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Wednesday, July 28, 2004
Making cents of the nonsense

By Ray Ratto
Special to ESPN.com

Sexier than the Kobe Bryant story! Weirder than the Ricky Williams story! More tooth-grindingly exasperating than the Willie Williams story! Less pointlessly repetitive than the Randy Johnson trade story! More stunningly tedious than the NFL training camps open story!

Yes, it's the NHL arbitration season opens story, and if you thought hockey didn't already have enough to apologize for this offseason, well, wrong-o, Chops.

As we know from our reading, arbitration is the system of settling contract disputes the owners of a sport devise when sawing off your leg isn't an option. The owners learn to hate arbitration because it doesn't do what they want it to do -- namely, persuade the players to work for tips.

This case, though, is special because the NHL is trying to hone its self-destructive skills by blowing up the game to prove the point that it can't hose the players without a codified system, otherwise known as a salary cap.

To that end, these arbitration cases are scheduled to settle contracts for players who won't be playing this season because there won't be a season.

It is the last exercise of the old system, the one that the owners negotiated in good faith with the union and now decide is so onerous that the sport must be purged of the games that make the system necessary.

What we're trying to say here, then, is that since the arbitration decisions are being made in some sort of parallel universe arrangement, the arbitrators may as well do pretty much whatever the hell they want. No harm, after all, no foul.

"Two-point-five million dollars? God, that's not nearly enough. Take $6 million, and don't forget to flip off the general manager on your way out the door."

Or: "Two-point-five million dollars? God, why don't you cut out all the ambiguity and wear a ski mask? It's $47,500, and be thankful you're not working for free."

Or: "All right, one hand, five-card draw. Win, and it's $2.55 million. Lose, and it's lovely parting gifts and a summer job at Home Depot. OK, Sheila, let's ROLL 'em."

Or: "All right, let's all hold hands, close our eyes and go to a quiet, peaceful place, and ask ourselves, 'What would Gretzky do?' "

Or: "Put the money on the table right here. OK, on the count of three, you're going to fight for it."

Or: "What the hell have either of you done to merit this money? You're not even playing next year. Sheila, take the money, put it in this bag and book that flight for Trinidad. We're striking a blow for judicial activism right here and now."

Instead, everyone is going to pretend that this is serious business, part of the day-to-day operation of a business that actually wants to be a business. Never mind the players and owners, how much fun can this be for an arbitrator? It's like buying paint to remodel a room you don't have, and instead of making important decisions based on fact and persuasion, the arbitrator is making nonsense decisions based on ... well, who cares, frankly? It's all nonsense.

And this is the NHL's biggest problem at this critical juncture of its existence -- proving to those people who like and even love the game that this summer isn't going to be as laughably stupid and willfully reckless as everyone seems hell-bent on making it.

It has bumbled through a horrifying offseason, one in which the league all but had to apologize for a great playoff season, and absolutely had to apologize for assaults, a murder-for-hire plot and the strike that even Bud Selig would call criminally dangerous.

And all the pro forma activities that pretend all is well -- the amateur draft, the release of the schedule, and now arbitration happy hour, just make it look all the more ridiculous.

So here's to the arbitrators, making $500 or $1,000 or $1,500 an hour to decide contracts for a season that won't be played. It's not substantial work, or even useful work for that matter, but you know what it is?

The kid's orthodontia. A boat payment. That unscheduled trip to Trinidad with Sheila.

So maybe something good is coming of this after all.

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