For Canadians, hockey is the reward for winter. The long, cold months are endured -- enjoyed -- with the slap of stick on puck, the sharp scrape of blade on ice. Hockey is as much a part of the national character as maple syrup and royal Mounties.
So who would have guessed the reaction of most Canadians to the National Hockey League lockout: a giant national shrug.
"There's so much more to do anyhow, I don't really care that they're out," said Robin Jones, 59, a postman in Toronto.
"Haven't missed it," added Douglas Hynes, 37, who works in a Toronto disability program.
Response to the labor dispute that has canceled the start of the NHL season has been decidedly muted, in large part because fans are alienated by what they think big bucks have done to their national sport.
"It's all about money, money, money," Jones said. "It's a fight of billionaires against millionaires."
It also reflects a change in the nature of Canadians' leisure time, as hockey on television now competes with other offerings on the satellite dish, and alternative recreation opportunities draw more Canadians away from the tube.
"There are a lot of people turning their back on the sport already," said Jim Boone, a frustrated fan in Ottawa who started the NHL Fans Association. "They've found you can replace hockey with other things. People are mountain biking and taking walks."
Or taking up the sticks themselves. Jeff Warden, 43, skated off the ice of a community center ice rink in Toronto last week after a recreation league game for men over 35, unconcerned about the NHL.
"Let them sort it out. I'm going on with my life," the violin teacher said. He hardly has time to worry about the big leagues. On Mondays, his wife plays hockey in a local league. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he plays. On Saturdays, he coaches as his two boys, ages 6 and 9, play. And his schedule is not at all unusual in this hockey-mad country.
Shawn MacFarlane helps manage the rink. The ice is full every night with hockey games for anyone from 5 year olds to octogenarians, he said. Municipal-run ice rinks are as common in Canada as playgrounds in the United States. On Fridays, his night off, MacFarlane comes back to the rink to play on one of the teams.
"We're a mecca for hockey," he boasted of Toronto.
This enduring passion for the sport is, ironically, one cause of Canadians' ambivalence about the NHL lockout, which began on Sept. 16, about a month before the season was to begin. They see the wrangling by the players and owners over huge salaries as a mockery of their pure love for the sport.
"Maybe the lockout will be good for the sport, to remind them it's not all about money," said David Tiessen, 32, a student.
"Look at us," said Frank Fernandez, 38, who works for a paint company and plays in local leagues three seasons a year. "Hockey is our blood. We pay $300 to come down here to play 10 games. We pay because we love the game. Those NHL guys have forgotten that."
The stars of hockey used to be working-class guys who skated in the winter and held down other jobs in the summer. Now, the lowest-paid NHL player -- Chris Taylor of the Buffalo Sabres -- earns $455,000 a season. Top players earn up to $8 million. The average is $1.2 million a year, and most Canadians cannot understand the players' contention that the salary is too low to play.
"Give me just a hundred grand a year. I'll play, and pick up the tape afterwards, and sharpen their skates and never complain," MacFarlane said. "No one is in favor of the players' demands."
Canada owns all three major men's titles -- the Olympics, the world championship and the World Cup of Hockey. But fans' direct contact with the NHL game is getting more distant as the prices of seats at a game, parking and concessions have skyrocketed. Fans blame those prices on high player salaries.
"Frankly, it's too expensive to take the kids to a game. If you go with the family, you're going to spend $600 for the night, with tickets and all," Warden said. "It's better to sit in front of the TV with popcorn."
And for 50 years, that is what Canada has been doing. Every Saturday night last year, an average of 1.2 million televisions were turned on to CBC's "Hockey Night in Canada." The public network starts the evening at 6:30 with pregame talk shows, marches through a game between two eastern teams and then a game of western teams, talks about them more, and finally replays it all until 3 a.m. It is a lot of hockey, and the CBC has been doing it on radio and since the early days of television.
"There are really very few things in Canada that tie the entire country together, but this is one of them," Boone said of his fans association. "I can go down the road and it's another culture, or cross the river and it's French. We argue about so many things. We're so diverse. But the one thing that people have complete consensus on is Saturday night hockey.
To try to keep the viewing habit going during the lockout, CBC replaced the hockey games each Saturday with three films it calls blockbuster movies, although they are more like golden oldies. Last Saturday, it was "Jaws," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Dinosaur," and this weekend, films of similar vintage were scheduled, including "Blazing Saddles."
Other media are similarly thrashing about for suitable substitutes. The spectrum of radio and TV hockey talk-show hosts kept it up for a while, chewing over the legal angles of the lockout, but have finally moved on to other sports or signed off the air. The newspaper sports pages are doing features on Canadian stars playing in such places as Linkoping, Sweden -- more than 200 NHL players have fled to the European leagues.
The Toronto Star newspaper hired a computer simulations company to create a virtual season. (Computers are fast. The season is over. The New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup.) The rival National Post newspaper is drawing it out in a low-tech way. The paper rolls the dice to determine who wins each scheduled game, and reports the daily standings as if the season were still on. (The Toronto Maples Leafs are tied for first.) The latest edition of the Hockey News offered a "Lockout Survival Guide: 29 Ways to Maintain Your Sanity."
Some sports commentators, looking at the damage caused by long strikes in other sports, fret that this lockout may doom NHL hockey. Ruth-Ellen Soles, a CBC spokeswoman, says her "gut" tells her it won't happen.
"The passion for hockey is something deeply ingrained in this nation's psyche," she said. "The fans may be angry or frustrated or disappointed. But I cannot imagine that anybody who is a hockey fan will not be there watching when the game goes back on."