Winter not nice without NHL on ice

MIAMI -- With NHL arenas shut this past winter, something was missing this offseason for Mike Piazza, Larry Walker, Eric Gagne and Tom Glavine.

Growing up watching the Broad Street Bullies -- the two-time Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers of the mid '70s -- Piazza was among many major leaguers who felt hockey withdrawal because of the NHL lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season.

"One of the first games I went to was against the California Golden Seals," said Piazza, who collects hockey jerseys and counts Montreal Canadiens defenseman Sheldon Souray among his close friends. "I love hockey. This has been frustrating for everybody, fans and players alike. It's a shame."

He's far from alone among ballplayers.

Mets teammate Tom Glavine, a Billerica, Mass., native who was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings, has been a key figure in baseball's labor negotiations. The pitcher experienced firsthand the damage baseball suffered from the 1994 strike and feels hockey is in a much more vulnerable position with its fan base.

"I missed being able to take my kids down there because they enjoyed going to the games," said Glavine, who lives outside of Atlanta. "So there was a definite void this winter, not being able to see it and go to it. It's unfortunate and you just hope that they get something done here before it starts creeping into next season, and you have to through it again next year."

As a childhood left wing who dabbled in goaltending while growing up in Michigan, it's fitting that Boston catcher Jason Varitek had the captain's "C" added to the left chest of his Red Sox jersey when he re-signed with the World Series champions.

"I'm not a die-hard hockey fan, but I enjoy hockey," Varitek said. "I know a lot of people who have missed it. I know I'd be watching it in a couple of weeks when they'd have come to the playoffs. I don't know how many times we were in Toronto and the Leafs were in the playoffs, and that was always pretty cool. It's very different."

Gagne and Walker, both born north of the border, need no introduction to "Hockey Night in Canada."

Gagne lived out a childhood dream in his hometown of Montreal when he was given a standing ovation prior to a Canadiens game at the Bell Centre after winning the NL Cy Young Award in 2003.

Now that he makes his offseason home in Arizona, the one-time defenseman found plenty of other things to do to overcome his favorite sport's lost winter

"I watched movies a lot," the Los Angeles Dodgers closer said. "There's a lot to do in Phoenix. You don't have to worry about freezing your butt off. It's not as hard as going out in Montreal."

"I was outside a lot, playing with the kids. It's not really a void, but I just enjoy the games so much that I wanted to see some games," he said.

Walker, a native of Maple Ridge, British Columbia., joked that he'd racked up a lot of frequent-flyer miles over the winter traveling to Sweden to get his pro hockey fix.

While the former goalie didn't actually miss the game to that extent, he did check in with Colorado Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote a few times in December when negotiations were coming to a crunch.

Though he was sorry to see NHL commissioner Gary Bettman ultimately cancel the season, the St. Louis outfielder thought a radically shortened season would have been a farce.

"I'm glad they did instead of trying to save it for a couple of weeks," Walker said. "What's the point, are you going to have a Stanley Cup playoff after two weeks? ... There's always going to be that asterisk by that team if they win.

"Just get rid of it and start from scratch and get things settled. These things happen in everybody's job, it's not just sport. You just have to gut your way through it," he said.

Umpire Ed Rapuano was a fan of the Eastern Hockey League's New Haven Blades growing up in New England. Living in South Florida, his love for the game now has him following the fate of the Florida Panthers while he keeps an eye out for his friend, NHL linesman Stephane Prevost.

"We played golf early this winter and he had no idea what was going to happen," Rapuano said. "I just feel bad. If baseball wanted to shut down, I'd be in big trouble. I'd have to go find work to support my family, and I'm sure Stephane's doing that."

Piazza, who met his new bride, Alicia, through Souray and his wife, actress Anjelica Bridges, said he could envision taking on another job -- on the blue line.

"You know what, I truly believe that if I played about six months and got my wind that I could be a pretty good defenseman," the Mets' star catcher said.

"I could move the bodies around a little bit in front of the net, though I've got to work on skating backwards a little bit. I'm like Sheldon, with a better shot," he said.