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NHL's skid off the ice

'Wait 'til next year' is now the best that hockey fans can muster, as salary sparring ends 2005 season

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By all appearances, the National Hockey League and its players have turned a crisis into a catastrophe.

Even before Wednesday, few of the signs for professional hockey in America were positive. The league and the sport were slipping into obscurity.

In the months since the lockout began in September, there have been no protests - no angry mobs crashing the gates of arenas even of icebound cities like Minneapolis or Boston. In the years before that, television ratings had slipped into the realm of soccer and World's Strongest Man contests.

Even when the Zambonis were humming, the product on the ice, virtually all admit, had diminished, as the open-ice ballet of skates and sticks that characterized the game of the Great One had disappeared into clutching and grabbing, neutral-zone traps, and goalie pads the size of kitchen appliances.

Then, Wednesday, Feb. 16, happened, and it all seemed to get so much worse. Yes, hockey will eventually be back. And yes, jilted fans will eventually return.

Yet it will be - at least for a while, and perhaps a long while - a changed game. To recover from its lost season of 1994, baseball needed a titanic trip into home run history, something so fantastic that many people now believe it was synthetically produced, an asterisk of deceit and steroids.

Surely, hockey has less to recoup because it had less to lose. But there is little question that it will lose some, if not much, of what it had, and that a league that began before the signing of the Treaty of Versailles - some 50 years before there even was a Super Bowl - will have to start from scratch.

"It will be a shadow of itself," says Jason Kay of the Hockey News.

The players and owners had gotten themselves into a difficult situation no matter what happened. The best-case scenario was a 28-game season that bordered on the farcical, and a Stanley Cup that surely would have included the qualifier "strike-shortened season" everywhere but on the engraving itself.

But in the sports world, where baseball fans bemoan the interminable three months of the off-season, popularity is in direct proportion to presence - on TV, on talk radio. Hockey, ignored throughout much of America, is now certain not to get another peep until September, when the next season will be in jeopardy, unless the sides sign a deal.


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