Pain sets in on second night

Updated: October 14, 2004, 4:49 PM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

Smart folks ... folks in the know ... folks who understand that the swells and one-night-Johnnies are the only ones who show up on Opening Night ... folks who couldn't get tickets for Game 1 ... they're the ones who know that the season starts the night after.

Baseball fans, basketball fans, and yes, hockey fans. They all know this truth. Game Two is Opening Night for the people who really want it.

So for those of you out there who knew you weren't going to get to see the Tampa Bay Lightning raise the banner, or Dominik Hasek's latest comeback in Ottawa, or San Jose and Philadelphia trying to begin their fresh quest to get out of the semifinals, here's what you missed on Day Two.

Or as our friend the Backward Coutdown Clock tells us, Day 28.

For instance, home openers in Carolina, Florida and Nashville, three of the cities bunched together under the title, "Bettman's Folly." It is becoming a staple of belief that the NHL led itself to their current sorry state by moving or expanding to cities that had never asked for hockey in the first place. Of course, one of those cities is Tampa, but the Other Bay Area is currently playing along because, despite all odds, the Lightning finally found an owner, a hockey department and players to treat a market that had avoided hockey as though it came in a salmonella wrap.

Now maybe part of this is the old Northeast-Canadian mafia dismissing all the towns that never did, apparently do not, or never will ache for the sport in their town. I mean, Nashville drew well at the end of their first playoff season, and Carolina filled its house often enough in its Stanley Cup finals year, but the general feeling among people who still give a damn about the Suicide Club for Men is that the owners expanded beyond reason for a series of buy-in checks they could cheerfully divide and to wave a truly national game at TV people who were largely unmoved.

You know what else was scheduled for tonight? More hand-wringing about the greed-crazed players and their Leninist masters in the union, from the owners in the six towns who were opening tonight. Peter Karmanos, who cashed out in Hartford and helped start the mad spending by trying to poison-pill Sergei Fedorov for Detroit ... Tom Hicks, the man who gave you the A-Rod deal and has been apologizing for it ever since ... the Edmonton Investors Group, keeping the Oilers a proud Alberta tradition deep into the post-Gretzky Era ... Alan Cohen of the revenue-dry Florida Panthers ... Craig Leipold, the man who made Nashville safe from a hockey-free future.

They will all parrot the Bettman Medley: The players get 75 percent, 19 teams lose money, Bob Goodenow must be destroyed and eaten. You know, the stuff you've been reading for months, repeated to the point where it has lost all the meaning that Goodenow's arguments have lost.

Here's something else that was going to happen tonight. Hockey on CBC. There was going to be hockey on CBC last night, too, from Ottawa, but the resurgence of the NHL in western Canada, thanks to the Calgary Dancing Sutters would have made this a little more special.

Instead, no doubt, a "This Hour Has 22 Minutes" retrospective, and Peter Mansbridge's edgy interview with ... oh, hell, who's kidding who? Most of you don't get CBC anyway, and wouldn't care if Peter Mansbridge spent an hour of network time dressed up like Frances McDormand and playing the accordion with his feet.

One more thing you will have missed: the annual New York this-could-be-our-year-again fetish with the Rangers, an annual event that has been successfully predicted once in the past 64 years. Truth is, the Rangers have been a weak/underachieving/pampered/disjointed/whackjob team for much of the past 50 years, and the only true measure of their grip on the New York hockey subculture is the fact that their fans still care way more than the rewards would indicate.

Oh, and television. You'd have missed that, too. Bettman, the man hired from the NBA to give the NHL legitimacy with the networks, has watched the league's American profile shrink while expanding to the point where they have pretty much deposited teams in nearly every major market while having no national vehicle to give the fans those teams.

Not all of this is Bettman's fault, of course, because nobody gets to take all the credit for this. But the fact is, he is the commissioner who has been guided by his employers to take his league to the brink of utter irrelevance because he isn't really in charge anyway. This is about the owners behind him who want not just cost certainty but cost reduction while continuing to charge whatever the market can choke out of the customers.

And they are sure that their ticket to heaven is through Bob Goodenow's spleen. It's no more noble or elegant than that. They want the players' union neither shaken nor stirred but stomped flat, period.

But you know that, because you're part of the Day Two crowd, the ones who really care enough to avoid all the first-nighters, hangers-on and one-time-only-gasbags who won't be back until the second round of the playoffs.

In 2006 or so, give or take a second night.

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

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