SUN Hockey Pool

Game, not lockout, our passion

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:24 AM ET

Last week, espn.com, the Internet site for all-sports TV station ESPN, asked its American subscribers to weigh in on the NHL lockout.

"Do you care that the NHL is expected to cancel the 2004-05 season?" they asked.

Seventy-three percent of the 146,514 responses said "No."

Given what we north of the border have been surmising over the past few months, that percentage is not terribly surprising. Hockey coverage in the States is as hard to find as cricket coverage in Canada. It's a boutique sport at best.

What is surprising is that so many actually responded. Were they giving away free cars?

We in Canada love and care about hockey in a way unmatched around the globe. The game is a source of pride and inspiration for many. Hockey Night in Canada is a sacrosanct institution, woven into the very fabric of nationhood. People of my generation all remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when Paul Henderson scored The Goal.

LITTLE OUTRAGE

That said, I'm starting to doubt if Canadians care as deeply as we think about the current labour dispute. Given his or her druthers, every hockey fan in this country obviously would choose to have the NHL back on ice and back on our TV sets. But in light of the equally obvious fact that it's not going to happen anytime soon, I am sensing little in the way of high-quality passionate outrage that you might expect of a people deprived of their game.

Even the minor hockey junkies who keep the cash registers at Tim Hortons humming 24/7 have lost interest in the debate, if, in fact there ever was a public debate. Conversations about the lockout tend to peter out after a minute or two, simply because there's not a lot to say.

Once you get past: "Are they coming back?" and the obligatory negative response, talk turns to more urgent matters, like the price of kids' sticks.

So, what in the name of Gordie Howe is going on here? It certainly isn't that we don't care, because down deep we do.

My own belief is that in an age of unfathomable player riches, not to mention ticket prices, the general public has disconnected itself from the people who play and run the game.

Trevor Linden may expect us working stiffs to appreciate the principle behind his association's stalwart refusal to accept a cap on their salaries that would reduce the average salary from $1.8 million US to $1.3 million, but the truth is nobody I know can relate to such thinking.

If you can believe the industry numbers, there is a $2 billion pie (shrinking with each passing day) to be divided. How can such an economic reality get lost in the semantics of "salary cap" and "linkage" and "cost certainty."

For heaven's sake, at $1 million a year, a middle-of-the road NHL player will gross more in two seasons than about 90% of the population earns in 40 years of working for a living.

In the realm of professional athletics, hockey players have managed in general to maintain their image as "real" people; good guys, humble and as well-grounded as the small towns where so many of them are from. But in recent years, it has gotten so that the only people who can afford to go to watch them play, especially in Toronto, are rich and well-connected themselves.

Because it is hockey and because it is Canada, folks will cheer for the sweater (whenever that sweater reappears). They will pine quietly for the game they love but care little for the "plight" of the millionaires who play it and the billionaires who own the teams.

As this charade of a negotiation drags on yet another week, each side rooted to the same patch of ground it occupied two years ago, the players and owners will continue to wage their little war through the media for the hearts and minds of the people in the street.

As far as we can tell, though, those hearts and minds already have moved on.


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