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NHL STILL OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND

You know spring has arrived once the NCAA Tournament is completed and we turn our attention to the Masters. The NFL draft is just around the bend, so pretty soon we'll be neck deep in minicamps. The Red Sox and Yankees effectively kicked off baseball season. The NBA playoffs are only a whisper away.

And I could have sworn the sun was shining all weekend.

My intentions today are not to tear you away from these fascinating facts but to deliver this little shred of news: The final eight games tumbled off the National Hockey League's master schedule Sunday. The Sabres would have ended their regular season Saturday against the Maple Leafs in what might have been a playoff tuneup.

Anybody notice? Or, better yet, anybody care?

You've had months to digest the facts, how the NHL became the first professional sports league to wipe out an entire season over labor strife, how the boneheads of the boardrooms shared neither enough common sense nor common ground to save the sport from massive self-destruction.

Now that it's officially gone, ask yourself: Self, what did I miss?

Well, you missed watching overpaid stiffs such as Alexei Yashin gross $103,439 per game, which amounted to $560,000 per goal or $247,058 per point based on his 2003-04 stats. You missed the likes of Bobby Holik and Jaromir Jagr collect nearly $20 million combined while sleepskating through the neutral zone.

How did we survive without them?

You missed spending some $200 when the tickets, nachos and parking were included for a 2 1/2 -hour game that generated about $20 worth of excitement. You missed the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Nashville Predators on March 22 and the roughly 615 other siestas that were certain to accompany the 1,230 games that make up the regular season, confirming that killing the season wasn't half bad.

This area is supposedly a hockey hotbed. More kids are playing than ever, but other than a couple of scrums between the owners and the players, hockey wasn't even close to being the top story this winter. Niagara's men and Canisius' women reached the NCAAs. Niagara Falls High won a state championship and finished near the top of the national basketball polls. The University at Buffalo had a great season in hoops.

But you yearned for the Sabres' power play? Yawn.

Even in Canada, the motherland of the muckers, people simply turned their attention to the junior and youth hockey leagues.

Granted, there's nothing like the buzz in anticipation of the NHL playoffs. There is no hockey better than playoff hockey, but fans have been absent outrage over the absence of the postseason, too. Just because the NHL had the best players in the world didn't mean it played the best hockey in the world. College hockey is far more exciting than the average NHL game.

That's where players and owners have missed the boat. They like to think the NHL is fourth among the major sports, but right now I'd say it's closer to 40th. People long ago washed their hands of this league and moved on with their lives. They opened their eyes to a world without the NHL.

And what they found, in many ways, was a better place.

The scary part for the NHL is not that people are angry at the league and its locked-out players. It's that fans have grown indifferent. They don't care when the labor dispute gets settled. Take away the die-hards from the strong hockey markets, and many people don't care if the labor dispute gets settled.

By the way, the two sides met again last week. Anybody notice? Anybody care?

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com