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There have been Stanley Cup parties that have lasted longer than the Canadian government's offer to subsidize that nation's six NHL franchises. Just three days after announcing a bailout worth as much as $13.9 million annually through 2004, Industry Minister John Manley abruptly withdrew the plan last Friday after noisy, negative opinion swept the country. The reversal left several issues up in the air, most notably the future of the Senators, who are likely to be put up for sale by owner Rod Bryden, the principal lobbyist for federal support.
Ottawa may soon become the third NHL franchise to leave the country—Quebec and Winnipeg have lost teams to the U.S. in the last five years—but the taxpayers' spontaneous rejection of the handout is stark evidence that the NHL already has lost Canada. Despite whatever real economic advantages or psychic income an NHL franchise might provide, despite the tax breaks and direct financial incentives the government bestows on other corporations in a dicey economy, Canadians could not wrap their minds around anything more than the nub of the issue: The feds planned to use tax dollars to prop up rich owners and, indirectly, their almost-as-rich players. Hockey is an intensely personal sport in Canada, the worsted wool of the national fabric. A Canadian is rarely more than one person removed from knowing someone with NHL ties—his accountant's brother-in-law played in the 1980s, or he went to school with Doug Gilmour's cousin—and the familiarity, the sense of being a member of the game's extended family, was precisely what made hockey matter.
That one degree of separation also ultimately scuttled the deal. Canadians took a look at the multimillion-dollar salaries of men who are their neighbors, studied the bloated ticket prices that for the average fan reduce an NHL game to a TV show, sneered at the luxury-box crowd that gets a 50% entertainment write-off and said, Not a chance. Eighteen letters on the editorial page of The Globe and Mail in Toronto last Thursday, all opposed to the plan, were a bellwether. Canadians weren't rejecting the game or even the red-faced government, just a league that has hopelessly lost touch.
JAILBIRD ON THE FIELD
Gary Croft, a defender for Ipswich Town of the English first division, knows a thing or two about shadowing an opponent around a soccer pitch. Last week, though, the shoe was on the other foot Actually, it was an electronic monitoring device, placed there as a condition of Croft's parole.
Croft was arrested on Sept. 30 and sentenced to four months in jail for driving with a suspended license and—because he gave the police a friend's license instead of his own—"perverting the course of justice." He spent a month in Suffolk's Hollesley Bay prison, where he was allowed to use the gym for 90 minutes a day to stay in shape. Croft was released on Jan. 10, on the condition that he wear the monitoring device around his ankle, on the field and off, until February. "It's the sports version: waterproof and shockproof," he joked.
Five days after his release Croft played 20 minutes of a 3-0 home win over Swindon Town, whose visiting fans serenaded him by singing, "You must have come in a taxi," to the tune of Guantanamera. "I've missed the big-game atmosphere. It's something you love as a footballer, and it was great to be part of it again," said Croft before hustling home to beat his court-imposed 7 p.m. curfew.
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