Ice Follies

Fans chill as pro hockey pucks up.

The good thing about the hockey lockout? Todd Bertuzzi is looking for work. The bad thing? Nobody gets to drive the Zamboni, big lovable galoot of a vehicle that it is. Otherwise, who the hell cares? Not many. Except for the good citizens of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, the people who brew Molson's (What? Whaddya mean he wants to be a U.S. senator?) and eleven hermits in northern Minnesota wearing Elmer Fudd hats who've just hooked up to the Dish Network. That's it. That's everybody. Now that the National Hockey League season has been more or less nixed, you see no one on the 16th Street Mall in a maroon Colorado Avalanche jersey and hear no one in a corner saloon bitching about (or admiring, eyes all ashine) that vicious hit Vaclav Prospal put on Vaclav Nederost the other night.

Fact is, neither Vaclav is even in the country anymore. They're both at home in the Czech Republic, playing for Ceské Budejovice and Liberec, respectively, until NHL commish Gary Bettman and the NHL owners and the NHL players' union can get over their differences and get back to playing a game that's reportedly beloved in snowshoe country and obviously ignored everywhere else. For now, the assorted combatants are all cooling their skates in the penalty box. Glowering. Sulking. Holding their ground like a goalie before the net. Hell will be a hockey rink before these mules come to terms.

Meanwhile, as the eminent economist Marcus Camby pointed out last week, hockey's current woes could prove an unforeseen boost for another indoor/outdoor sport that fewer and fewer people around the country pay attention to. You know the one: Big brown ball. Tall guys. Sneakers that cost 200 bucks. Denver Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik recently allowed that he'd personally love to see the NHL lockout end soon because he's a devoted hockey fan, too. But don't you believe it. With hockey on ice -- no, wait a minute, that would be off ice -- action-starved sports fans here and in other NHL/NBA cities will just naturally gravitate to the only dead-of-winter game in town, which is hoops. Actually, the timing couldn't be better for the Nuggets -- aside from the inconvenient fact that the Avalanche and the Nuggets happen to be owned by the same guy, Stan Kroenke. With rising young star Carmelo Anthony and glamorous free agent Kenyon Martin on the roster, the once-hopeless Nuggets promise to be an authentic contender this year, and the more fan adoration and media coverage they get, the better for them. Sans pucks, the struggling NBA is in for a huge bonus -- especially at the Pepsi Center. Not only that, but the players are bound to be physically happier, too. As veteran center Camby points out, an arena floor that has no sheet of ice underneath it is a warmer, softer, more traction-friendly floor.

As they enjoy their sudden (but not unexpected) winter-sport monopoly, NBA types will also be paying close attention to the NHL's labor troubles: Hockey owners claim they lost $273 million on revenues of $2 billion in 2002-03, and TV fees trail player salaries by untold millions. The owners want a salary cap, like football and basketball have. Naturally, the players want to preserve the current market-value system. Hoopsters will be watching, because the NBA's own labor agreement expires July 1, 2005, and it, too, could face a work stoppage -- the first since the 1998-99 season was trimmed to fifty games.

While the wrangle continues -- there's even been rumbling about drafting the best player of all time,Wayne Gretzky, as a replacement for Bettman -- NHL players have fled the mess in droves. You already know that Avalanche star Peter Forsberg is playing this season for MoDo in his native Sweden and that Avalanche goalie David Aebischer is with Lugano, in Switzerland, as is Alex Tanguay. From what we hear, that milk-chocolate puck the Swiss use doesn't hurt as much when you catch one in the face. But that's just the start of the defections. At last count, a total of 209 NHL players are now playing in Europe: 52 in the Czech Republic, 42 in Sweden, 38 in Russia. They're being pretty paid well, too. Does that mean the NHL is about to crumble? Through the years, the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Ottawa Senators have all threatened to follow the lead of the Quebec Nordiques and the Winnipeg Jets by leaving hockey's beloved Canadian homeland for more lucrative markets in the big, bad, Budweiser-swilling United States. Must they now consider Prague or Hamburg?

While we wait for the answer to that question, hockey isstill being played in certain un-Manitoban places -- even here. The minor-league Colorado Eagles were a smash hit in their first season up in Loveland, and they should draw even better as sophomores for GM Ralph Backstrom. The University of Denver Pioneers are off to a shaky start (freshman goalie), but the defending NCAA national champs always play an exciting brand of pucks in the Ritchie Center. And if you've got an unquenchable, deathless urge for Avalanche hockey in this barren season, you can satisfy that, too. If you're willing to travel. And if you wear very warm clothes. The Quebec Avalanche Hockey Club, aka Avalanche du Quebec, is in the middle of its fourth season of play in eastern Canada. The leading scorers for those Avs? Center Caroline Proulx and forward Stephanie Lambert. The unflappable goaltender? One Kim St.-Pierre. At last look, the Avalanche was just 2-7 in the National Women's Hockey League standings, but that included a pair of tough, one-goal losses this month to the Ottawa Raiders.

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