No pro hockey? What's a fan to do?

There are many ways to measure the impact of the National Hockey League's lockout. You can count lost games, lost goals, or lost salaries. But the best measure may come from the streets of Detroit on a cold December night.

Quiet, desolate sites are not uncommon in Detroit, but the stillness on would-have-been game nights is remarkable. Doors to Joe Louis Arena, home of the Red Wings, are locked. Downtown streets are empty. Lights at some of the city's best-known watering holes are dark.

This winter feels different in Detroit, where a 170-foot-tall mural of Red Wing captain Steve Yzerman looks over downtown like a giant, steely-eyed guardian angel. The city that likes to call itself Hockeytown is quieter.

Detroit is but one of many cities across the United States and Canada where pro hockey arenas are canceling game after game, leaving fans to search elsewhere for their hockey fix.

Doug Wenrich, an 11-year-old skating on Detroit's Campus Martius Rink under the shadow of the Yzerman mural, sounds exasperated. "They all make so much money as it is. Why do they need more?" he asks.

The National Hockey League - almost halfway through an aborted season - is nearing what may be a point of no return over its salary dispute. It could end up doing something no other major professional sports league has ever done in the US: Shut down for an entire season. Players, some of whom have gone to Europe, call it a real possibility. Owners agree.

Doug and his brother Tommy both play youth hockey and say they are paying closer attention to college hockey, another big draw in Michigan, but it's not the same.

"We really miss it - even on TV," says their mother, Lora Wenrich. "We normally go to four or five games a year. The boys live and breathe the game, so I do, too."

A new form?

But a settlement seems less likely every day, as both sides appear unwilling to budge. Some say the question isn't whether the NHL comes back this year, but if it comes back next year. Some even wonder if it will come back at all, at least in its current form.

At a downtown cafe, Steve Laratta, who calls himself a "casual fan," says he is surviving because it's still early in the season and he normally gets more interested as the playoffs near. "But there are still those Tuesday nights where there's no Wings game. It's depressing."

Mr. Laratta says he understands concerns of the owners, who want a hard cap on salaries so all the teams are playing on the same sheet of ice, but quickly adds that he understands the players' perspective as well. "No one is holding a gun to the owners' heads and saying they have to pay more for these players," he says.

But Laratta wonders where the league is headed and what fans will see when the game returns.

"This is Detroit," he says. "When this is over, Detroit will still be there. Chicago will still be there. But those teams in the South, who knows?"

"Those teams in the South" is shorthand for most NHL clubs that operate below the Mason-Dixon line. These teams - based in Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, and Phoenix, as well as Nashville, Tenn., Raleigh, N.C., and Tampa Bay, Fla. - have been added to the league in the past decade or so through relocation or expansion. Some fans and hockey experts doubt whether they will exist five to 10 years from now.

The NHL does have some serious problems. Poor TV ratings have led to bad TV contracts.

Rising salaries - the average player wage of $572,000 in 1995 hit $1.83 million by 2004 - have hurt small-market teams. Canadian teams have been particularly hard hit because they pay players in American dollars, even though they earn revenue in the weaker Canadian currency. In the past decade, NHL teams in Winnipeg and Quebec have packed up and headed south.

Commissioner Gary Bettman's effort to establish teams in warmer US climes where kids rarely see natural ice, never mind play on it, has not gone smoothly.

Tampa Bay did win the Stanley Cup last year, but none of those teams was in the top 10 in attendance last season. In fact, all except Tampa Bay were in the bottom half in league attendance.

Add it all together, the owners contend, and you have a crisis involving $500 million in losses over the past two seasons.

But players blame poor management and point to the $2 billion in revenues the league collected during the 2003-04 season. In December, players offered an across-the-board 24 percent cut in salaries and a "luxury tax" imposed on teams if they spend more than $45 million on salaries. But the owners rejected the deal outright, continuing their demand for a salary cap. Both sides walked away from the table, placing the NHL season in jeopardy. Hockey, however, lives on.

Playing the game

Across the river from Detroit in Windsor, Ontario, the labor dispute seems a million miles away as the Windsor Spitfires take the ice. The Spits, as they are known, are a junior team, made up of mostly 17- and 18-year-olds who hope to one day play in the NHL. The games are televised in Windsor, and the players are well known by fans and hecklers alike, but the feel is pure small town.

When the Spitfires walk on and off the ice, they traverse the concession area, high-fiving fans and signing autographs after the game. The Windsor Arena, where the team plays, seats about 3,500 people and is what fans call "an old barn" - a big empty brick structure with a rink and seats. It's where the Detroit Red Wings first took to the ice in 1926. Back then, they were called the Cougars. Today, fans pay $16 (Canadian; US$13) for a Spitfires ticket, compared with the $57.11 in US dollars that the average Red Wing ticket cost last season.

Fans here are purists - more than a few say contraction would be good for the NHL. "Look at Tampa Bay," says Bob Galls of Tecumseh, Ontario, as he waits in line at the concession stand. "They won the Cup and half the people down there don't even know it. I mean, I'm not knocking the players, they're great. But a place like that doesn't deserve the Cup."

Mr. Galls says he goes to Red Wings games whenever he can score free tickets. But he goes to see the Spitfires more often. "It doesn't cost $300 to take the family," he says.

Mike Todd, visiting his family in suburban Detroit for Christmas, is taking in his first Spitfires game. "This is the way it's supposed to be," he says, his eyes fixed on the ice. "Back-to-basics hockey. The players care. The lower bowl is full; it's not empty corporate boxes. There's no scoreboard telling you when to clap."

Between periods, fans head to the concession area to watch ... more hockey. The World Junior Championships are on television and Team Canada is pounding Germany 4-0.

"I'm going through a bit of withdrawal," says Murray Burns, another Windsor hockey fan. "I usually take in a few Wings games a year, and I always watch them on TV. But I have season tickets to the Spitfires, too. It's pretty good hockey, and it's the only game in town now."

Darkness falls

The Spits drop the game 5-1, but most fans stay until the end. After the final horn, they stream into the streets and to the area's bars and restaurants. Across the Detroit River, Joe Louis Arena sits empty and dark.

As Mr. Burns prepares to leave, he says he sides with the owners in the labor dispute. "If we don't have a salary cap soon there won't be any Canadian teams left," he says. "I'm upset, but whatever happens, if they come back I'll go. I'm a hockey fan."

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