By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Editor's Note: This article appears in the February 14 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

During a dinner at Sonny McLean's last week, my personal highlight wasn't the various toasts, the tasty buffalo wings, the one guy who inexplicably brought his girlfriend, or even our waitress's reaction to her $110 tip (we couldn't figure out how to split a $290 check 18 ways). My favorite moment was when Eli suddenly griped, "You know what's killing me? This NHL lockout!"

At first we all thought he was kidding. I even gave him a courtesy laugh. But he looked fairly distraught. "Wait a second," I said. "You're joking, right?"

"No, I miss watching the B's," he replied. "The whole thing sucks."

I mention this for two reasons. First, you know a sport has reached "Code Red!" status when it shuts down for a long time, someone in a large group mentions dissatisfaction about that shutdown and everyone assumes he's kidding. And second: readers send me hundreds and hundreds of sports-related e-mails each day. Plus, all my friends like sports except two -- Fanning and Ricky, and they made up for that by watching "Boogie Nights" with me 39 times in the summer of '98. When I meet someone, the conversation invariably turns to sports. Point is, not once in the past five months have I heard someone say anything that remotely approaches, "You know what's killing me? This NHL lockout!"

Imagine if the NFL tried to pull this. Say we're reading stories next August like "NFL Owners to Union: No Deal." Wouldn't there be rioting, like after the Rodney King verdicts? I could see leading a massive protest outside Paul Tagliabue's headquarters -- 10 times more belligerent than Brandon Walsh leading the "Donna Martin graduates!" chant-until they had to use tear gas, Dobermans and Ed Hochuli to take me down. But with the NHL's lockout, the apathy has been startling. Wasn't this once a major sport? Why don't we care?

Even hockey diehards -- a dying breed right up there with Eddie Murphy fans and handlebar-mustache fans -- seem to agree this lockout is for the best. And that's a little weird, because we're not talking the WNBA here, where only a tiny segment of people will pay to watch the games. People like hockey. Sure, most of them live in Canada, where Bryan Adams is an icon, but there's still an audience. And we are all victims of a once-likable league that screwed itself up beyond repair, the same way you screw up a relationship by drunk-dialing too many times. The NHL made two unforgivable mistakes: expanding more recklessly than Krispy Kreme and paying their players way, way, way too much money. It was a lethal combination of greed and sheer stupidity.

This was a blue-collar sport for middle-class fans -- a quality dive bar with one good TV, a few solid beers on tap and a ballbusting bartender named Fitzy. Then they tried to retool into an upscale joint with $15 beers and bartenders in bow ties. Suddenly, the price of NHL tickets rivaled that of the NFL and the NBA. Does that make sense? Would the WWE charge $200 for a WrestleMania pay-per-view? Would Jeff Foxworthy charge $150 a seat for the "You Might Be a Redneck 2005" comedy tour? How could the NHL misunderstand its audience so badly?

Now the owners are pushing for massive pay cuts and a salary cap. It's like dropping 10 grand in a casino and then calling for the abolition of blackjack. Still, it's the right idea. I believe NHL players should make $10 an hour, maybe $12. And we should be able to buy two tickets, park, throw down some beers and dogs and brawl in the bathroom for no more than $70 per person. Everyone would live happily ever after.

Tragically, the owners lack the resolve and leadership to undo the damage. Basically, they need to bring on a hockey apocalypse and start over. Since that will never happen, hockey is doomed.

And that leaves an opening for the Fourth Major Team Sport. One of my readers (Dan from New York) argues that MTV's Real World/Road Rules Battle of the Sexes can take the spot: "I know a lot more about these athletes than the Eastern Europeans on strike." I'm with Dan. I can barely spell Teemu Selanne [Editor's note: he's Northern European, but you get the idea] much less pick him out of a lineup, but I can write 3,000 words on freaking Arissa sneaking into the women's Final 3.

Still, my vote goes to letting Vince McMahon retool his XFL idea for hockey: low costs, cool cameras, snazzy uniforms, identifiable gimmicks, fights galore. I'm telling you, the XHL can't miss.

And if he ever canceled a season, you can bet there'd be more than one person saying, "You know what's killing me? This XHL lockout!"

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.