RED DEER -- It has been dubbed the Ryan Smyth and Friends Charity Tour, but it has become painfully obvious that NHL players have no friends.
At least not in Central Alberta.
The people of Red Deer delivered that message with all the subtlety of a slap in the face last night. The two teams of players were left beet-cheeked with embarrassment when the fans all but boycotted their game at the Centrium.
Nobody came. Nobody cared.
For a second there it looked like one section was trying to start the wave, but it was a false alarm. Turns out one of the two guys was just getting up to use the washroom.
In a building that seats 6,000, the NHLers drew 800 - tops. About 100 of those were parents and grandparents of the 30 atom players who laced up for the first intermission and several others were 2-for-1s. It made a Road Runners game look like Woodstock.
And it spoke volumes about the resentment so many people have for the players they once idolized.
Some 30 NHLers show up in a small, isolated centre that's never had NHL hockey, never gets to see real, live big-leaguers this close, and they won't even cross the street to see it? That, my friends, is the turnstile equivalent of a middle finger.
About the only passion they showed came when they booed Mike Comrie and broke into chants of "Comrie Sucks."
"It was frustrating, but this has nothing to do with (the lockout)," Smyth said between periods. "Maybe we could have done a better job marketing, but I don't think we had enough time."
BANKS OF EMPTIES
This would have been a tough sell no matter what. The players knew beforehand that the "crowd" wouldn't be a factor, but the banks and banks of empty lime green seats had to strike a chord.
"It's a delicate situation and we understand that," said Edmonton defenceman Steve Staios, an outspoken NHLPA rep during the failed labour negotiations. "You don't ever want to strain their relationship with the fans. We want to make sure that at the end of it all there's not too much damage done to the game. Hopefully they understand that the only thing we want to do is be back on the ice playing."
Understanding seems to be in short supply. The players, clearly, have miscalculated just about every turn in this struggle. They thought the owners would cave, and they didn't. They thought the fans would beg them to come back, and they haven't. And they thought that any backlash and resentment could be washed away by simply gracing the fans with their presence.
"I don't think I looked into the future as far as how the fans were going to perceive us," continued Staios. "You ask any of the guys, I don't think anyone anticipated that it would go this long. I didn't think the whole situation would get this ugly. I just hope that in Edmonton, once we get back playing, that there's not a long healing process.
"We can understand how everybody is feeling about it, but once this is done, hopefully sooner rather than later, there needs to be a concentrated effort to rebuild that relationship."
So, as they bus into Red Deer in the middle of March, drawing flies to the same building that some beer-gutted NHL Oldtimers almost sold out a day earlier, they have to be wondering how in the world it got this bad.
SOAKING UP THE LOVE
They could be in the middle of the stretch drive right now, making millions and soaking up all the love and affection that hockey- mad fans could throw at them. Instead, they negotiated away a year's worth of salary and have been reduced to playing meaningless exhibition games in echo chambers.
"I personally never thought it would come to this," said former Oiler and current Phoenix Coyote Jason Chimera. "When we were told to prepare for the worst, you think maybe it'll be a couple of months. We really hoped something was going to get done. It's not a matter of whether we're doing the right thing, it's just being disappointed about not playing."
Less than 12 months ago Chris Dingman was winning a Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay. Last night he was on a line with Darcy Hordichuk and Louie DeBrusk.
Nice work, Bob Goodenow.
"This is really disappointing," said Dingman. "I knew there would be a bit of backlash, but there's nothing we can do about it. We're trying to make the best of it, but this is just bad for everyone involved."