For the second time in 10 years, the National Hockey League has closed its doors. In 1994, we were a nation unprepared -- how do you fill the void of turning the TV on once or twice a winter for five minutes or so to watch a game? -- but, this time around, I'm taking a different tack:

Like the fine folks of Raleigh, N.C., who don't even know they have an NHL team there, I'm going to pretend like we don't have two NHL teams here in Los Angeles.

(That's right -- two hockey teams in L.A. You can't find a decent bagel or slice of pizza in this town, but on any given night, you can find a traffic jam and a power play.)

(By the way, what are my good friends in Canada going to do without the NHL? Taking hockey away from Canada is like taking a garter belt away from Madonna. Canadians aren't as diversified in their interests as Americans; minus hockey, we easily adapt to other leisurely pursuits, such as street violence, "The Apprentice" and war in Iraq.)

Anyway, the NHL locked out its players last week -- which might result in the cancellation of the entire season -- and the key issue appears to be money.

(Best I can tell, the key issue in America always is money, dating from the Continental Congress, when John Hancock -- believing he was overcharged -- angrily tried to return a quill pen to a South Philadelphia stationery shop. Alas, Hancock did not have his receipt, so the shop owner told him to hit the bricks.)

Without taking sides here, I must say that NHL salaries do seem a bit out of whack.

NHL players earn an average of $1.8 million per season; tarot card readers earn an average of $20 per reading, plus tips. And, pray tell, which group is fulfilling a greater social need?

In Colorado, the Avalanche pays Peter Forsberg $11 million annually, Joe Sakic $9.9 million and Rob Blake $9.3 million. Are you kidding me? Now, if Forsberg had discovered plutonium, or invented the snooze button, then I can see him commanding 10 mil, maybe $10.5 million, but all he does is score an occasional goal in front of a bunch of maladjusted people drinking lukewarm Coors Light in a cup.

Earth to the NHLPA: You're hockey players. Take off your skates, and what are you then? Field hockey players. Nobody watches you on TV. The only thing that could lower NHL ratings is if you replaced the hockey puck with a soccer ball.

Frankly, NHL players have all the leverage of a PETA member at a cattle ranch.

(Some locked-out players are expected to sign with European leagues, others are hastily making dental appointments before their health coverage expires.)

(Heisman Update: Hawaii's inimitable Timmy Chang, in his first two games this season, was 38 of 66 for 302 yards and 34 of 50 for 363 yards. Chang throws such a tight spiral, you could serve afternoon tea on it.)

Meanwhile, NHL owners have a $300 million war chest to survive a long stoppage. This sounds good on paper, but have you ever tried withdrawing that type of cash? Heck, Bank of America charges me every time I speak to a teller; if I actually want to get some of my money, they demand a court order and two stanzas of "O Solo Mio."

Besides, NHL owners aren't the sharpest skates in the shed. At the moment, there's a hockey team in Nashville; this is the equivalent of putting a tomato patch in a meat locker.

The owners, who say that 20 of 30 teams lost money last season and that 75 percent of revenues go to player salaries, want to institute some type of salary cap, or what they call "cost certainty."

(This was the key issue that closed down my favorite southern Nevada brothel in summer 1998.)

So we are faced with another bleak winter without Panthers-Thrashers partials on ESPNews.

Not to mention, what are newspapers supposed to do without NHL standings and stats? My friends, I've got two words for you: Poker agate!

Ask The Slouch

Q. Who's to blame for that whole player-fan bedlam that broke out in the Texas Rangers' bullpen in Oakland? (Josh Krieger; Egg Harbor, N.J.)

A. Sports talk radio, Jerry Springer, "Diehard 2," a sports-driven culture obsessed with coddling jocks from adolescence, the Internet, Vince McMahon, Rotisserie League geeks, Little League dads, soccer moms, Spike TV, deer hunting season in Minnesota, "SportsCenter," manifest destiny and probably Bill O'Reilly.

Q. How will Martha Stewart survive in prison? (Geoff Springer; Houston)

A. The federal women's prison she's most likely to be sent to -- in Danbury, Conn. -- has a cable package that includes Home & Gardening TV and Fox Sports Net.

Q. What's it like to know everything? (Al Moore; Los Alamos, N.M.)

A. It's a far greater burden than you can possibly imagine.

You, too, can enter the $1.25 Ask The Slouch Cash Giveaway. E-mail asktheslouch@aol.com and, if your question is used, you win $1.25 in cash!