STEPHEN BRUNT

It's Christmas Day for puckheads

Toronto — The Globe and Mail

Peter Puck (new version)

Gather 'round the hearth, folks. Keep the kids home from school. Put a turkey in the oven. Because this, and not Family Day - or whatever it is called in its various regional permutations - is Canada's great made-up mid-winter respite, an excuse to daydream, to goof off, to invest a little less time and attention in the tasks at hand, because at any moment until the clock strikes the fateful hour, something might happen.

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That something, on trade deadline day, often doesn't add up to much in the grand scheme of things, even if the grand scheme is limited to the NHL and the late-season/postseason fate of its franchises.

You would think from all of the hubbub that deals made in the 11th hour have routinely been the final, vital ingredient for championship teams, but truth is that's not necessarily so. The vast majority of the transactions involve bit players and minor pieces, and the end result is at least as important to teams that aren't going anywhere right now, that are clearing out deadwood and creating cap space to build for playoff runs still years away.

But that's not the point.

The point is, there is an appetite, apparently insatiable until proved otherwise, among those who care passionately about hockey, for more talk, for more information, for more analysis, for more stuff to fill the hours not covered by the preseason, the regular season, the postseason, the mid-summer free-agent market and whatever international games might be added to the calendar.

Other sports are followed passionately here and around the planet. Other games inspire an obsessive interest in even the most trivial details. And talk about sport has always had almost as much entertainment value as the games themselves.

Still, there is really no point of comparison, not in North America, not anywhere beyond that, not in football or basketball or baseball or soccer. Whether committed hockey fans are in fact more committed than their confrères who follow other sports, or whether they've been conditioned by TSN and others to respond like Pavlov's dogs is an open question: what isn't is the fact that deadline day works to a degree that the NHL brain trust could never have imagined, that it is still growing, and that even as networks and newspapers and websites and radio stations jump on board, there is no objective evidence that the point of overkill is even close to being reached.

Perhaps an argument can be made that first real evidence of sports fans' willingness to tune in en masse for something that doesn't resemble the actual sport at all was in fact the daylong gab-fest that is the NFL draft, when hours upon hours of talk are broken occasionally by brief announcements and handshakes at a podium.

There's a difference, though. On NFL draft day, or any draft day for that matter, there is at least the absolute certainty that the much anticipated will actually happen. The players are going to get picked eventually, trades will take place, the big names from college ball will be assigned to pro teams. It just takes an awfully long time.

The NHL's trade deadline day offers no such assurance, and the absence of anything truly newsworthy is always a possibility. This year, with so many deals for the most recognizable talent having been done in the days leading up to the big event, there is an awful lot riding on the possibility that some of the very few biggish names still in play (Brad Richards, Chris Phillips, Ales Hemsky….) will actually change teams, or that some general manager will come up with an earth-shaking deal that hasn't been posited in all of the pre-deadline speculation.

Still, the audience will be there, regardless. The layers of panels and panelists will opine. Rumours will fly. And a year from now, it will be bigger, with more bells, more whistles, at a time of years when the hockey season used to be mired in the pre-stretch-drive doldrums.

You will be watching, or listening, or surfing. You cannot help yourself. It's February. It's Monday. It's the perfect escape, the perfect vacation, or at least the perfect excuse to unleash the imagination.

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