- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
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Know what's really maddening?
We're missing the best postseason in professional sports.
Know what's really heartening, even if this should stay between us to avoid giving the inept negotiators on both sides of the table even infinitesimal consolation?
The experience of going without is confirming the NHL has the best postseason in professional sports.
It's playoff withdrawal, whether we're admitting it or trying to pretend it isn't so.
If the NHL season had been played on schedule, the conference finals would be in full swing.
The Clarence Campbell and Prince of Wales trophies would be in the buildings.
The Stanley Cup finals would be on the horizon.
The World Championship would have been the annual relegation tournament, and not the upgraded international showcase it became the past couple of weeks.
On this side of the Atlantic, and probably on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border, four teams would have made it through a couple of grueling series and be well into a third.
Twelve playoff losers would have run into hot goaltenders and be lamenting bad breaks. Hey, a call here, a bounce there, one fewer injury and one less post, and that four-game sweep could have gone the other way, and let's hope the owner understands that.
A whole bunch of guys on the golf course about now would have had their backs against the wall, faced no tomorrows, played with desperation and taken them one game at a time only to run out of time.
The count of sudden-death overtime games ending after midnight would be up to six. And the number of fans calling in sick the next morning with the overtime flu would be in the thousands.
Meanwhile, back on the ice in the conference finals, grudges would be reheated, and depending on the perspective, each Final Four team's most physical defenseman either would be getting away with murder or simply be touted as a fiery guy who does anything it takes to win.
Traveling media caravans would be going back and forth, adding up the frequent flyer miles and hotel points, pulling for the franchises in the cities with the best golf courses and restaurants, and eagerly awaiting commissioner Gary Bettman's state-of-the-game news conference during the finals. (Well, most of that is true.) Unless they've been perfect every night, four surviving goaltenders would be saluted as prime-time impregnable performers one game and deemed in need of the Heimlich maneuver in honor of sieve Howard Heimlich, the former Maple Leafs goalie the next. (If the truth be told, a lot of the writers on this side of the border can't figure out anything else to say about playoff games.)
Swedish and Czech players would be saying innocuous things in the North American media, but being quoted in their home-nation papers as saying:
"Stick a fork in those gutless wimps because they're done like dinner."
Come on, admit it.
We miss it, don't we?
As much as we want to say the heck with both sides of the dispute and the limousines they rode in, the angst is there, even if some misguided souls who don't share the feeling have misinterpreted our state of mind for a lack of interest in the league.
If you're like me, you've long ago lost the desire to either write or pore through the obligatory, but tiresome updates on the NHL collective bargaining agreement negotiations and issues.
Just an idea for the negotiators: How about just sending up white smoke when an agreement is reached and announcing "Habemus Hockey''? An optional next step could be to have German-born Marco Sturm step out on the balcony a few seconds later. Until then, nothing much will interest us, certainly not the post-meeting statements and descriptions of Bettman's ill-fitting caps and Bob Goodenow's abacus.
The eventual settlement, whenever it comes, is going to be the sort of hybrid financial system everyone knew was inevitable, meaning the negotiations could have gotten serious long before now and the 2004-05 season could have been saved.
A disdainful attitude about the negotiating process is not the same thing as an increasing apathy for the NHL product.
Oh, it's got its faults. We all know that. And there isn't another game so criticized, even within its circle of interest.
Though baseball's steroids scandal has caused many to wish that the past decade of statistics could be wiped out of the game's hard drive by a computer virus known as the Balco Worm, that's considered more about individual miscreants than as an institutional malaise. We're told it's still a pastime, and then reminded that the second baseman is hitting .231 with runners on base against left-handers in the middle innings on Tuesdays.
And the guy at the desk across from you spends the first 15 minutes of every day updating you on how his fantasy team did the night before.
The NBA's alarming weaknesses, with the deterioration of the U.S. game so highlighted at the Olympics and in other recent international competitions, seem to have been forgotten, or at least overwhelmed by the promotional juggernaut. But there still are 22 timeouts in the final two minutes; three guys standing around with their hands on their knees on the weak side; series stretched out longer than Senate filibusters; shooters that make stonemasons jealous; and far too much attention paid to the coaches as if saying "pick and roll" is the equivalent of splitting the atom.
And has the Super Bowl pregame show started yet?
Comparatively speaking, the absence of the NHL should remind us of the postseason magic because it's not here. So this is when we really should be angry.
The conference finals often are the best show in the best postseason in professional sports. Maybe we'd be watching Toronto-Philadelphia and Colorado-Detroit, involving the franchises that acted last summer as if they were hoping the season could be salvaged.
Maybe someone else would have made it through to the Final Four. San Jose, Vancouver or Dallas? Tampa Bay, Ottawa or New Jersey? No matter, this is when teams with a familiarity and often disdain for each other are tantalizingly close to the finals, and maybe can get a foreshadowing taste of what drinking champagne from the Stanley Cup in the dressing room would be like.
Let's put a positive face on this.
While this is not a case of absence making hearts grow fonder, our anger over what we are missing should underscore our inability to allow all that has happened and the blame that goes on both sides of the table to wipe out the passion.
It's just on hold.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."
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