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The weather was wonderfully warm in Toronto last Sunday. But as the sun went down, I spotted a sure sign that winter was on its way: my French-Canadian neighbour Stephane was heading out to a local arena to play ice hockey. As he loaded his gear into the car, I jokingly asked whether any of it belonged to his two-year-old son.

Stephane’s reply was somewhat more serious than my question. “Maybe next year,” he smiled, echoing the ambitions of many a Canadian parent. “I heard the other day that Sidney Crosby’s father started him playing at the age of three.”

Sidney Crosby has become a household name across Canada in recent months, giving the National Hockey League cause for hope as it seeks to recover from a nine-month lockout of players by their team owners. Hockey had the dubious distinction this year of being the first north American professional sport to lose an entire season.

Crosby has yet to take to the ice in an NHL game. He is due to make his debut for the Pittsburgh Penguins against the New Jersey Devils on October 5, the new season’s opening day. But the 18-year-old centre from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, has already made an immeasurable contribution towards lifting hockey fans’ mood after a year of frustration, recrimination and, most of all, doubts whether the game can bounce back from such a long interruption. Many Canadians have grown accustomed to watching a lot more American football and Nascar races. Curling, usually very much in hockey’s shadow, enjoyed a surge in popularity last winter.

The response of fans south of the border will be equally, if not more, crucial to the game’s future. While hockey may be Canada’s national game, all but six of the 30 NHL teams are now based in US cities. Several, especially those in such un-wintry places as Tampa, Florida, and Phoenix, Arizona, were struggling to fill arena seats even before the lockout.

“The kids didn’t aspire to the NHL with the players not in the newspapers or on TV every day”, says John Castine, who publishes a weekly amateur hockey paper in Michigan, where the passion for hockey runs as high as in Ontario or Saskatchewan. About 400 of Michigan’s amateur teams, or a fifth of the total, have disappeared over the past year. The NHL lockout coincided with widening job losses in Detroit’s automotive industry, putting the cost of basic equipment ($500-600) and ice time ($300 a month) beyond many blue-collar families.

The NHL dispute was settled in July as players contemplated the cost of sacrificing another season in their lucrative but short careers. The owners essentially got everything they wanted. The players agreed to a 24 per cent pay cut, as well as a salary cap based on team revenues. No player will be allowed to pocket more than $7.8m this season, nor to earn more than 20 per cent of his team’s total payroll. Several of the game’s superstars have taken sizeable pay cuts. Among the players’ few gains is a jump in the minimum salary from $185,000 to $450,000.

The lengthy lockout has ushered in several other changes. The players wasted no time in tossing out the head of their union, Bob Goodenow, who had vowed that he would never agree to a salary cap, but then meekly caved in.

Several more revered names have also called it quits. Mark Messier, who led the Edmonton Oilers to their first Stanley Cup victory in 1984, has retired from the New York Rangers after 25 years in the league. Messier was the league’s second-highest scorer after the legendary Wayne Gretzky. Among others hanging up their skates is 42-year-old Ron Francis, most recently with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and with a record not far behind Messier’s.

The NHL hopes to win back fans with new rules aimed at adding excitement and speed to the game. Attacking teams will be allowed to make longer passes. Each goal will be moved back by two feet and the offensive zone will be enlarged. Perhaps the most controversial change is the introduction of soccer-style shootouts to resolve games that are still tied after five minutes of overtime. Shootouts will not apply in the Stanley Cup play-offs.

Purists are aghast that hockey has stooped to something so crass. In any case, shootouts will seldom be necessary, they predict, as a result of another rule change requiring goalkeepers to wear less bulky equipment.

Regrettably, the new rules do little to address the thuggery that keeps many families away from the NHL. Fighting on the ice has become so institutionalised that some former NHL players have signed up for Hockey Enforcers, an event in which brawlers dressed in hockey uniforms are paid to do nothing but hammer each other on the ice. The first “Battle of the Enforcers” was staged last month in Prince George, British Columbia. The audience was encouragingly small, though the organisers’ main target was pay-TV viewers.

In a passing nod to the growing outcry against hockey violence, the NHL has decreed that any player instigating a fight receives an automatic ejection and a one-game suspension. His coach is fined $10,000. But this seemingly sensible move comes with a catch: the rule applies only if the fight starts in the final five minutes of a 60-minute game. Enter hockey’s fresh face, the clean-cut, unassuming Sidney Crosby.

Crosby has become the most famous rookie since the now-defunct Quebec Nordiques drafted Eric Lindros in the early 1990s. Lindros, at 6ft 5in and 220lb, was prized as much for his fighting abilities as for his speed and stick-handling skills. His career, spent mostly with the Philadelphia Flyers, has been tarnished by long spells in the penalty box and a succession of injuries, including eight concussions.

Crosby, on the other hand, is being billed as a kinder, gentler player who will leave the Enforcers in the ice-dust as he weaves the puck towards the goal. He recently appeared in Vanity Fair magazine, bare-chested with his jeans slung low on his hips. Sponsorship deals are pouring in to augment his $850,000 first-year salary. If hopes become reality, jersey number 87, assigned to Crosby, will gain the same aura as Gretzky’s number 99.

Whether Sidney Crosby, the rule changes and a massive NHL advertising campaign can win back fans and restore the league’s financial stability will become clearer as the new season progresses. A separate lockout has made the task a little more difficult.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s unionised employees have been off the job since mid-August after balking at management’s demand to hire more contract workers. The CBC says that Hockey Night in Canada, a Saturday night staple in Canadian homes and pubs, will take to the air on October 8, regardless of the lockout. But if other sports broadcasts are any guide, the only sound will come from public address announcements. CBC French-language services are unaffected.

My neighbour Stephane is bracing himself for more calls from Radio-
Canada asking him to explain to Quebeckers how one of their own could stoop so low as to support the Toronto Maple Leafs rather than the Montreal Canadiens. No doubt about it, hockey is back – for better and worse.

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