Canadians will cope with cancellation

Updated: February 17, 2005, 4:31 PM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Gary Bettman climbed up on his soapbox Wednesday at the swanky Westin Times Square hotel and finally delivered the eulogy for the hockey season that never was.

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No hankies were required.

Americans, or at least the relatively small portion that cared to begin with, long ago tuned out of the murky morass of caps and triggers and taxes and linkage that passed for "negotiations" between the NHL and its players.

Why, only Monday night, while reading off the day's national newspaper headlines, the dour, redoubtable Aaron Brown of CNN made passing mention of the impending season cancellation. And, predictably, he followed that up with a joke.

You wouldn't catch Lloyd Robertson of the CBC National News pulling a stunt like that.

In Canada, the lockout has been no laughing matter.

Canada, as everyone knows, has historically turned out broken-nosed, gap-toothed, spit-in-your-face ice gladiators (a disproportionate amount of them hailing from Viking, Alberta), the way Italy turns out tenors, Greece turns out ouzo or Holland turns out tulips. Outside of maple syrup, Neil Young, curling's inturn draw or self-conscious capitulation, they are our greatest gift to the international community.

Hockey is for us what baseball is to Americans. A sense of identity. A sense of community. A sense of history. A sense of superiority.

But even Canadians have grown fed up with the rhetoric and backbiting and posturing.

After Bettman sounded the death knell Wednesday, no rabid mob was reported marching on General Motors Place brandishing pitchforks and torches in search of random violence. The Toronto Stock Exchange did not suspend trading. No kids playing street hockey in Montreal were spotted ripping off their Saku Koivu sweaters to start an impromptu bonfire. The politicos on Ottawa's Parliament Hill weren't advocating back-to-work legislation.

Outside the Olympic Saddledome in Calgary, a protester, outfitted in a silver tinfoil Stanley Cup suit and wearing a sign that read: 1919: Flu Epidemic/2005: Greed, was the lone visible voice of dissent before the Flames held a season-ending news conference to give their side of the story.

And this, in a town that only 10 months ago reveled in a New Orleans-style Mardi Gras every night Darryl Sutter's improbable gang of castoffs and overachievers won another victory for the prohibitive underdog in all of us.

The Red Mile is now the Dead Mile.

But we got through the worst of it. Forced to go cold turkey, we coped.

We Canadians might not have a Super Bowl or a Shaq-Kobe feud or the BALCO scandal to distract our attention from the loss of hockey, but, hey, our lives aren't that empty.

"We have to earn back the love and affection of our fans,'' said Bettman on Wednesday, repressing the urge to dab a hankie at moist eyes, during his cancellation address. Nowhere moreso than north of the border.

Anger and a keen feeling of deprivation long ago gave way to a profound sense of disillusionment. Of inevitability. Of, even worse, disinterest.

Yes, even in Canada.

And that growing sense of stoic resignation is what should worry all the major players -- owners, players, commissioners and executive directors -- still stuck in this impasse. Because if Canada, the cradle of the game, is good and fed up with the whole stupid mess, you've got serious fence-mending problems on your hands.

Add to that the fact that erring on the side of caution is a national trait and the majority of support falls squarely with ownership -- particularly when the problems inherent with a tilted playing surface directly affect the feasibility of at least four of the six remaining franchises in the country.

We've watched Quebec and Winnipeg fly south and decided that's enough.

Maybe our lack of sophistication in such matters is showing, but in Canada, we see a group of super-rich owners squabbling with nouveau-riche players over how to split up a $2 billion business and we shake our heads (The Canadian Press reported the median yearly national income in 2002 as $24,300. Using the last NHL offer of a $42.5 million salary cap, the New York Rangers could sign 1,748 average Canadians for next season).

In Canada, we hear the union rank and file talk about principle, then watch hundreds of them troop over to Europe to take the jobs of guys earning chump change by comparison. We can't figure out what gives with players who had remained so defiant in their opposition to a salary cap for their own league, then started trickling over to the United Hockey League, a loop that already has a cap (principle is a sacred thing, apparently, but only when it suits your purposes).

In Canada, we think the players are as untroubled by reality as, say, Michael Jackson. Guys from Moose Jaw and Penticton and Antigonish who live in their own Neverland, a fantasy world of wealth, fame, privilege and entitlement.

In Canada, we read that Steve Avery has gone all militant and we wonder who the hell Steve Avery is. Or we hear about old warhorses such as Chris Chelios dissing a league that has made them wealthy beyond their wildest dreams and can't believe the gall.

In Canada, we understand that the two sides are $6.5 million-a-year apart on a salary cap that could save the season and scratch our heads when both of them can't reach a compromise.

Wednesday's announcement, then, spiced up by the last-minute letter bombs exchanged between Bettman and Goodenow, almost came as a relief. At least we weren't compelled by a sense of duty to care. At least not until fall.

No more Drop-Dead Date evasions and fairy-tale hoping. No more Daly and Saskin, the lowbrow Abbott and Costello of legal haggling. No more of Bettman's silky answers or Goodenow's furrowed brow. And, we hope, no more Canadian TV sports channel roundtable discussions dissecting for hours on end a round of negotiations that produced absolutely nothing new.

The general sense you get from Canadians is: When the players and owners want to act like adults, settle this tiff and get back to work, let us know.

We'll be back to watch.

But, as much as you might be disappointed, we're not going to work ourselves into a seizure waiting for it to happen.

George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.