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In the past week, I've been asked the following questions by otherwise knowledgeable sports fans. 1) "Did the NHL strike start yet?" 2) "Is that guy with the crazy hair playing this year?" 3) "What's that on your shirt?"
The answer to the first query is no -- hockey's nuclear winter will officially begin Sept. 15, when the collective bargaining agreement expires -- and please don't call it a strike. Don't call it a work stoppage, either. I made that mistake in the headline of an item I wrote for the magazine's Scorecard section last month and was quickly corrected in an e-mail from the player's association. Apparently, the technical definition of a work stoppage is a "group's refusal to work." The hockey shutdown is the owners' idea, so it must be referred to as a lockout and a lockout only. I'll resist the temptation to observe that more time spent negotiating and less on semantics might help prevent a lockstoppage of any kind. But I digress.
The second question came when I mentioned that I was getting ready to watch the World Cup. (Don't ask about the third. We have an infant at home.) I think it was a reference to former U.S. soccer poster boy Alexi Lalas, who is now the general manager of MLS' San Jose Earthquakes and, to the best of my knowledge, is not a participant in the World Cup of Hockey. Not that anyone in this country would notice if Lalas did lace up skates and strap a Jofa helmet over his screaming red locks.
You may have heard that hockey has a bit of a popularity problem below the 48th parallel. It doesn't help that the World Cup tournament, which began with Finland's 4-0 win over the Czech Republic in Helsinki on Monday and ends with the championship match in Toronto on Sept. 14, is competing for attention with baseball pennant races, the countdown to the NFL season, the post-Olympic glow, the U.S. Open, political conventions, The Apprentice hype and back-to-school sales.
So the World Cup will be largely overlooked in this country, which is a shame because it's a chance to see hockey at its best a few weeks before the NHL devolves into professional sports at its worst. The tournament truly is a collection of the world's best players. For the most part the eight countries involved had no problem getting top talent to play. No Dream Team copouts here, and none of the All-Star whining that broke out when baseball floated the idea of a World Cup tournament earlier this year. (A notable exception is Russia, which is missing, among others, forward Sergei Fedorov and goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. But that didn't seem to matter on Thursday night, when a minor-league netminder named Ilya Bryzgalov stopped the U.S. cold in a 3-1 win.)
That means Canada is trotting out a fantasy lineup: Martin Brodeur in net; Mario Lemieux, Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton, Jarome Iginla and Joe Sakic up front; Scott Niedermayer and Adam Foote on defense. (Any questions about how much the players care about this tournament were answered on Tuesday, when the aging Lemieux briefly forgot about his chronically achy back and tried to fight U.S. forward Steve Konowalchuk.)
Watching Team Sweden may be our last chance to see the incomparable Peter Forsberg, who's expected to quit the NHL if there's a lockout. Slovakia's got Peter Bondra and two of the NHL's most exhilarating young forwards, Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik.
Young legs are not a strength of Team USA, which, if the first two games of the tournament are any indication, doesn't have much going for it other than goalie Robert Esche. The U.S. returns mostly the same group which upset Canada to win the last World Cup in 1996 and then took Olympic silver in 2002. It's a talented but graybeard bunch. Captain Chris Chelios is 42. Brett Hull is 40. Mike Modano is 34. Brian Leetch is 36.
Team USA lost its opener to Canada, 2-1. It was a taut, thrilling game, but the loss to Russia was a clunker and this squad appears to be headed for the same disappointment Allen Iverson and Co. suffered in Athens. After round-robin play every team makes the World Cup medal round, so there's still time for the U.S. to rally. I hope they do because a U.S. gold medal chase is the one chance the World Cup has of catching on in this country. (It won't be Miracle, but close.)
The Cup is a chance to see hockey played the way it should be, a late-summer dose of the playoffs. It should also be a reminder to owners and union leaders that they'd better work out a deal. If the general public can't get excited about a hockey tournament like this, will anyone care if the NHL disappears for a few months or more?
Sports Illustrated staff writer Stephen Cannella covers the NHL for the magazine and contributes frequently to SI.com.