The Surreal Agony of the NHL Lockout for Hockey Diehards

Fans are weathering the labor mess with fake games, foreign leagues, and communal angst.

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A pub near the home arena of the NHL's Vancouver Canucks invites lockout-weary hockey fans in for a drink. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

In "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," Jorge Louis Borges imagines a centuries-long conspiracy to create a planet that exists only on paper, a place so fully realized that it begins to revolt against the boundaries of its own artificiality. Three months into the National Hockey League's lockout, a sort of hockey Tlön is filling the empty space where this season might once have stood. At The Games That Weren't, a proprietary simulation formula allows for blow-by-blow online depictions—full game capsules, box scores, even—of games that aren't being played.

Clark Rasmussen, a Detroit Red Wings supporter and editor of DetroitHockey.net, started the fake league as a way to distract from the hockey's absence. "It lets me laugh about it a little bit, I think," said Rasmussen. "The anger part of it comes and goes, but at least this gives me something else to focus on." Hockey Tlön is not without its surprises. When Rasmussen and I spoke in late October, the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets were atop the Central Division standings.

The Games That Weren't may seem surreal, but too so does the lockout for hockey diehards—many of whom, like Rasmussen, are finding novel ways to cope. For these fans, this November is tough to take. It's not just that games aren't being played: This early in an NHL season, the games usually don't really matter. It's that the emotional thrill of hockey's return isn't there. So fans have to get it from somewhere else.

In Washington, Russian Machine Never Breaks has been the irreverent yet authoritative voice of Capitals' fandom, reveling in the sublime exploits of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, or—when the occasion calls for it, which is fairly often—talking Caps faithful off a ledge. If this were a normal season, site editor Ian Oland and his co-bloggers would be publishing game recaps and interviews, or attempting to blanket the Verizon Center with "game on" signs. Instead, after choosing not to focus on the intricacies of the labor dispute, RMNB has trained its attention on more distant rinks.

RMNB might be the only NHL fan site with a Moscow bureau—fortuitous in times like these. Russia-based blogger Fedor Fedin has kept close watch on Capitals prospects playing in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), translating news reports and interviews and giving Washington fans a sense of what the future might hold. This season, he's given Oland something of a KHL crash-course. The ice is Olympic-sized—much larger than the rinks used in the NHL. "Speed is very, very important in the KHL," he says. "There's a lot more open space ... it's much less physical."

And there are other idiosyncrasies too. "Fedor showed me that the goalie will come out for one of the teams and shovel coal into the net—for the team that has like, a coal thing in their name." (He's referring to HC Donbass, who play in Ukrainian coal country.) Oland says that in the Swedish league, Caps speedster Brooks Laich is his team's leading scorer, a distinction that entitles him to a special jersey and helmet with flames on the side.

With the NHL sidelined, foreign hockey has a teasing quality to it. Fans in Minsk or Astana get near-NHL-level hockey, while in Pittsburgh, autumn weeknights are chillingly empty.

"We really want to show our readers how it's going for Laich, how it's going for Ovi, how it's going for [Capitals prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov] so they can still feel like there's hockey, even if there isn't," Oland says.

Yet with the NHL sidelined, foreign hockey has a teasing quality to it. Fans in Minsk or Astana or Niznekamsk are treated to thrilling, near-NHL-level hockey, while in Pittsburgh, those autumn weeknights are chillingly empty.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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