It's an empty feeling

Fans, bars and arena workers are suffering without playoff hockey this spring. (Toronto Sun File...

Fans, bars and arena workers are suffering without playoff hockey this spring. (Toronto Sun File Photo)

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:02 AM ET

April once meant three inevitabilities in Toronto -- playoffs, pools and impromptu parades on Yonge St.

Though hockey fans had to deal with the loss of the 2004-05 season weeks ago -- many have vowed the split is irreconcilable -- listen closely for a faint heartbeat.

"There was always a buzz around here for playoffs," Air Canada Centre general manager Bob Hunter says. "Come mid-April, you could really feel it. A Raptors playoff crowd might be louder, but from the standpoint of city-wide excitement there is nothing better than the Maple Leafs at playoff time. We have had some great runs."

But with the Raptors eliminated, the only playoff atmosphere the ACC will experience this month will be courtesy of the NLL Rock. This week, when the Leafs might have opened at home and grossed their customary $2 million per night, the only quintet playing on the floor will be pop balladeers Maroon 5.

LOST REVENUE

In addition to lost revenue for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., CBC television won't be capitalizing on games almost every night through April, while ACC workers and downtown Toronto bars and businesses continue to feel the effects of the NHL lockout. Pro Line machines will be silent as well.

The streets will be devoid of celebrants, though the police aren't heartbroken about the lack of post-game downtown traffic snarls. In 2002, when the Leafs made it to within six wins of the Stanley Cup, the party and sea of Leafs flags swelled in the core with each victory. It usually fell to officers such as 52 Division Staff Sgt. Dave Bowen to help ensure Yonge St. was properly marshalled.

"You basically knew what to expect, especially if it was a home game and you had to account for 19,000 extra people downtown," says Bowen, a 37-year veteran of the force. "Public safety is our major concern, but there was nothing big (that got out of control).

"When the Jays won the World Series I think there might have been more people, standing on top of streetcars, a few trying to tip one over. But with no playoffs for the Leafs this year, I'm sure our guys will be busy working on other things."

The venerable hockey pools will go dry as well this month. Run from either the living room, office, internet or local bar, there will be no attempts to sneak in Vladimir Orszagh as a sleeper pick, or that smug feeling of projecting Carolina, Anaheim or Calgary into the final round.

"It just won't be the same this year," says L.S.A., an anonymous co-organizer of a player pool with a healthy cash prize. "We've run ours for 32 years, since my friends and I were in college. We started in the China House restaurant on Eglinton and moved it around, including to my basement. It's fun and a good excuse to get together with old friends. We used to keep the stats by hand; now it's all internet."

Fourteen participants in his draft chose 16 players and a second pool lets those wiped out in the first round back in to pick 12 players from the surviving eight clubs. Goals are worth two points, assists one, goaltending victories one, shutouts five.

EMOTIONAL

"For a good many years, Guy Lafleur was the No. 1 pick, then it went between him, Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier," L.S.A. says. "The next generation was the Oilers. We never had the Wayne Gretzky Rule (excluding the Great One for well, being great), but the pool winners always were thankful for Leafs fans who get too emotional and start stacking their team with Toronto guys."

But if Toronto is feeling the blues at this time of year, pity poor St. Louis, where the Blues' major North American pro league record of 25 consecutive years in the playoffs is over.

"It's an empty feeling," Blues general manager Larry Pleau says. "Right now, we're all excited here because of basketball and the Cardinals opening their season. But it's also the time of year we normally would be finalizing our position and getting ready with tickets. The fans take pride in the kind of streak we put together.

"But all this (empty arena) does is remind us of the negative side of the lockout."


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