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O, NO, CANADA! NHL lockout leaves a big void, but fans in hockey-mad nation are trying to cope

BRANTFORD, ONTARIO — BRANTFORD, Ontario -- The NHL has yet to play a game this season, but the fans keep coming to Walter Gretzky's home in this small town about a two-hour drive southwest of Toronto.

"There was this young man the other day," said Wayne Gretzky's father. "He knocked and was just standing there on the porch, hands in his pockets. I said, 'Can I help you?' And he said, 'I came to see Wayne's things.' "

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Walter Gretzky smiled. He has been showing fans Wayne's things for years. He says the NHL work stoppage has slowed, but not stopped, the traffic to his door.

"The only real change in the people that come is that they seem frustrated now," he said. "They're frustrated because they can't do anything about what's going on in hockey and they love hockey.

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"Instead of wanting to talk about how Wayne's doing, all they want to know is when the lockout is going to end. They think I know, and I haven't got a clue."

Hockey in Canada is like baseball in the United States. It's the national pastime. Canadians watch hockey, play hockey and talk hockey.

"What you hear about Canadians gathering around the televisions on Saturday night for 'Hockey Night in Canada' is true," said Don Crowder, 46, a high school counselor from Mississauga, who brought his 10-year-old son, Corey, to last weekend's NHL Players Association's Four-on Four Challenge in Hamilton.

"Being without hockey has left a void," Crowder said. "Ever since I was a kid, on Saturday nights you'd brush your shoes for Sunday church, take a bath, have your hair trimmed and then watch the hockey game with your dad. There aren't any shoes to brush now, but my son and I still watched the games."

Now they rent movies or "spend a lot more time" on the computer.

The three NHLPA exhibitions in Hamilton drew 43,745, but that doesn't mean Canadian fans are desperate, said Kevin Rizun, a 27-year-old dentist from Hamilton.

"While our city is pretty depressed, we're no way as depressed as the fans in Baltimore seem to be," Rizun said. "We haven't embraced a no-name CFL team to the tune of 40,000 fans a game. Now, that's depressed."

But James Boose, 11, who plays center for the Ancaster Atom Select team, said: "We got hit a double whammy. Me and my dad like watching the Orioles and Blue Jays, too."

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Without pro hockey in Canada, life has changed.

"Instead of talking about last night's game at work, we're talking about 'The Simpsons' reruns," said Michael Fox, 30. "It's all we have to talk about."

Keith Szabo, who works at a Pizza Hut in Brantford, says business is off.

"I don't know what it is, but when there is a hockey game on, people get that munchie feeling and order pizza," he said. "Calls are down."

Adam Kostiw, 27, drove four hours each way from his home in Mississauga to see a Junior A hockey game in Windsor last week.

And his friend Dave Baker, a 24-year-old software consultant, said he was so desperate for something to do, "I got a girlfriend."

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And still, said Mike Hogan, the Toronto Maple Leafs post-game show host for CJCL radio, which is known as The Fan, "We're not coping. We're not coping at all.

"It seems all right at the moment because we can still get out and do things, but come January and February, come the post-Christmas depression, when the snow flies, it will be tough."

And it's tough figuring out whom to blame.

"All our life, we've had hockey," said Gord Rattray, 22, a cabinet maker. "Now, we're frustrated, the players are frustrated and that little weasel Bettman [NHL commissioner Gary Bettman] is still making his money, isn't he?"

Ed Oliver, 38, works for a security company. He said he started out on the players' side, but now, "I think the owners are being more open and the players are being too protective of what they have."

But Frank Fazi, a CJCL reporter, said that people at first took sides, but "most of us now are just praying for the good news. We put our hands up and cry. We just want it settled."

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The Fan, the Maple Leafs' flagship station, is filling air time with everything from broadcasts of old hockey games to computer-simulated Stanley Cup games.

"We're starving," said Fazi. "The CFL isn't cutting it here."

In Walt's Beanery in Hamilton after the championship game at the NHLPA tournament, fans hoisted beers and sang.

"The good old hockey game is the best game you can name," they sang. "And the best game you can name is the good old hockey game . . ."

Fans who didn't attend the charity games are getting their hockey fix in other ways.

Walter Gretzky is coaching a group of 9-year-old all-stars, who had a thrill three weeks ago when Wayne Gretzky showed up to work out with them.

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"There were some happy kids out there," said Cindy Vansickle, whose son Josh plays on Walter Gretzky's team. "They were flying high. It was such a special moment. They all got autographed pictures. But we don't miss the pro game too much, because we have our own real hockey to see six or seven nights a week."

On a typical night at the Wayne Gretzky Sports Center, the two ice rinks are packed with kids.

"I miss seeing the game on TV," said Kevan Loughren, 48 of Bramalea, who had driven 60 miles to see his 15-year-old daughter, Amanda, play for the Brampton Canadettes against a Brantford team. "Both of my kids, Amanda and my son Chris, play, and I coach a seniors ladies team, so I don't have total withdrawal."

But he grew up in Montreal, a Canadiens loyalist, and said, "Hockey is a religion."

Even Daryl Alvestad, who lives next door to the Gretzkys and describes the traffic on their street during hockey season as "a minivan caravan," said he wouldn't mind seeing the traffic pick up if it meant hockey was back.

"But in the meantime," Alvestad said, "we've turned Saturday night into family night. We're staying in, getting a movie and catching up."


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