Nothing's worse than a restless puckhead community

11/16/2006 - NHL

The outrage was palpable.

Headlines screamed for solutions. TV personalities sketched out their schemes. Radio talk shows absorbed the usual long line of callers with questions and comments.

Midterm congressional elections? No.

Simmering debate over the state of the ozone layer? No.

Concern over whether K-Fed will find love again? No.

It was the schedule, dude. The NHL schedule.

If you feel as though you missed the storm, don't be concerned. It happily was contained within the hard-core hockey community, most of which is bracing for winter north of the Canada-U.S. border (the rest exists in cultlike pockets of George Bush's America).

Was there a real issue at hand? One supposes that was the case. Certainly the nature of NHL scheduling had caused a general manager or two to complain about his team's travel burden or the fact a specific star or a specific team wasn't coming to his building this season.

Every team had its preferences. The league's general managers did their best to turn it into a live story, but when they sat down to debate it last week in Toronto, nothing even remotely close to a consensus emerged.

Vancouver wanted Alexander Ovechkin to come more often. The Maple Leafs would like to take the odd trip to Western Canada. Carolina prefers never to play any team north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The Islanders asked for 30 more home games so as to more easily pay for Rick DiPietro's crazy new contract. The Kings will agree to play the Ducks only if they add the "Mighty" back to their name. And so on.

So, no solution emerged.

Still, it was the intensity of the debate -- and again, we're talking about the puckhead community here, not normal folks -- that was startling.

Folks were so upset by which teams were playing which other teams on which nights, you would have thought that Hunter S. Thompson (on one of his crazy days) had drawn up the schedule or that Gary Bettman had decided doubleheaders were the way to go.

Why so much angst over the schedule?

Well, probably for one simple reason.

These days, there's precious little else to debate, and nothing makes a hockey fan more unhappy or more restless than being under the impression all is well with the game.

The vulcanized rubber society, you see, just loves to pick at the sport like a scab that never heals. If there's no major problem to be discussed, well, these folks can turn something small into a catastrophe as quickly as you can say Hal Gill.

Thus, the huge arguments over the schedule.

Otherwise, given the mad chaos before and after the labor-management strife that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season, it really feels as if the NHL has gone into hibernation mode, at least in terms of captivation or controversial stories.

If it were any quieter, you'd think the entire league was playing before one of those teeny crowds in the Meadowlands or St. Louis these days.


" With the union thoroughly whipped and Bob Goodenow sent packing, there are no ongoing labor problems. The league loves the players and the players, without quite as much enthusiasm, apparently love the league.

If there's any friction, it's between players and players, as new NHLPA executive director Ted Saskin continues to try to stare down an insurgency led by Edmonton goalie Dwayne Roloson and Detroit blueliner Chris Chelios.

And there isn't a hockey fan in North America who gives a hoot.

" Bettman apparently has no plans to depart a la Paul Tagliabue anytime soon, and he hasn't felt the need to remind players to leave their guns at home.

" No NHLer is before a court explaining his on-ice thuggery, like Todd Bertuzzi or Marty McSorley, and with fighting nearing extinction, the spirit has left that long-lasting debate, as well.

" Although you'll hear some whining, there has been a widespread acceptance of the new rule standards established last season. In fact, those standards are spreading to all levels of hockey in North America. Even the most vociferous critics of the "new" NHL have run up the white flag.

" Scoring is up and the game is more offensive, eliminating, at least temporarily, the navel-gazing, whither-the-sport self-analysis that seemed unending for more than a decade.

" Without any outrageous T.O.-like characters, there aren't any NHLers making headlines with brash or bizarre public statements. This might change if Jeremy Roenick finds his hands.

" There's no Olympics for another three years, which means no Ed Snider insisting he would rather not have his players compete, and no discussion over what in the world the NHL is doing in this event in the first place.

" In a league that has entertained a few jailbirds as owners, it's noteworthy that there are no wacky, maverick owners doing crazy stuff. That said, Charles Wang has potential.

" Considering that Ottawa and Buffalo were bankrupt three years ago, it's similarly noteworthy that there are no franchises in terrible peril. The closest would be Pittsburgh, but even that team's uncertain future has been overshadowed by super-kids Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Still, there's hope that stories of substance and controversy could yet emerge. Philly and Columbus have contributed a little by canning their coaches, and if the Phoenix Coyotes don't find first gear -- let alone third -- anytime soon, the future of The Great One as coach has enormous potential.

Trades involving marquee players are possible with names such as Daniel Alfredsson, Peter Forsberg, Ed Jovanovski and Evgeni Nabokov bouncing around. And there are enough meatheads still adorning rosters that one of them might soon do something terrible to a fellow union member, thus sparking another violence-in-the-game debate.

Right now, however, it's mostly just about the games and the scores and the stats, which is probably just the way Bettman wants it.

Which leaves us with only the schedule to argue over. Sigh.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.