It's not the NHL, but it will do
TORONTO -- It's not all that far removed from the last-minute pick-up hockey game going on down at the local rink. No one knows who's going to show up and what the hockey will be like or who's going to be playing with whom. And all anyone is really hoping for is two goalies.
Friday night in Barrie, a short drive north of Toronto, the Original Stars Hockey League will launch an ambitious six-team, 20-game, barn-storming endeavor of four-on-four play with a game between Detroit and Toronto. No doubt there will be other exercises in filling the void, but it's doubtful any will create the buzz the OSHL has among the players and the media.
Will that buzz translate to fans in places like Barrie, Windsor, Sarnia and Brampton? In a country where the lockout was front page news in every major paper and led newscasts, the betting money says yes.
"This is going to be a fun brand of hockey," OSHL president Randall Gumbley said. "We're going to see some really interesting things happen in the games."
Presumably nothing more interesting, at this stage in time, than seeing real live NHL players on the ice together.
Instead of attending training camps and preparing for the 2004-05 season, dozens of players are converging on suburban Toronto. Some practiced Thursday afternoon, and more were coming in from airports and driving down from cottages and summer homes. By Tuesday, Gumbley said, between 78 and 83 players, who will make up the six teams, will be on hand.
"We have a little problem in having too many players. I haven't figured out just what to do with that yet," Gumbley said. "I think it's the format. I think it's playing in a competitive league. I think it's playing in front of fans.
"I figured it would be crazy, I didn't know it would be this crazy."
Grant Ledyard, a retired veteran defenseman of 18 NHL seasons who was originally announced as an OSHL coach, became commissioner at about 1:30 p.m. Thursday, roughly 24 hours after he arrived from his Buffalo-area home. Having been through lockouts and stoppages at various times in his career, Ledyard said the prospect of getting up every day and working out with a handful of buddies "is a very difficult thing."
"It's a kind of a scary time for everyone," Ledyard said.
Which is why the prospect of playing in live competition in front of live fans is so attractive, Ledyard said.
The six teams are named to honor the Original Six teams of the NHL. That two Maple Leafs, defensemen Bryan McCabe and Wade Belak, are on the Toronto roster is purely coincidental. Dominik Hasek's expected addition to the Detroit roster by Wednesday lends a surreal touch to the proceedings.
New York and Chicago play their first games Sunday in Sarnia, while Boston and Montreal tangle in Brampton on Monday.
Among those expected to take part in Friday's season-opener for the Detroit squad are Mike Comrie, Mike Johnson, Jamie Rivers and Andy Sutton, while Dan Cloutier will backstop a Toronto team that also boasts Jeff Friesen and Jamal Mayers.
If not the biggest name certainly the most controversial figure in the league is expected to be Todd Bertuzzi.
"I still can't announce that," Gumbley said late Thursday afternoon. "I would love to be able to announce it but I can't yet."
The disgraced Vancouver Canucks forward, still under suspension by the NHL for his hit-from-behind on Colorado Avalanche center Steve Moore, lives in nearby Kitchener. Gumbley said Bertuzzi didn't need to appeal for reinstatement to play in the OSHL, as he will before returning to the NHL whenever the game resumes.
If the lineups remain fluid in the frenzied hours before the league's launch, it is hoped the pace of the games themselves will be, also.
"Sure I'd rather be starting training camp with the Senators," center Mike Fisher said in a release. "But this is a great option. The games are fast, the talent level will be very high, and I'm excited to play."
Games will feature four skaters per side (each roster will have 12 skaters and one or two goalies), playing three 17-minute periods. Penalties will be rewarded with a penalty shot with players remaining on the far blue line, so if the shooter is not successful play will continue after the attempt. There will be no red line and no-touch icing, and each period will end with a mini-shootout.
Gumbley, an investment banker who is also the owner of a junior team, the Streetsville Derbys of the Ontario Provincial Junior A Hockey League, got the idea for the league from prospect evaluation tournaments he runs every year for players trying out for his team. With a lockout appearing to be inevitable, Gumbley, 38, contacted smaller venues across Ontario about availability, then began talking to agents and some players to gauge interest.
It was and continues to be high even if getting all of the details, like picking players up at the airport and hashing out plans with agents, had him at wit's end Thursday.
The main stumbling block was underwriting the insurance, an expensive undertaking that was finally assumed by Lloyd's of London.
Some players, like McCabe and Luongo, were surprised they had been selected to rosters, via a telephone draft earlier this week. McCabe didn't recall expressing interest, while Luongo said he thought things were still up in the air. Now that the lockout is under way, McCabe is expected to play Friday. Luongo said he was intrigued by the possibility, having given up a plan to play in Europe because of insurance issues.
So far, the make-up of the teams is a bit curious, as well. The Chicago entry currently features only three forwards and five defensemen -- but it is Chicago after all.
Initially, the players will all be staying in the Central Ontario area, with the teams busing together to and from games. Later, as the league moves on to bigger centers in Quebec and Western Canada, they will fly together.
Major sponsors have already signed on, including Assante Wealth Management after which the league's championship trophy is named.
A portion of the gate, between two and five percent, is earmarked for charity with a family literacy program, Raise-A-Reader, being the prime recipient. Players and league organizers will share in the gate receipts, and many players already have pledged their portion to personal charities.
If, at the end of the playoffs, the NHL and its players are still at odds, Gumbley said the league will start another session.
The problem at that point might be turning away players or -- a la the NHL itself -- having to expand.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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