NHLers not too popular

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 11:26 AM ET

Fitting, isn't it, during this war to end all hockey labour wars, that Edmonton Oilers star Ryan Smyth would get a bunch of his buddies together for a charity tour, only to get locked out of Winnipeg? If there was any doubt, we now know how local hockey fans really feel about NHL players.

Smyth and Company's four-game jaunt across the Prairies may have gone over well in Red Deer, Moose Jaw and Regina, but the last stop, which was supposed to go here tonight, was unceremoniously canceled yesterday.

So much for the idea you could put anything (hello, Hilary Duff) in the new, downtown rink and draw a crowd.

The official reason given was fan indifference -- barely 1,000 tickets were gone, and that included freebies.

Anyone who's lived in this town for any length of time, though, knows deep-seated anger is a more apt description of the NHL crowd's feelings here.

Hey, jack your salaries so out of whack that we lose our team, and you're not going to get any sympathy, not by a long shot.

Box-office flop aside, hockey is alive and well in the 'Peg -- just check out the 8,812 tickets sold for last night's AHL game between the Manitoba Moose and St. John's. Or the 8,812 sold for tomorrow night.

This two-game set was billed as a playoff preview, an early glimpse at what late-April will bring us. Two of the better clubs in the AHL, with a fair bit at stake, namely a leg up on home-ice advantage in the first round.

Judging by last night's 6-4 Moose win, that might just be a series worth taking in.

No, it wasn't picture perfect, not by any stretch. In fact, early on you were wondering if the Moose would rather have been hiding Easter eggs.

They certainly wouldn't have broken any, had they been carrying a couple in their pants.

Standing around, playing far too loose in their own zone, giving pucks away or losing races to them, the Moose didn't seem as interested as the Leafs, initially. Not the way you want to establish yourselves in a big game.

Proving they can learn from their mistakes, though, they followed up one of the worst power plays you'll ever see with a pretty good one.

And it took trade deadline acquisition Danny Groulx to remind everyone that a well-placed wrist shot from the point, particularly if your teammates are camped in front, is usually better than winding up for the mother of all slap shots.

Defenceman Kent Huskins liked the idea so much, he tried it himself and wound up giving Manitoba a 3-1 lead early in the second period.

Everything under control, right?

Maybe not.

One pretty goal, a dumb penalty and a bad goal later, it was all tied up.

The pretty goal, by Moose-killer David Ling, came after a nifty set-up from Steinbach product Ian White.

The dumb penalty: a mug job on Ling by Moose tough guy Wade Brookbank right after the goal. I'm told these two have a history, but if Brookbank pulls that too often, he'll be history.

The bad goal, surprisingly enough, was given up by Moose 'tender Wade Flaherty, who'd been hotter than a five-dollar Rolex coming in.

When Flaherty was beaten a fourth time with 15 seconds left in the second, the reigning player of the week's five-game run was officially over.

Enter Alex Auld for the start of the third.

And enter Groulx for yet another power-play goal, this time a slapper, halfway through the period. Moose GM Craig Heisinger obviously knew something picking this guy up.

That set the stage for super-rookie Kevin Bieksa's game-winner, and how often do you see a 6-4 hockey game in this, the Dull-as-Dirt Era?

It was enough for even an angry NHL fan to appreciate.


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