NHL stops, game goes on in Canada


There's this perception, probably well-earned, that all of Canada will come to a dead stop on Wednesday, from malls to street corners to schools to places of business, and worried citizens will turn to one another and fearfully ask one another the same question.

"Well, what do we do now?"

OK, sorry, left out the best part.

"Well, what do we do now, eh?"

Part caricature, part stereotype, part truth, Canada's obsession with hockey has made it both a world leader in the sport, if not always a world champion, and a place where the NHL has traditionally been well-received and usually financially viable, even in the face of lost franchises.

And yes, with the lockout under way, many will wonder what their Saturday nights will be like this fall and winter without "Hockey Night in Canada."

So while the NHL lockout will be officially ushered in by commissioner Gary Bettman in New York on Wednesday, it's reasonable to suggest it unofficially began the moment the final whistle blew at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Tuesday night to conclude World Cup 2004.

Only six of the 30 NHL clubs are located in the Great White North, a smaller proportion even than in the Original Six days, when one-third of the clubs were Canada-based. But it is here in the heartland where the reverberations of a work stoppage will be felt the most, not in Los Angeles or Tampa Bay or Long Island.

No, Canadians don't all own a set of goalie pads, and Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, while a real place, is not Wayne Gretzky's hometown.

To say the lockout will be noticed here more than the United States or Europe, however, is a reasonable assertion. But what does that mean, and how will the process of shutting down the NHL affect the way Canadians view the sport?

For starters, let's understand a few things about Canada, hockey and the place of the game in the national culture.

Like Minnesota, Michigan or Massachusetts, the game will go on whether the NHL chooses to lock it doors for days, weeks or months. The game is loved in Canada and those three U.S. states mostly because it is played there by thousands of men, women and children, not because there are teams in Calgary, Detroit, St. Paul and Boston.

Dads and moms wipe their bleary eyes on frosty January mornings, get out of bed and start frozen minivans in order to allow their children to chase a puck on a frozen sheet of water not because they might have seen an NHL game once, but because they've been doing it for decades as part of a sporting culture.

That culture has been extended in small ways to new places over the past 20 years. There are now more rinks in Dallas than there were before the Stars moved there, and young boys can find decent hockey competition in Florida where little once existed.

But mostly the game is strong where it was 40 years ago, and that hasn't changed as the league has grown, changed and altered itself into something old-timers barely recognize.

So yes, the lockout will be noticed in Canada. But the game itself will go on. Moreover, teams and leagues that have had difficulties attracting interest may now be able to do so, and that's not a bad thing.

What will Canadians do when Bettman closes the doors?

Probably go out and play hockey, or watch their kids do the same.

This is only important, really, because the NHL, as an industry, now cares far more about the Canadian market than it did 10 years ago. In some ways, that doesn't make sense. How could a country of 30 million people carry any sway against the market interests of a neighboring country 10 times that size?

Very simply, last season provided enormous evidence that the league needs Canada far more today than ever before because this is where there is oxygen for the sport. That's not to downgrade the undeniable excitement that exists for NHL teams in Philadelphia and Detroit.

But after a period of malaise that followed the exodus of Winnipeg and Quebec City from the NHL in the early 1990s, interest has rocketed in all six Canadian cities to spectacular levels.

Indeed, you could probably say that none of the six Canadian teams has ever been more popular than they are right now. Given that some of the teams in the smaller cities were going hat in hand to the federal government four or five years ago claiming to be endangered, that's quite a change.

The emotion in Calgary last spring, as the Flames charged to the Stanley Cup final, was both palpable and appealing, precisely the kind of passion that simply does not exist for the game right now in places like Chicago, Anaheim and Pittsburgh.

A decade ago, as the NHL was preparing for its first lockout, New Jersey Devils owner John McMullen said "to hell with the small market teams," which many took as a code phrase for "the Canadian teams."

During the time before and after that lockout, not only were the Jets and Nordiques shifted south, the NHL added nine teams, only one of which was based in Canada. The Stanley Cup victory of the New York Rangers, and all the excitement that greeted it, convinced the league that real growth was possible throughout the United States, while Canada was viewed as a saturated market with no real possibility of supplying the league with new sources of revenue.

Moreover, and this remained the case even last year, the NHL seemed to go along with the inclination of U.S. network television to pretend as though Canadian teams didn't even really exist.

To be sure, because of its size, Canada doesn't represent a gold mine. But the enthusiasm and love of the sport simply has not been replicated in very many places in the United States, and over the past decade the league has come to understand the importance of the Canadian franchises.

This is where the oxygen is.

The league will deny, of course, that it ever took Canada for granted. But what matters now is that there is a growing sense that being a smaller, more compact league in which Calgary and Ottawa can thrive not only serves the interests of teams in those cities but also of the NHL in general.

This is a league that seems to want to be less about the Rangers and Kings and more about the Wild, Blue Jackets, Canucks and Oilers.

The NFL isn't designed specifically for the Green Bay Packers to thrive, but it serves the interests of everyone associated with that industry that the Packers do thrive.

So, too, with the NHL and Canada, a country with 30 million people and six franchises that matters mostly because of how tightly those teams are embraced and how deeply rooted the love for the sport is at a time when many other sports, from tennis to track to soccer, are fighting for their slice of the North American market.

Twenty Canadian players and 20 Finns fought it out Tuesday night for the World Cup in a game held in Toronto because it's a place where the NHL and players' union could be certain the game would be a big deal.

It would behoove both the owners and players not to forget that in the coming months as they try to negotiate, or don't try to negotiate, a new business framework for the industry.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.