Longer winter

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 September, 2004, 12:00am

Some people think ice hockey is Canada's only national sport. They're wrong. We also invented five-pin bowling, synchronised swimming and lacrosse, in which players beat themselves senseless with sticks. So, who needs hockey anyway? The answer, as winter nights get longer, is: we all do.

Saturday is not called Saturday here. It's called Hockey Night in Canada, when a normally sedate population rouses itself and cheers for the Habs, the Leafs, or the Canucks, with an ice-cold, longneck ale firmly in hand. It has been thus since the settlement of Canada.

But no more. Two weeks ago, they turned off the arena lights, parked the Zamboni ice cleaners , and padlocked the doors. A fight over money, pitting millionaires (the players) against billionaires (the team owners) may last a full season. They will lose a few pay cheques. We, the fans, will lose a winter.

Nobody is more disappointed than the children. A million young rink-rats wearing oversized hockey jerseys are wondering where their heroes have gone. Anybody seen Jaromir Jagr, or Peter Forsberg? Where's Sakic, Iginla, Lemieux? Answer: They're back in the Czech Republic or Sweden, playing for foreign currency. Or else they're working on their golf handicaps.

A pox on all their houses, the fans say. Recently, the spokesman for the owners went on national television and invited the players to come back - all would be forgiven - if they would only accept pay cuts averaging US$500,000. It was a cynical offer from a group of men who have squeezed the free market for all it was worth, for as long as it profited them.

They set up teams in snowless Tennessee, and the Carolinas, for heaven's sake. Then, when the money ran out, they demanded that the players accept a rigged market - otherwise known as a salary cap.

But the players have a PR problem of their own. They earn an average of US$1.8 million per player. And they want more. (By comparison, a Canadian pro footballer earns starvation wages - about US$40,000 a year.) Most Canadians feel the players are greedy.

The players reply that while the money is good, the active life of a hockey player is cruelly short - an average of about four years. Why shouldn't they earn what they can, while they can?

The problem is, hockey players aren't selling the essentials of life, like bread or cars. They are selling entertainment. And after a winter without hockey, the bitter fan may have found other amusements that are just as sustaining, much cheaper and much more reliable. Anybody for full-contact synchronised swimming?