HAMILTON, ONTARIO — IN a country where ice-ace Wayne Gretzky's first childhood skates are almost national relics, endless weeks without pro hockey are pushing the limits of Canadian endurance.
``I don't know what to do without it,'' says Michael Berstein, fists jammed in his jeans, standing near the front of a long line at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ontario, to buy tickets to a charity hockey game. The game will feature currently unemployed National Hockey League stars alongside local talent.
Known as ``hockey-lite'' among hard-core fans, these charity games are an easy sellout in hockey-starved Canada, where the NHL season never even got under way. It has been stalled for six weeks during a contract dispute between players and owners that began Oct. 1.
The absence of NHL games has interrupted the routines of millions of fans like Mr. Berstein, many of whom spend Saturday evenings (called ``Hockey Night in Canada'' by Canadians) glued to their televisions. Instead of the sharp crack of a slap shot and announcers shouting, ``He shoots, he scores!'' the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is rerunning movies like ``Lonesome Dove'' and ``After Dark My Sweet.''
This sort of tepid fare leaves Canada's hockey nuts cranky. ``I don't want to see a movie, and I don't want to do anything else,'' Berstein says. ``It's in my skin.'' Literally. He boasts of a hockey tattoo on his hip - a blue Toronto maple leaf with crossed hockey sticks underlined with the word ``devoted.''
To fill the void, he got in line outside the coliseum at 5 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning to get premium seats for the charity game. When he arrived, however, others were already ahead of him - sleeping at the door.
So far there has been little apparent progress in talks between the 26 NHL owners and the union representing about 600 NHL players. The owners have refused to allow any games while negotiating with the players union. This makes the stoppage technically an owner ``lockout,'' not a ``strike'' by players, who offered to play while talks proceeded.
But no matter whose fault, fans are restless and increasingly angry as they watch Canada's hockey icons - stars like the Toronto Maple Leafs' Doug Gilmour - skating over to European leagues in order to stay sharp in case play resumes suddenly.
HOW hockey-hungry are the fans? For a few bucks, Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto has been allowing fans into the empty stadium to bask in the ambience of the Toronto Maple Leaf locker room. The Gardens' management has lately begun selling for $369 ($500 Canadian) an hour's skating time inside what some call the ``altar'' of Canadian hockey.
Filling the gap hasn't been easy for the CBC, the government broadcaster that has long aired NHL games nationwide. It had grand plans to expand Hockey Night in Canada into a double header lasting into the wee hours of Sunday.
``We are as distressed as the fans,'' says Tom Curzon, a CBC spokesman. ``Hockey is a culturally unifying event in this country. Despite the objections of some, I don't see how anyone can say that hockey doesn't help keep this country intact.''
For a while Toronto's biggest AM sports radio station made do with broadcasts of computerized baseball competitions (complete with the sound of cheering crowds) between 1993 World Series Champion Blue Jays team and a team of yesteryears' heroes.
``It's powdered milk, but to a starving person it starts looking pretty good,'' says Bob Mackowycz, the station's operations manager.
The station has set up a call-in line for unhappy fans, which is getting more than 200 calls a day.
One disgruntled Toronto fan even filed a $450 million suit against the NHL.
``Hockey is like a religion here,'' says Brian McFarlane, a hockey historian and former CBC hockey announcer. ``There's a growing anger among our hockey fans that somebody's taking the sport away from us. That's why we applaud this guy'' who filed the lawsuit.
Perhaps hockey's absence is so deeply felt in Canada because the sport is played from childhood on. There are about 750,000 active amateur hockey players in Canada, says John Gardner, president of the Metropolitan Toronto Hockey League. His league alone has 60,000 players, 6 to 19 years old, on 384 competitive teams. They play 14,000 scheduled games each year at 40 ice rinks across Toronto.
But Mr. Gardner says that despite Canadians' love for hockey, the NHL has already lost some luster. ``The league is getting its image scratched,'' Gardner says. ``If the NHL doesn't get its act together, then perhaps someone will form a global league. Anything is possible. People need their hockey.''