Hockey lock-out proves an eye-opener

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Two of the world's best ice hockey players are playing ping pong in a basement in an ugly French town. Steven "Rhino" Reinprecht and Steve Montador, victims of the lock-out in the National Hockey League, can't ever have imagined spending their Saturday nights in Mulhouse.

Their team here, the local Scorpions, are not worldclass. You see that in the basement: several Scorpions are walking around shirtless carrying beers, and on display is the chubbiness of the part-time athlete.

The NHL has been closed all season over a dispute between club owners and players. The owners, noting that the average player's pay has risen from $463,200 to $1.8m (£1m) in a decade, want a salary cap. They say their teams lost a combined $224m last season. The players believe it was much less. The two sides haven't even negotiated for two months. For the first time, a North American sport might lose a whole season to a labour dispute. Canadian sports fans are in despair. Americans - less keen on hockey - have barely noticed.

And so about 280 NHL players, or more than a third of the total, have come to Europe. Suddenly Sweden has the world's best hockey league. Other NHL refugees have landed in towns ranging from Lausanne in Switzerland to Kazan in Russia. Most of these players are Europeans but some are the Canadian prairie boys who traditionally staff the NHL. For them this has been a voyage of discovery.

Take the other Saturday in Mulhouse, an industrial town near the German and Swiss borders. After the players have loafed on the rink for half an hour, the game is cancelled because of watery ice. It's a common problem here: the Scorpions use the municipal rink, and after days of being bounced on by toddlers it isn't always impeccable on Saturday nights. The 1,500 fans - a sell-out crowd - go home.

The players return to their basement for beer and bad table tennis, conducted in a mixture of bad French and bad English. Then it's on to the VIP tent for more beers. The club's sponsors - friendly fat men with bad teeth - admit that Mulhouse never used to be a hockey town. In fact the Scorpions were only founded seven years ago, with a budget of about €8,000 (£5,600).

Since then the sum has soared to €850,000. That, however, is still less than Reinprecht alone earned with the Calgary Flames last year. I ask Paul Heyberger, Mulhouse's president, whether he is surprised to have two superstars at his club. Heyberger laughs: "It's completely unbelievable!"

Montador came to Mulhouse because he wanted to play hockey and a Canadian friend was already with the club. Later he posted a message on an NHL players' chatsite saying Mulhouse needed a forward, and Reinprecht responded. Other French clubs have asked how Mulhouse can afford NHL players, wondering whether perhaps oil has been discovered locally. But the Scorpions insist that the two men are getting only expenses.

Surely, I ask Montador, it's frustrating to spend his prime in Mulhouse? Well, he says, you could sit and cry but he prefers to enjoy French life. He likes people-watching in a local café. What had he learned about France so far? "The biggest thing I notice is that people take time off to appreciate the good things in life. Lunches and dinners are the longest I've ever experienced. People concentrate on communication and relationships, which is definitely something I'll take home with me."

That this is not mere public relations cant becomes clear later that night. Players, directors and many of the fans decamp to a traditional local restaurant. For several hours everyone feasts as in an Asterix story. From the bar come frequent cries in north American accents of "Trois bieres!" In the bathroom you can gossip with players' wives while watching an NHL star put in his teeth. One wife says Mulhouse sure is better than Calgary.

Meanwhile the lock-out drags on. By the time it ends, fans in towns such as Nashville and Atlanta might have forgotten that hockey exists. The league could shrink to a core of Canadian and northern US clubs. But even if that happens, and hockey in North America is overtaken by elephant polo, let no one ever say that the lock-out was all bad.

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