The scene outside what used to be Maple Leaf Gardens was fitting for this other-worldly hockey season.
Where scalpers once verbally assaulted Toronto Maple Leafs fans as they poured on to Carlton Street from the subway, then relieved them of their cash, only one or two of these "entrepreneurs" could be seen trying to work the sparse crowd that mingled with the patrons of the grocery store that now occupies the ground floor of the former shrine of hockey.
This despite the fact Wednesday night's charity game was the first time this winter that NHL players stepped on a rink in Toronto. It was also the first time NHLers played at what is now Ryerson University's Mattamy Athletic Centre since the Leafs decamped on Feb. 13, 1999.
The scalpers and the NHL Players' Association, which put on the non-contact exhibition, learned what all hockey promoters in Toronto learn, that if it isn't "real" NHL hockey and it isn't dressed in a Leaf sweater then the fans aren't interested. All 2,600 seats plus a few hundred standing-room tickets were sold, making it the first sellout since Ryerson opened the rink-slash-grocery-slash liquor store in the fall when renovations to the old Gardens were finished.
But there were lots of empty seats, just like the 1980s when Harold Ballard's Leafs were giving off a similar smell as Loblaws' Wall of Cheese, which now occupies the real estate once trod by Charlie Conacher, Syl Apps, Frank Mahovlich and Darryl Sittler.
This economic fact was also brought home to Sandy Clark of Barrie, Ont., who was trying to unload a pair of tickets, face value $30, shortly before the game. He isn't a scalper, just a fan who bought two tickets from Ticketmaster for $30 plus, four more on Kijiji.com for $60 each, which turned out to be two more than he needed.
With about 20 minutes left until the opening faceoff, the only offer Clark had was $10 from a scalper for the pair. "He'd only try to sell them for 60 bucks so I'd rather keep them and go for a beer with my friends before the game," Clark said as he prepared to abandon his post.
Inside, where the hockey rink now sits on the third floor, just above the basketball court, the 39 NHL players led by Steven Stamkos and P.K. Subban were playing a brand of hockey that bore as much resemblance to the real thing as your average NHL all-star game. Then again, those among the crowd old enough to remember the Maple Leafs circa 1980 through 1991 had a familiar feeling when they looked at the scoreboard. By the third period, Team Stamkos had a 14-5 lead on Team Subban.
NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr once again made sure everyone knew just who is responsible for this sorry state of affairs – the NHL owners.
"These are not strikes, they are lockouts," he said of the league's third labour disruption under commissioner Gary Bettman since 1994. When he was asked why there are no negotiations or any sign of them, Fehr said, "because the owners have not indicated a desire to resume."
"We've indicated any number of times that we're willing to resume whenever they are without pre-conditions," Fehr added. "One of the senior players on the bargaining committee suggested [Tuesday] that perhaps it made sense for the group that we had in New York a couple of weeks ago along with the principal negotiators to resume. That seems like it might work. So we're waiting to hear back from [the owners]."
Nevertheless, deputy commissioner Bill Daly went on Toronto radio station The Fan 590 and said he still thinks the owners and players will manage to get a new collective agreement in time to save a partial season.
Fehr did not offer his own opinion on the possibility but said he hopes Daly is right. "That's good news," he said. "I'm glad to hear that. That's the players' goal; that's what we want to try and do."
Then everyone had better hurry. Daly also said he figures the NHL will lose an entire season for the second time in eight years – which could well take several U.S. teams off the cliff with it – if the players are not on the ice by mid-January.
And the players are well aware of that. "This is kind of the last-ditch effort here, the next three or four weeks," said Toronto Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul, who made his first appearance this season in front of the home fans as a member of Team Subban.
Lupul said neither he nor any of his peers can understand why the owners won't come to the table.
"We want to talk every day," he said. "We're free every day. If Gary wants us to come over to his house, we'll go right over and talk."