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Wednesday, July 14, 2004
NHL acting like it's business as usual

By Ray Ratto
Special to ESPN.com

The National Hockey League released its schedule of games that won't be played this coming winter, and it might be the best crypto-slate of games ever.

One thousand, two hundred thirty non-events, plus 80 some-odd ethereal playoff games, affecting 900 or so soon-to-be-out-of-work players, 30 head coaches and their staffs, 30 general managers, their executive secretaries and their coffee-fetching interns, 100-some-odd owners and their coffee-fetching general managers, and all the stadium workers in the 30 arenas where the games will not be played.

Oh, and whoever takes over for Andy Van Hellemond, the league's former supervisor of officials and rolling ATM.

There already have been 130 transactions since the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup for the Confederacy, and four new coaches have been hired. What and who they are going to coach has not yet been determined because of the laughable labor/management impasse, but let's put it to you these two ways:

One, Joe Thornton has signed a deal to play for a team in the Swiss league.

Two, Cale Hulse is marrying one of those profoundly pneumatic Baywatch women (and since the names of women on Baywatch aren't necessarily what's memorable, it could be Condoleezza Rice, Mary-Louise Parker or Kathy Bates for all we know), and the honeymoon runs right into training camp.

Now I don't know how things work in your house, but I'd be willing to bet that if you were marrying a member of the Baywatch cast, changing the date so you can skate windsprints for Rick Bowness is probably a deal breaker.

So what strikes us here is that while the league is doing business as usual, with the single exception of the Van Hellemond Savings & Loan, the players are pretty much thinking the season's been tagged and bagged.

And while watching Billy Wirtz in goal and Charlie Dolan getting drilled in front of the net seems like a mildly amusing vision for some, it doesn't seem likely to generate a lot of ancillary television interest.

Think of the World Series of Poker for the Hopelessly Forgetful, if you need a corollary.

But until the league issued the 2004-05 schedule Wednesday, the ludicrous developments of the summer really didn't hit home.

I mean, what kind of glue stick are they huffing here? Dennison? Uhu? Elmer's? Have they gone straight to the stuff you use for model airplanes?

Are we supposed to get excited for the first Tampa Bay Lightning-Calgary Flames Stanley Cup finals replay that won't get replayed? Do they think we're going to ask for multiple credentials to see Tom Renney coach the ludicrously forlorn New York Rangers from scratch? Is there a great TV opportunity in the first time the San Jose Sharks play against Mike Ricci? Can the CBC do something really cool and artsy with Bryan Murray coaching his 22nd NHL team?

Well, on the off chance that they can't, we can only assume that the league wanted to grab its arena dates while it could, and help the 30 traveling secretaries get their hotel rooms blocked off, because Lord knows nobody else is biting here.

The league, in fact, has been maintaining its solid slot on the wave of iniquity it has been riding most of the year. Or did you forget that British Columbia is pressing charges against Todd Bertuzzi for his coldcocking of Steve Moore? Or did the story of Van Hellemond allegedly borrowing money from some of the officials he supervised skip by you while you were waiting for Kobe Bryant to make someone else miserable?

But somehow, the schedule is supposed to serve not only as one of those legal formalities in the 100 percent chance that the labor/management thing ends up in court, but as a gift to us all that it's business as usual in HockeyWorld.

So good for the league for crossing the I's and dotting the T's. Still, come October when the schedule says the season is starting and there are no games, someone's going to notice.

Say, like all of Canada. And you know how Canadians like to blab bad news all over hell.

In the meantime, you have only 61 shopping days before the collective bargaining agreement expires, and 80 days until the season doesn't start. So get your shopping done early, and remember:

Beer and chips can keep awhile. Coldcuts usually don't. Purchase accordingly.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com