Lockout could spell walkout

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:07 AM ET

Welcome to Day 146 of the NHL lockout. Are you feeling heartbroken, like your true love has left you standing at the altar?

Or has ambivalence set in?

If you're part of that first group, bless you. The owners and players best be hoping that feeling remains if and when they come to an agreement and decide to start up the game again.

Better yet, they should be sure to personally thank you at every turn when they do come to their senses.

Sadly, for what was a great league, more and more people are heading into the latter group. And that's a serious danger, Ken Dryden pointed out yesterday.

"I think that there are a number of fans in this country who have sensed over the last number of months that actually maybe it was more habit than it was passion," Dryden said yesterday outside the House of Commons.

"I think for the great majority it's still a passion but others have discovered that maybe it was something else.

"And so, as much as this can be problematic in the U.S., and that's where it's usually talked about, I think it's also a problem in this country."

Dryden, the six-time Stanley Cup winner with the Montreal Canadiens who now serves as a member of Parliament and as Minister of Social Development, has always shown an ability to think ahead.

And his vision is something both players and owners should fear.

As the lockout drags on towards its fifth full month, the emotions of fans, be it disdain or apathy, will intensify.

Those with disdain are most likely to return, since the passion that created their anger will be what spurs them to again support the game.

However, thanks to the growing sense of apathy, fewer and fewer will return to the arenas, sports bars or even their own TV sets to watch hockey again.

Who could blame them?

For starters, anybody who has invested their time, money and love into the NHL only to see the game held hostage by greed has every right to say: "Never again."

Should the argument over cost-certainty linking salaries to revenue wipe out the whole 2004-05 campaign, there's even more reason to look away for good.

As if there hasn't been enough already.

The last decade has seen the NHL bloat to a 30-team monster with tentacles in places that don't notice and don't care.

It's seen the beauty of skating impeded by a seemingly limitless amount of clutching and hooking. Goal production has fallen to soccer-like levels.

But, instead of fixing itself -- solving the real problems -- and giving fans something to truly be entertained by, the NHL's great minds have locked the doors and insulted everyone who paid the bills.

Which has left fans with a winter of discontent and time to find new passions.

How many have discovered Saturday nights don't have to spent at the Saddledome or in front of a boob tube cheering millionaire heroes?

While Gary Bettman, Bob Goodenow and all the rest march to the cliff in their vain search for a fair deal, Dryden is already envisioning an even bigger danger than a salary cap.

"You never want to give a fan a chance to find out whether it was passion or habit," he said.


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