stuhackel
Tuesday December 18th, 2012

Steven Stamkos Lightning sniper Steven Stamkos faces the challenge of trying to stay sharp during the endless lockout by playing in no-contact charity games like Operation Hat Trick and even his dad's beer league. (Bill Streicher/Icon SMI)

By Stu Hackel

Things remain at a standstill as the owners lockout hits day 94. While the players say they are willing to talk, they have not gotten the call from the league to resume.

Away from the CBA fray, NHL players continue to grab their sticks and do what they can to stay in shape, or at least pass the time, sometimes in rather unorthodox ways. Take Sidney Crosby. The Penguins captain picked up the big stick last Friday, playing goal on a friend's deck hockey team not far from downtown Pittsburgh. Now, deck hockey is the same as ice hockey, just without the ice; street hockey -- or road hockey as Canadians sometimes call it -- but with boards instead of sidewalk curbs. There's a photo of the playing surface on the website of the place in which Crosby played.

Sidney told Seth Rorabaugh of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "My buddy plays in the league there. I talked to him about playing. I played a lot of goalie in street hockey growing up and stuff. Just asked if he needed a goalie. He said sure and I came out. It was cool."

Cooler still was that, with his mask on, no one but Crosby's teammates knew he was there. "I was talking to the ref once toward the end of the game and I think he recognized me."

Because it's Crosby, with his history of concussions, some will always be concerned about injury, but he told Rorabaugh, "It's a hockey ball and I have ice hockey gear on. I'm not too worried about it."

Actually, goalie in street hockey may be the safest position. I played a lot of street hockey, too, and never got hurt. But I did break my ankle once playing forward when I rolled it over and ripped all the ligaments, taking some bone with them. That's a running injury.

Crosby's not the only big name playing in small places. The Lightning's Steven Stamkos, the NHL's top goal scorer last season (60), has joined his father's Thursday night beer league games near his hometown of Markham, Ontario. Fortunately for the other guys, he hasn't been hotdogging it. “There’s a couple times when I’ve had to take a little mustard off the shot,” Stamkos told reporters on Monday. “But it’s great for my Dad and his buddies. A lot of them haven’t had the chance to skate with NHL players before. It’s fun for me to get out there and skate with those guys as well.”

It can be fun for recreational players to go up against pros. The first time I did was late one summer against Marcel Dionne. It was the first game I had ever played as a defenseman, and on his early rushes down the ice at me, I was able to pretty easily defend against the future Hall of Famer -- who I believe was the leading scorer among all active NHLers at the time. I figured this was the position I was born to play. What I didn't know was that he wasn't really trying yet. Some time around the middle of the game, he turned it up and made me look like a pylon, beating me to the inside, then the outside and once going right through me, putting his stocky shoulder squarely into my jaw on his way past. I'm sure my feeble efforts didn't help him get ready for the season.

The guys who are taking on Stamkos, including Steve Downie and former NHLer Dan Daoust, must certainly be more of a challenge for him than I was for Dionne, but as a lifetime below-average recreational skater who has been on the ice with all levels of players, there's a big drop-off in ability between the average beer leaguer and a world-class talent like Stamkos.

I've got my regular Tuesday game tonight. Locked out NHLers are invited. Just please leave your mustard at home.

Farewell, Happy Valley: We wait for whatever happens next in the NHL lockout while rumors circulate that the league will soon wipe out a few more weeks of the schedule, letting the numbers on this season's game clock steadily tick down toward zero. Will the owners and players resume negotiations?  (Katie Strang of ESPN New York has more on that.) Will it require the players' authorizing the NHLPA executive board to disclaim interest and dissolve the union for the talks to restart? (Ken Warren of The Ottawa Citizen explores that angle) Will it lead to a court battle (Michael Russo of The Minneapolis Star-Tribune delves into that.) Or will it -- as Cam Cole in The Vancouver Sun wonders -- result in chaos?

Along with the daily raft of stories about the warring factions are the daily raft of stories on the damage their war has caused. "What’s it like watching a professional sports league slowly kill itself?," asks Jim Matheson in The Edmonton Journal and he quotes the respected player agent Steve Bartlett as saying, “I think we’re all getting a little apathetic. We realize this thing has turned ugly and it’s going to play itself out in the next week or two in the lawyers’ offices, not the negotiating tables. Unfortunate, but that’s what we’re stuck with.”

And when the game returns, we're also going to be stuck with some serious deterioration of the NHL brand. That's what Level5 Strategy Group, a Toronto-based company that analyzes these things found when researching the impact the lockout might have for potential corporate sponsors."The longer it goes on, the worse it will get," wrote The Globe and Mail's Roy MacGregor, who has seen the report. "In the case of the NHL and its players, the abiding feelings of the moment are betrayal at one end of the scale and utter lack of interest at the other. If you’re looking for warm and fuzzy, get out a microscope – or, better yet, switch to curling."

Level5 chief executive officer David Kincaid told McGregor, “We found damage at levels we have not seen. It’s quite alarming, really. If anyone thinks that the lockout can end and everyone will come back to Happy Valley, it ain’t going to happen.”Kincaid said those who identify themselves as passionate fans are only one-third of Canadians, which surprised Level5 researchers who believed that number would be about half. Another third are considered neutral and a third don't care at all. Research showed that passionate fans are angry, neutral fans are turned off and bored, and non-fans – the people hockey needs to attract if it hopes to grow – are disgusted. And this is in Canada.

These sorts of alarms -- and we've been ringing them on this blog for a long time -- continue to sound but they fall on the deaf ears of those who are destroying their own industry.

"A comment that I'm hearing more and more from people on the ownership side, I'm not sure the NHL returns with 30 teams on the other side of a lost season," writes ESPN's Pierre LeBrun. "Can the weaker markets truly survive this? That's damage both sides would feel."

Furthermore, as Cam Cole writes, making the important point others have also made, "There's a whole sub-stratum who are suffering: Single-mom ushers, concession workers, ticket sellers and popcorn hawkers, 'non-essential' team front office employees, bar-and-grill operators, waiters and parking attendants ... and real charities, not just the few you hear about, that NHL hockey legitimately supports."

Plus, let's not forget the referees and linesmen, who are -- criminally -- not being paid at all by the NHL.

It's becoming increasingly obvious there won't be a Hollywood ending to this disaster.

That was the first version of the song (later a hit for its composer Billy Joel) to get some hit radio airplay, and here's Ronnie doing it live.

And here's Ronnie, Estelle and Nedra at their classic peak in front of the Wall of Sound.

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