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Hockey adieu, mon Dieu


The guessing here is that if the National Hockey League owners and players don't resolve their hideous labor dispute by Thanksgiving the entire season will get tanked.

If that happens, professional hockey in North America will be irrevocably compromised and the NHL, as we have known it, will become history. That's conjecture, obviously. But you can take it to the bank.

In their remarkable delusion, the owners hold to the tender illusion that hockey fans -- so long the truly unique consumers in the checkered realm of sports commerce with their quaintly intense if almost mindless loyalties -- will always be willing to forgive and forget. This time, I think, they are dead wrong.

How do you begin to calculate the impact of a totally wiped-out season? You can't! How many jobs -- and not just those of the players -- will simply disappear? That number alone, if it could be precisely calculated, might amaze you.

I believe that if the entire season gets wiped out, two-thirds of the American hockey fan-base goes down the drain with it. Along the way, network TV deals -- including the landmark two billion dollar NBC contract secured with such desperate effort -- also go down said drain while most local media arrangements get rendered null and void, and the new NHL Network goes kaput. Near countless are the lesser yet vital business arrangements in every market that get trampled ranging all the way from huge losses incurred when roughly 1,500 dates are scrubbed at the ice rinks of North America to the little hobby stuff -- the hats and jerseys and even bubblegum cards -- which you may regard as minor but can really add up.

Obviously even more profoundly damaging would be the horrific impact the fiasco would have on professional hockey's stature and image ultimately harming the game at all other levels. One can foresee at least four and possibly six franchises not surviving the disaster, or not long surviving the resulting backlash when the anger of the game's patrons who have too long been treated like suckers boils over. And it will.

In Canada where the game comes close to serving as the essential framework of the entire culture it would be different. But how much longer can the Canadian game tolerate being dragged down by the American game and dominated by its fickle media and lousy marketing strategies and stupid expansion policies while being led mainly to ruin by Americans -- and that would include owners, commissioners, supporting executives, and labor leadership -- who have one thing above all in common. They are mainly not hockey people. Too few of them even understand this game.

If I were a Canadian hockey-person -- certainly an owner, or even just a dumb but ardent fan -- I would regard the American domination of the National Hockey League as utterly infuriating and downright intolerable. Might the day come when professional hockey in North America might consist of two entirely separate and rival leagues; one entirely Canadian and one (maybe) just American? One wonders.

Perhaps after the ''restoration'' -- should there be one -- you might see this seemingly odd notion taking shape. Do not be surprised. Canada can stand on its own. Moreover, the game belongs to them, not us.

It's possible we have already crossed the bloody Rubicon on this mess. That might have come the very moment (on 2 November) that they had to cancel the annual ''Mid-Winter Classic'' that culminates in the New Year's Day tilt that's become an international delight. The ''Classic'' might be the niftiest gimmick the NHL has come up with since they dreamed up the Stanley Cup playoffs.

In only the three years since Boston hosted the thing at Fenway Park, the Classic has blossomed into the NHL's signature event. Most importantly, it's become an ace of spades with the media, a way of promoting and selling the game beyond anything hitherto conceived. This year it would have matched the Red Wings and Maple Leafs in a clash of hockey's two best hotbeds, Detroit and Toronto. It would have been the richest and merriest such gala yet; a two week long festival of many events over the length of the holidays attracting more than a half million people and massive media attentions. The league stood to profit many millions and the profit for the sport would have been incalculable.

All of that is lost. The plug has been pulled. They had no choice. Preparations were demanding, with rinks to be built at the University of Michigan and the Tigers' Comerica Park. Deadlines were up. It's an enormous blow.

So they had to do what they did. But what's really galling is that for the 15 days between when the players' union swiftly rejected the owners' alleged, take it or leave it, ''compromise'' package the two sides did not meet nor even once make contact by phone, e-mail, or carrier pigeon. As the last faint hope of rescuing the thing from utter disaster expired the combatants peevishly twiddled their thumbs, nursing petty grievances. Talk of the infuriating!

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