in smoking ruins after the NHL and the NHLPA shot down their respective offers and broke off negotiations, the stark reality of a winter without hockey is finally hitting home.

AND THAT SUCKS

"We're losing a year of our careers, at least, and that sucks,'' said Georges Laraque. "This is going to be a long, long winter.''

Laraque, currently on the Brad May charity tour in B.C. with fellow Oilers' Ryan Smyth, Fernando Pisani, Scott Ferguson and Eric Brewer, is heading east when word comes down that the season is done.

"My brother in Halifax has a newborn daughter,'' said the Oilers enforcer. "I'm going to be the godfather, so instead of waiting till the season is done, they can get her baptized now. As frustrating as the lockout is, you have to try and find the positives.''

There aren't many. With most prime European jobs already snatched up by the first wave of NHL pirates, mid-season employment opportunities are pretty slim. There's little they can do but wait till next year.

"I'm always optimistic, that's the only way, personally, that I can deal with this,'' said Steve Staios. "I'm still going to work out and skate until they shut it down, but it doesn't look good.''

Not for the Oilers, either. A washed out season will cost them $13 million by the time they cover their lease, scoreclock payments, signing bonuses from last summer and salaries of management, coaches, scouts and what's left of their office staff.

The Road Runners will offset about $3 million of that, and when the season is officially cancelled the owners will see how they can offset some more.

"We'd meet again and see if there's anything else we can do,'' said chairman Cal Nichols.

"I suspect there isn't much. You have to keep some semblance of a trained staff because when you start up again, who's going to run it?''

He says there have been enough layoffs and lost jobs already; too many people who depended on the Oilers to earn their own modest living have already paid a stiffer price than the owners and players ever will.

"That part, to me, is the most painful of all of this, those who have no direct input into the process and have the most to lose. I really regret that part of it.''

And fans who counted on the NHL to brighten those cold ugly midweek nights in February, they'll have to find something else to get them through - which may or may not be a bad thing.

"If we come back in two years how is it going to be?'' said Laraque.

"Are people going to get used to no hockey and just find other interests?''

In the spring, when a playoff run can ramp civic pride to ear-splitting decibels, making us forget all about the slush on our roads and closed signs on our golf courses, it will be silent.

GUESSING GAME

The only hockey pool will be guessing how many times Gary Bettman says "systemic'' and Bob Goodenow says "Gary's lockout'' at the next press conference.

"The playoffs and the stretch drive are what everybody's going to miss the most,'' said Laraque.

"The atmosphere is incredible, everybody gets behind the team, now there's going to be nothing.''

Nichols says the fans will come back, but only when the game is fixed and spring in Edmonton means a legitimate shot at going four rounds deep.

"They're hockey fans because they played or know the game but they also see through the economics,'' he said. "Nobody understands it better than them.''

In the meantime, everyone takes a hit. Fans lose their game, workers lose their jobs, owners watch empty buildings and players settle for a salary cap of $0, all because stubborn millionaires can't find a way to cut up a $2 billion pie.

"When I'm 65 years old and looking back at this ... I'm not going to want to look back at this,'' said Steve Staios.

"What happened this year is something that I'd just as soon block out of my mind altogether.''


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