Longing for the playoffs? Don't bother

Updated: April 19, 2005, 9:53 PM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

The Stanley Cup playoffs begin this week – somewhere. On some alternate Earth, with red kryptonite, telekinesis and universal health care.

Here, the sound of rusting blades, disconnected propane tanks, Zambonis being converted for pony rides, and Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow taking on babysitting jobs:

"Look, if you don't go to bed, I'll negotiate with your parents about an allowance cap tied to revenues."

"OK, OK. I wish my parents would let me stay at home by myself, you mean old jerk."

By now, we've had all the whatever-happened-to-professional-ice-hockey nostalgia pieces and retrospectives we can stand. Anyone desperate for a hockey fix could watch Denver win the Frozen Four, although for the rest of us, it sort of felt like an exercise in eat-your-vegetables-because-people-in-northern-Manitoba-are-starving.

Thus, the complete absence of playoffs seems to have met a complete absence of longing for playoffs. If there are any pangs of regret in Tampa, they are easily subsumed by the Devil Rays' big weekend series win over Oakland ... or The Masters ... or a good garage cleaning.

And this is not to pick on Tampa, necessarily. Canada's national obsession is now reduced to a national hobby, something seasonal like ice fishing. Even Comrade Burnside's touching portrait (elsewhere on our happy little site) of the octopus seller in Detroit with too much time and squid on his hands strikes us not as a grim reminder of what could have been, but rather elicits thoughts of calamari waiting for the garlic.

At least we know that any missives lamenting the loss of the Stanley Cup playoffs will have the heartwarming ring of utter insincerity. I mean, once you've been shown the faces of pure venality, it's hard to miss even the good things those faces could offer.

Like playoff hockey, the best hockey there ever was.

And we say "was," because there remains no evidence that there is going to be an "is" any time soon. Oh, the two sides have met now and then for hot roast-beef sandwiches and cold proposals, but the continent's appetite for any news those meetings could emit can be easily matched by a tavern argument over whether the Ottoman Empire was better than the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In other words, we are still at the "Will you two either tell us what we want to know or shut the hell up?" stage.

In fairness, we tried. We set up computer simulations of how the playoffs might have gone. We used dice. We even taped team logos over the faces of poker players in a televised tournament.

What we got, in order, were two viruses and some spyware, a cat with three dice in his digestive tract and tape marks on the flat screen.

There's a lesson in this somewhere – but unless it is, "This is what happens when you entrust something valuable to cheapskates and dunce caps," we're at a complete loss as to what it might be.

I mean, the Stanley Cup was serious fun, whether you were there or just a viewer. There was something about 40 players giving their all because they all had everything to lose that elevated the playoffs so dramatically over the regular season.

But since Bettman was defending the rights of the over-rich and under-skulled, and Goodenow was fighting for truth, beauty and a principle that he could fold on later while pretending the dog ate his briefcase, the Stanley Cup has taken on the appearance of the crown jewels at the bottom of a septic tank.

And if this seems harsh or a little much to take this soon after breakfast, well, let's review the principal duties of the hockey industry.

The owners' sole duty is to put on games that people will pay money to watch. The players' sole duty is to play in those games. Everything else is trivia, period.

I mean, the owners are still rich, the players have found other games, and as part of the eternal grand plan of all sports, the fans have been played as saps, suckers and dim bulbs.

Thus, getting all weepy and rheumy-eyed about the Stanley Cup playoffs is the last sign before intervention is required. They don't care, so why should you?

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

ALSO SEE