PNC ARENA—In 1944, the poet William Carlos Williams published a crucial book called “The Wedge.” Wartime conservation had shut down his regular publisher, New Directions, so the tiny Cummington Press brought it out in an edition of 380, which was all the paper they could get their mitts on during the war. Williams’ famed preface opens with a blunt acknowledgement of the international—and individual—situation: “The War is the first and only thing in the world today.”

Jeff Skinner shoveled in the Canes only goal in a frustrating 4-1 loss to Tampa in the Canes home opener.
  • Photo by Chris Baird
  • Jeff Skinner shoveled in the Canes’ only goal in a frustrating 4-1 loss to Tampa in the Canes’ home opener.

This sentence should be adapted and drilled into the minds of all hockey players: “The Lockout is the first and only thing in the rink today.”

Paint it over the locker room doorways. Tape it on the weight room ceiling over the bench press.

Fans certainly know that sentence. They chanted it during the third period of the Canes’ 4-1 home-opening loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Except, translated into the language of competitive frustration and economic hardship, it sounded like boos.

Sports is not an escape from daily life anymore. There will be no patience while the multi-millionaires figure their game out. They work for us, after all.

Back in the early weeks of the lockout in September, fans sided with the players. Hockey fans are overwhelmingly workers, not captains of industry. So: screw the owners, the players actually sweat and hit and play the games; pay them. Even well-heeled fans like to adopt hockey’s blue-collar identity. Though very few of us pull on work gloves and shape raw materials into goods anymore, we still ascribe labor’s nobility to our hockey players.

But as ignominious months ticked off, and especially as the scheduled start of the regular season passed, that nobility drained away. November’s near-resolution was torturous. It broke that nobility. These guys weren’t workers like us anymore.

Eric Staal was slated to make $8.5 million this year. How many rent or mortgage payments is that, for you? Pre-lockout, Cam Ward was due $6.4 million. Right before the stoppage, Jordan Staal signed a 10-year, $60 million contract and Alexander Semin signed for a year at $7 million. And although it was obvious that a negotiated percentage would be lopped off of those numbers, even the least insightful reporters were using the phrase “millionaires arguing with millionaires” by November.

Certainly, last night, all 18,680 fans in the sold-out house were happy to be there. But they weren’t happy for long, because the lockout is the first and only thing in the rink today.

Just five minutes in, Eric Staal, Semin, and Drayson Bowman were cycling the puck in the Tampa end. An anticipatory sound rose in the crowd as the pressure built. Then Semin shied away from a loose puck in the corner as hulking defender Victor Hedman came in for it and the chance that was building vanished. A certain kind of exhalation came from the crowd.

This was Semin’s third or fourth shift in front of his new home crowd. In other years, we’d all identify with him: ‘Hey, that was Hedman, the guy’s a monster.’ This year that dissipating sound was saying: ‘I paid a couple hundred dollars for tickets, which pays your $7 million contract, and the lockout is the first and only thing in the rink today.’

But the play continued. Tampa took the puck the other way as Matt Carle chopped a quick pass off the boards to Vincent Lecavalier just as the forward was cutting toward the Carolina blueline. Seeing that he wasn’t going to beat the two Canes defenders to the goal, Lecavalier veered laterally across the top of the zone toward the boards, buying time, drawing a defender out to mark him. His head up, Lecavalier timed a long toss to the goal that arrived as linemate Tom Pyatt did. Outpacing young Bobby Sanguinetti to the net, Pyatt got enough of his stick on an unsettled puck to get it over Ward’s pad for a 1-0 lead.

Just after the midpoint of the period, Lecavalier made things happen again. Ward administered a solid chop across the back of Cory Conacher’s legs as he pursued the puck behind the Canes’ net. But Conacher took immediate vengeance by circling back to the crease to clean up a rebound after Lecavalier walked the puck out of the corner for a stuff attempt.

The rink went almost quiet for the remainder of the period. It wasn’t the restless “maybe” under-sound that a crowd makes as it sustains or summons a doubtful hope. It was a crowd thinking that the Canes had been thumped Saturday night in Florida and were already down 2-0 here. And that they had to get up and go to work the next morning. It was a crowd thinking about the exits in the first period, because the lockout is the first and only thing in the rink today.

Carolina showed up in the second period. Tampa took two boarding penalties, affording the Canes a 14-second two-man advantage. Six seconds after the first Lightning player returned, but before he could really enter the play, the Canes got on the board.

With four forwards on the power play, the puck was moved quickly around the perimeter and through the slot to the opposite side, forcing goalie Mathieu Garon to move. Semin smacked a shot off the post early in the advantage. Garon got in front of a similar Semin shot but Jordan Staal was there to bat at the rebound. After Garon went down in desperation, the puck slid to the side of the crease where Jeff Skinner patiently shoveled a backhander over the goalie’s pad.

Skinner’s goal gave Semin and the younger Staal their first points with Carolina. And although that hopeful, “maybe” crowd sound gained intensity throughout a well played period, those assists would be the offensive stars’ only points on the night.

Just 90 seconds into the third period, the game got away. After winning a faceoff in the Lightning zone, the Canes muffed the pass between their defenders and the puck slid into the neutral zone. Their shoulders drooped, the defensemen succumbed to disappointment at having let the puck get away, rather than trying to retrieve it.

Tampa pursued it with instant vigor, however, and play carried to the Canes’ end. Brendan Mikkelson won a puck off of the end boards and found Keith Aulie high in the zone, and Aulie walked unmarked to the dot before beating Ward high for a 3-1 lead. In just four periods of work, Ward’s shoulders have been terribly susceptible to a shooter with that much time to aim.

It was a miserable but familiar sequence. These lapses of intensity have been excusable in previous years. You can’t be going 100% for 100% of the time—none of us lives our life like that. But last night there was no sighing or head-shaking. There was shouting. The players’ lives are not our lives. We work all month to pay our month’s expenses. You play hockey for millions. The lockout is the first and only thing in the rink today.

Ryan Malone added a goal later on and the crowd sound changed to that of putting on coats and shoes on stairs. One fan below press row shouted, “Ward, you suck!” drawing half-hearted ire from those around him.

Both of the Staal brothers and coach Kirk Muller uttered their variations on “there’s no reason to panic yet” into microphones after the game. But their faces were grim, their voices quiet and their eyes lowered. It’s the weight of the lockout, pushing everything down.

Millions and millions of dollars turn out to be awfully heavy if you can’t win a game.