- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2005

TORONTO — Busy as she was with the Hockey Hall of Fame inductions, Kelly Masse hadn’t given much thought to the NHL lockout. Then came November, when she turned on the television and came face-to-face with the gaping void disrupting her country.

Instead of “Hockey Night In Canada,” she found a movie. In ensuing weeks, Masse grappled with the decline in visitors to the Hall of Fame, where she handles public relations; with the job worries of friends who work for teams; and with the stories of lonely restaurants and bars. While many U.S. citizens aren’t even aware of the lockout, the league’s shutdown has dragged Canadians through the first four stages of NHL grief: sadness, anger, disgust and apathy.

Given Canadians’ devotion to their national game, most expect the fifth to be forgiveness rather than abandonment. Until the labor strife ends, though, the national identity will be missing a few lines in its fingerprint.

“On a Saturday night, especially if it’s snowing, you just want to watch a hockey game,” Masse said. “Even if you’re at a bar and you’re not really watching it closely, it’s just nice to have it there. For Canadians, this is a real struggle.”

The NHL hasn’t yet considered replacement players, but the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation already has its new lineup. Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker are among those standing in for Mats Sundin and Jarome Iginla, and they’re proving surprisingly popular.

The CBC has replaced its “Hockey Night In Canada” telecasts — a beloved Saturday institution for 52 years — with movies. The one constant is “Hockey Night” host Ron MacLean, who is introducing the films to an average of 900,000 viewers. NHL games draw an average of 1.2million.

There are darker numbers, however. About 50 people who work exclusively on “Hockey Night” have been laid off, and CBC president Robert Rabinovitch has predicted the network will lose $20million Canadian if the season is canceled.

All-sports network TSN is showing reruns of “classic” NHL games. The weekly magazine the Hockey News is publishing every other week. Puck manufacturer InGlasCo, which supplies the NHL, has laid off 20 of its 40 workers.

Based on government statistics, Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper estimated a lost season could deliver a $170million hit to Canada’s gross domestic product.

An on-ice alternative

The “President’s Box” at the Hershey Centre consists of five wooden chairs, separated from their neighbors by a pair of wobbly partitions. Not quite like the digs at Air Canada Centre, where Toronto Maple Leafs tickets top out at $250.

Mario Forgione doesn’t expect high-roller Leafs fans to come to Mississauga, Ontario, to watch his IceDogs. The NHL lockout nonetheless has created an opportunity for the major junior team, as well as for many Canadian Hockey League squads. Attendance for the 56-team CHL is up about 6 percent over last year, and with no NHL games, junior teams have captured more attention.

Forgione said the Ice Dogs’ attendance has risen “substantially” to 3,721 a game. He credits that mostly to aggressive marketing and public-relations efforts, but he added that the NHL void has made it an easier sell.

“We’ve been able to raise the level of awareness,” said Forgione, the team’s co-owner and president. “People are tired of watching billionaires tell millionaires what to do. You can pay $200 for a Leafs ticket, or you can pay $15 to come here and see good, competitive hockey.”

Some teams in western Canada have had attendance soar as much as 40 percent. If the lockout consumes the entire season, many expect greater gains.

Business hurting

First came the SARS outbreak. Then, a Toronto smoking ban. Brian Woodcock said the Loose Moose sports bar and grill weathered those hardships, and it can get through the NHL lockout, too.

Woodcock, the general manager, said the decline in his business hasn’t been steep enough to warrant layoffs. He has heard stories of greater suffering from other bars and restaurants near the Air Canada Centre. Away from work, though, Woodcock is among millions of Canadians finding other things to do.

“I don’t miss it as much as I thought I would,” said Woodcock, a Leafs fan and recreational player. “I’m not focused on when the next Leafs game is, and I’m doing things with my family, like going to the theater.”

Canada’s junior team gave some businesses a brief respite by winning the world junior championships earlier this month. But Woodcock said for many people, nothing quite measures up to the NHL.

“In the U.S., the NHL is on a par with what, five-pin bowling?” Woodcock said. “Here, even if we’re not happy with things, we’ll go back. I just have a die-hard need to see the Leafs.”

A few Canadians have a sense of humor about the lockout. Paul Constable hoped some of them were in the Second City audience last week, when he rushed onstage carrying an imaginary NHL video game.

He wanted to return it, he said to another cast member, because it was too realistic.

“Why?” came the reply. “Is it too violent?”

“No,” Constable answered. “It doesn’t have any players.”

The Toronto Sun is mining the lockout for humor, too. Its “National Dice League” is designed for those Canadians who cannot start their days without an NHL scoreboard check. The paper creates mock outcomes for all scheduled NHL games by rolling a pair of dice for each team.

Apathy on the rise

At Wayne Gretzky’s restaurant, where the coffee stirrers are shaped like hockey sticks, a sign behind the bar teases, “Game On.” Don Cherry bleats on one TV screen, pitching a cold remedy. On another, a sports news program shows the results of a viewer poll asking whether the NHL season can be salvaged.

The percentages: No, 49. Yes, 25. I couldn’t care less, 26.

This comes on the heels of a Toronto Globe and Mail poll asking readers if they cared whether the lockout ended. Of more than 20,000 responses, 87 percent said they didn’t. Even Rick Vaive, a former Maple Leafs player and the team’s TV analyst, is approaching that point.

A baby boom?

Sex therapist Sue McGarvie said surveys from the World Health Organization show that people living in cold climates tend to have more sex. “Add no hockey to the mix,” she said, “and who knows where it could lead?”

McGarvie, of Ottawa, jokingly predicted the lockout will produce a Canadian baby boom. Her chain of stores — which sell, um, products to enhance romance — has used the lockout as a marketing tool. During a winter when many Canadians find themselves with time on their hands, the stores’ hockey-themed advertising suggests some alternatives.

The ads feature slogans like “If you’re game, we can help you get into some heated negotiations with no chance of a lockout.” At a recent grand opening, McGarvie — a dedicated Ottawa Senators fan — dressed up as Cherry and offered free bubble bath to shoppers who could shoot a puck into a kids’ goal.

“This can be an opportunity to connect,” McGarvie said. “Everyone thinks they’re going to cancel the season, so let’s make the best of a bad situation.”

Usually, McGarvie said, women come in during the NHL playoffs to buy lingerie that will lure their husbands away from the TV. The lockout has produced more male shoppers and brisker sales.

That’s made McGarvie one happy entrepreneur.

cDistributed by Scripps Howard.

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