The Message

Pucked Up

Since 1995, Adrian Dater, the Denver Post's hockey writer, has covered the Colorado Avalanche -- but thanks to a lockout imposed by National Hockey League owners in September, the only Avs face-offs he's written about lately have been virtual. "I go in every Friday," he notes, "to watch two kids play in a high-stakes video game."

Dater's enjoying the Post's Video Hockey League feature in part because he can invent player comments for his articles that are better than he'd get in real life. On December 5, for instance, Calgary Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff "said" he needed to be "a better padded guardian of the corded igloo."

"We're trying to have some fun with it," Dater allows. "It comes out satirizing hockey itself."

The opposing sides in the NHL labor dispute have done a pretty good job of that, too. All parties have insisted publicly that they want to quickly resolve their differences, yet a December 9 meeting between representatives of the owners and the NHL Players' Association was the first in three months. A glimmer of optimism emerged from that session, but it was promptly extinguished five days later, leaving newspapers and TV outlets in an odd-man rush to fill space and airtime commonly lavished on sticks and skates.

Right now, the only regular NHL pieces in the Post beyond video-hockey shorts are info boxes that catalogue missed games. That's a far cry from coverage during an average season, which occupies what Post sports editor Kevin Dale estimates at one or more broadsheet pages on weekdays and over two pages on Sundays. With the Avs on the bench, the Post has given a bit more room to so-called minor sports and used money from the hockey travel budget to send other folks on the road. "We did a lot more college-football traveling for non-local games," Dale reveals. But for the most part, he says, "we're saving the space" in the hope that the NHL will return someday.

Barry Forbis, Dale's counterpart at the Rocky Mountain News, knows the space he'd normally devote to the NHL -- between two and four tabloid pages on weekdays and a couple of broadsheet pages on Saturdays -- has gone somewhere, but pinning it down is difficult. "We use a little here, a little there," he says. "We have to throw out less than we did before."

To keep the NHL from disappearing from the section, the Rocky is running items written by its hockey specialist, Rick Sadowski, that recall memorable days in Avs history. Since Sadowski can knock out several of these at a sitting, he's also been given other assignments: Denver University hockey games, a spread on Colorado School of Mines footballers. Branching out has been nice, says Sadowski, who covered the Los Angeles Kings during the last NHL lockout, in 1994, and so has the opportunity to spend more time with his family. "I'm living a semi-normal life," he points out. There's a trade-off, though. Since Sadowski's working five days a week at present, instead of the six or seven that are common during hockey season, Forbis says he may have a shorter summer vacation. Talk about a slap shot.

The Avalanche's radio voice, Mike Haynes, is in an even stranger position. He loves to talk hockey, but when the topic turns to the lockout, he's got to hold his tongue because, as an employee of Kroenke Sports, which owns the Avs, he could be subject to censure for any statement. (NHL commissioner Gary Bettman imposed an unspecified fine against onetime Denver Nuggets owner Tim Leiweke, who's currently president of the Kings, and charged Atlanta Thrashers co-owner Steve Belkin $250,000 for mentioning replacement players.) Fortunately, Haynes can chat about other things, since he's been tapped to call games that Altitude, Stan Kroenke's new cable channel, is airing in the absence of new NHL product. He recently did play-by-play for three different sports in the course of a single week: School of Mines football, Metro State basketball, and hockey spotlighting the Colorado Eagles, a minor-league franchise that takes on foes like the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs. Such chores frequently require travel to spots that aren't on the NHL itinerary. "I was just in Pittsburg, Kansas, for a Division II playoff game, as opposed to going to Madison Square Garden for a Rangers game," Haynes says.

Having covered the wide world of small-time sports before landing the Avs gig, he's in familiar territory. But Haynes admits that he sometimes has to make stylistic adjustments. "At a Wyoming-versus-Colorado women's basketball game, there might have been a hundred people in the stands, and I could hear my own voice bouncing off the ceiling," he recalls. "I thought, ŒMaybe I need to tone it down. Maybe the shot that just made it 6-4 isn't quite the winning shot in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup.'"

The lockout's timing couldn't have been worse for Altitude, which is trying to lure fans accustomed to watching the Avs and the Nuggets on Fox Sports Net to an entirely new destination. The channel is supplementing its Nuggets broadcasts with classic Avs games (strangely, they always seem to win) and giving multiple plays to tepid syndicated fare and low-profile contests like a Southern Utah-Weber State basketball game Haynes narrated. As for Bill Owens' Sports Connection, it's a hilariously lame effort in which Colorado's guv exhibits all the charisma of a Precious Moments figurine.

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