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Without Canadiens to fall back on, it's a whole new game in Montreal


MONTREAL - With the arrival of spring and Opening Day, a young man's thoughts turn to ... something other than baseball.

Especially here.

If it were baseball, the Expos would still be in town instead of in Washington as the Nationals.

With the arrival of spring, Montrealers' thoughts usually turn to the Stanley Cup playoffs. But there will be no such playoffs this spring. Who knows when there might be again?

I work in a cigar store, Davidoff's. With the beginning of the lockout of NHL players, and even through the announcement that the season had been canceled, hockey fans who came into the store were angry - at the players, at the league, at everyone who conspired to deprive us of our national pastime.

Now, I don't hear much talk about the NHL. I hear more about, of all things, baseball.

What can you say? Some hockey fans are deeply concerned, not only about when the NHL will return, but also the state of the league when it does.

Others, I sense, have moved on, just as they did from baseball when the Expos betrayed us.

There was a time not all that long ago when our baseball teams - first the minor-league Royals, later the Expos - played in our own version of Ebbets Field, Jarry Park. The intimate little park in the halcyon days was routinely packed to capacity, regardless of the visiting team.

Hall of Famers honed their skills with the Los Angeles Dodgers' famed Montreal farm team. Jackie Robinson ran the bases here before breaking down racial barriers in Brooklyn. Tommy Lasorda pitched at Jarry Park and twirled pasta in our Little Italy.

Many in the United States believed Montreal was not really a major league baseball city, but we knew better.

Times were good. The team continued to flourish with players such as Gary Carter, Pedro Martinez, Larry Walker, Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Steve Rogers, Randy Johnson and Tim Wallach.

Customers in the store argue to this day that the Expos of the strike-shortened 1994 season were one of the best young teams assembled in the past century. They could have been contenders that season and, if the team had remained intact, for many years to come.

We prided ourselves in our ability to rise above the constraints shackling cities with similar demographics. This was, of course, the city that put on the 1976 Summer Olympics, against all odds.

But the market forces - the lack of revenue sharing in baseball and the weakness of the Canadian dollar - caught up to us. The Expos were disassembled, one star after another. They were a hopeless cause. That might appeal to saints, not sports fans.

Besides, we would always have the Canadiens.

We thought.

Anyway, it barely matters to much of the public now. The governments in place in Montreal and the province of Quebec are ceding more and more to pressure from citizens who deem hospitals and schools more worthy of our tax dollars than luxury box-filled ballparks and arenas.

Maybe Montreal has come full circle and is becoming the poster city for what's right with smaller-market sports towns. From universities on down, sports enthusiasts in this city are rediscovering their love of sport at the most basic level - that of fans, not consumers.

Just the other day, my dad ran into Mario Lemieux's mother. She was on her way to a junior hockey game to see her nephew play.

We are excited about the Ramparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. And the great Sidney Crosby, who plays for Rimouski Oceanic and will be the NHL's No. 1 draft choice when - if? - there is an NHL draft again.

Hockey is dead.

Long live hockey.

Guy Provost is a freelance writer living in Montreal.

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