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NHL lockout drains Quebec of jobs, spirit

ASCOT CORNER, Quebec -- It was the best Martin Gaucher could do, earning $8.34 an hour ($10.30 Canadian) making pucks and packaging souvenirs for the National Hockey League. His bonus was watching his NHL idols compete with the pucks he helped produce.

Then the sport he loved changed his way of life. Gaucher is jobless now, his future on ice with thousands of others whose livelihoods have depended on the NHL, from his French-speaking village on the snow-crusted St. Francois River 100 miles southwest of Montreal to the league's 30 host cities across North America.

Riven by the costliest labor dispute in its 87-year history, the NHL last night made one final offer to its players in an attempt to salvage the 2004-05 season but appeared poised to cancel it officially today, unleashing the final tremor in a bitter winter of economic and cultural upheaval wrought by the rupture of Canada's national pastime. While the crisis in the $2 billion industry has taken a toll on fans and businesses in Boston, where the Bruins rank behind the Red Sox as the city's oldest major sports franchise, the game's demise, if only for a season, has plunged hockey-hallowed Quebec into various stages of grief."

Hockey is in our blood," Irving Bookbinder, a retired accountant, said at Ziggy's Pub on Crescent Street in Montreal near the Bell Centre, home of the Canadiens and their 24 championship banners. "It's part of our heritage, and we miss it very much."

For the first time since the great flu pandemic of 1919 killed more than 20 million people, including Montreal defenseman Joe Hall, the NHL may not award its championship prize, the Stanley Cup. No NHL, no pucks, no need for Gaucher and 19 of the other 39 workers at Inglasco in Sherbrooke who last month joined the ranks of the unemployed.

No NHL, less need for arena workers, hotel workers, restaurant staffs, souvenir shop employees, and parking lot attendants, among others. As the NHL lockout approached its 154th day, authorities in Quebec had yet to tally the full economic impact, but it was expected to exceed the blow to Boston's business community: an estimated $30 million if the entire season is canceled, according to Pat Moscaritolo, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In January alone, Canada lost 5,700 jobs, according to the national statistical agency, which attributed the drop partly to hockey-related layoffs at restaurants and bars.

"I'm sure there will be more people laid off soon," Gaucher said, with his wife, Manon, translating his French, and their 10-year-old son, Maxime, playing a video game in a room adorned with NHL memorabilia. "The sad thing is, I don't think the players or the owners care."

The greatest danger the NHL faces, many Canadians said, is that the fans will stop caring. Up and down the streets of Montreal, where numerous sports bars are shuttered, fans, workers, and business owners expressed various degrees of sorrow, anger, frustration, disgust, resignation, and apathy as the NHL stalemate chewed up the final weeks of the season.

A recent poll found that nearly 40 percent of the NHL's Canadian fans no longer miss the game.

"It will never be the same again," said Enrique Santana, manager of Sports Crescent, an apparel and souvenir shop on Saint Catherine Street in Montreal where business has dropped 30 percent. "The players used to play with heart. Now, they're only playing for the money. A lot of people are so mad that even if [the NHL] comes back next season, they won't care anymore."

The disaffection has seized the attention of Canadian leaders, including the minister of social development, Ken Dryden, a former Hall of Fame goaltender for the Canadiens.

"You never want to give a fan a chance to find out whether it was passion or a habit," Dryden told reporters of the nation's waning interest in its pastime.

Whether the NHL or its long-fervent fan base first turned its back on the other, there remains little uncertainty about the impact. Paul Poulin, general manager of St. Hubert restaurant next to the Bell Centre, said business has slumped 20 percent. The King of Hockey restaurant behind the stadium is closed. Demand appeared down for the "Wrist Shot" (a grilled croissant with cheese) at the Hat Trick around the corner. And Ziggy's was among many establishments that have laid off bartenders and wait staff while the NHL has gone dark.

"When it was 15- or 20-below zero on a Tuesday night, we would still have 22,000 people in the streets when they were playing hockey," Ziggy Eichenbaum said near displays of Maurice Richard's autographed jersey and Bobby Orr's signed hockey stick in his pub. "Now you can take a bowling ball and roll it down Crescent Street on a Tuesday night and you won't hit anybody."

Times are so hard at Santana's store, he said, that he has been reduced to playing games of chance with shoppers to entice them to buy NHL jerseys he already has marked down from $89.17 ($110 Canadian) to $56.74 ($69.99 Canadian).

"People say, `Why should I buy them? There's no hockey,' " Santana said. "It's terrible. One more season like this, and we can't survive."

Many Boston businesses share Santana's pain. With the Bruins originally scheduled to play the Washington Capitals last night at the FleetCenter, Halftime Pizza across the street would have been abuzz with 12 workers cooking and serving as many as 200 pizzas. But with the arena locked tight, pizza maker Derick Mains said he expected to make no more than 15 pizzas with a staff of two.

The lockout also cost Mains a chance to pick up extra money moonlighting a couple of doors down at Sullivan's Tap, as he previously has done when the Bruins played. He is running out of patience with the NHL.

"They're going to ruin their fan base," Mains said. "I blame the players. How much is enough? They can't feed their families on $800,000 a year?"

Moscaritolo said businesses around the FleetCenter and in the North End have borne the brunt of the impact. He said the estimated $30 million blow to the local economy does not include money the Bruins generate inside the FleetCenter in ticket sales, concessions, and other revenues or taxes the state reaps on meals, hotels, souvenirs, and other commodities.

"The bottom line," Moscaritolo said, "is that a significant amount of money has been pulled out of the local economy."

While many Bruins fans have taken solace from the Red Sox and Patriots winning championships, Canadians have had little choice but to grudgingly find ways to live without the NHL. A national tradition, "Hockey Night in Canada" on CBC, has been replaced each Saturday with "Movie Night in Canada." Sports networks have been relegated to airing lacrosse, car racing, and minor league hockey. And a new period of self-discovery has unfolded.

"Hockey was so much a part of our lives, and we're trying to adjust," said Jimmy Moustakis, a bartender at the Sir Winston Churchill Pub on Crescent Street whose earnings have dropped sharply. "We watch poker and go to the movies. Some people go to the gym now on Saturday nights. A lot of people are even spending more time with their kids."

Just as Major League Baseball needed the 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to rebound from its 1994 strike, the NHL may need a similar phenomenon to win back its fans, said Jack Jedwab, who teaches a course on "Sports in Canada" at McGill University in Montreal.

"The future of the NHL may rest on the shoulders of Sidney Crosby," Jedwab said of the 17-year-old Nova Scotian who scored 50 goals in his first 50 games this year in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and is expected to be the first player selected in the June NHL draft.

Crosby, who has been hailed as the next Wayne Gretzky, has become Canada's hottest hockey commodity in the NHL's absence. His team, Rimouski Oceanic, often plays to packed houses and national television audiences.

"There will be huge pressure on him to bring excitement back to the NHL," Jedwab said.

Until then, fans and businesses in two nations wait. Though the league may be smaller, the salaries lower and the rules different when the NHL returns, a modicum of tradition may endure, especially in Quebec. Gaucher expects to remain a fan even if he worries about paying his bills after losing his job. And Eichenbaum yearns for the day when hockey fans, particularly some old friends, return to his bar.

"The best love-hate rivalry we had in sports was the Canadiens and Bruins," he said. "We used to love to see the fans from Boston three times a year. It's a beautiful relationship. I miss those people."

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