IN a country where ice-ace Wayne Gretzky's first childhood skates are almost national relics, endless weeks without pro hockey are pushing the limits of Canadian endurance.
``I don't know what to do without it,'' says Michael Berstein, fists jammed in his jeans, standing near the front of a long line at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ontario, to buy tickets to a charity hockey game. The game will feature currently unemployed National Hockey League stars alongside local talent.
Known as ``hockey-lite'' among hard-core fans, these charity games are an easy sellout in hockey-starved Canada, where the NHL season never even got under way. It has been stalled for six weeks during a contract dispute between players and owners that began Oct. 1.
The absence of NHL games has interrupted the routines of millions of fans like Mr. Berstein, many of whom spend Saturday evenings (called ``Hockey Night in Canada'' by Canadians) glued to their televisions. Instead of the sharp crack of a slap shot and announcers shouting, ``He shoots, he scores!'' the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is rerunning movies like ``Lonesome Dove'' and ``After Dark My Sweet.''
This sort of tepid fare leaves Canada's hockey nuts cranky. ``I don't want to see a movie, and I don't want to do anything else,'' Berstein says. ``It's in my skin.'' Literally. He boasts of a hockey tattoo on his hip - a blue Toronto maple leaf with crossed hockey sticks underlined with the word ``devoted.''
To fill the void, he got in line outside the coliseum at 5 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning to get premium seats for the charity game. When he arrived, however, others were already ahead of him - sleeping at the door.
So far there has been little apparent progress in talks between the 26 NHL owners and the union representing about 600 NHL players. The owners have refused to allow any games while negotiating with the players union. This makes the stoppage technically an owner ``lockout,'' not a ``strike'' by players, who offered to play while talks proceeded.
But no matter whose fault, fans are restless and increasingly angry as they watch Canada's hockey icons - stars like the Toronto Maple Leafs' Doug Gilmour - skating over to European leagues in order to stay sharp in case play resumes suddenly.