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The Globe and Mail

NHL lockout would be an opportunity to break hockey addiction

The moment has come for Canada to embrace the NHL lockout.

Think of it as a Betty Ford Clinic for a hopelessly addicted nation.

Think of it as a gift, an opportunity to find new balance in a nation that has, for whatever reasons, come to let its national game matter too much.

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How else do you explain that the largest, most powerful generation a country has ever produced, the Baby Boomers, would hold as their most memorable moment – just as a generation of Americans can recall exactly where they were and what they were wearing when President John Kennedy was shot in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 – a puck going into a hockey net in another continent on Sept. 28, 1972?

How else can you comprehend that this sprawling generation's most stirring speech came not from a politician – such as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's chilling war call that "We shall nevah surrender" – but from a sweaty hockey player, Phil Esposito, who had just been booed off the ice with his Team Canada teammates after a loss in Vancouver?

There is something seriously afflicted in a nation when it can be argued, with some pitiful justification, that the average parent would choose having a child play a single game in the NHL than become a neurosurgeon for life.

There is something equally wrong in a world where the average NHL player can make more in a single eight-month season, $2.4-million, than most hard-working Canadians will make in a lifetime.

And that for a veteran fourth-line grinder whose sole responsibility is to play six to eight minutes a night for 82 games and have nothing happen while he is on the ice – We have let it matter too much.

The United States of America puts God on its lowest paper currency; Canada puts a shinny game, the Royal Canadian Mint acutely aware of where Canadians worship.

It may be no coincidence that eight years ago, when the last NHL lockout was just under way, the CBC held a contest to determine the "Greatest Canadian," only to see a hockey coach, Don Cherry, finish seventh, ahead of the country's founding father, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald. Wayne Gretzky, a player, came 10th, ahead of Louis Riel, Peter Gzowski, Dr. Norman Bethune, Sir Isaac Brock, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and war hero Billy Bishop.

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Go figure. In a country where grown men have been known to weep while watching a Tim Hortons coffee commercial, it's pretty obvious that we have come to let a child's game dominate to a point where it is unhealthy, if not downright sick.

This owners' lockout, then – which is scheduled, and pretty much certain, to begin at midnight Saturday – can be seen as a welcome chance at healing rather than the national disaster some would portray it to be.

Edmonton will not slip down those high banks and drown in the North Saskatchewan River if downtown does not get that brand-new rink for the Oilers.

Quebec City will still have the country's best food and romantic walks whether or not it gets an NHL franchise back.

And Winnipeg, let us try to remember, was booming and thriving two years ago, well before the Thrashers became the Jets and relocated from Atlanta.

There is opportunity here:

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Canadian politicians can try for new metaphors. No one needs to "drop the gloves" in Question Period. The justice minister needn't be said to be "ragging the puck" when he fails to act. Liberal leadership rivals don't have to be "skating on thin ice" when they suggest twinning with the NDP.

Families will no longer need two televisions, one for Home and Garden TV, one for the sports channels. Who knows, last year's hockey addict might learn to do something with his hands other than open a beer?

Should there be a welcome ripple effect from no NHL, families may even discover children they didn't realize they had, youngsters who have interests other than hockey and do not require a parent and car for 6 a.m. practices and do not play on a competitive team that will dictate the parents' social lives from September to May.

Perhaps best of all, though, there will be a year free of hockey sound bites. A cliché-free zone that permits no more "I can only control what I can control" … "You can't get too high or too low" … "It is what it is" …

In fact, it isn't what it was once the lockout begins.

And rather than think of it as the end of the world, Canadians who have let their national game matter too much should see it as the beginning of a new world of possibilities.

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