Caught in the middle of nothing

One of the highlights of any day in Cubicle America was to log onto The Hockey News' Web site and see the collective bargaining agreement countdown clock. It was there whenever you wanted it, Armageddon's alarm clock, and it said everything you needed to know about the state of the National Hockey League.

But once it hit zero last week, we were disappointed -- nay, outraged -- to discover that it didn't start running forward again, for weeks, months and maybe even years, like sap running back into a tree. In fairness, they're under a lot of pressure up there in Toronto, though; they're looking at indefinitely sustaining themselves on the American Hockey League, the Quebec junior league, and weeks-old scores from Switzerland.

But for The Hockey News, the flame of pigheaded optimism can only burn so bright for so long. They've already declared the strike "insulting," which is about three weeks and 75 beers away from calling the strike "clinical proof that everyone involved is too stupid to be allowed near ice."

See, for example, the publication's annual magazine, which hit the stands a few weeks ago and trumpeted itself as "lockout-proof." Presumably that meant, "We're doing this because there may not be a lockout, because we already sold the jersey and equipment ads, and because we don't have anything else to do."

Oh, the magazine was as complete as ever. Team-by-team profiles, features, statistics meant only for insomniac Aleuts ... the whole schmeer. The boys and girls at The Hockey News Interplanetary Headquarters did their usual thorough, complete and graphically appealing job. It was well worth the expense for puckheads who needed the illusion that all was well, even when any idiot could see that it's never been worse.

It was, to put it simply, the sports publishing equivalent of medical marijuana. It cured nothing, but it dulled the pain a bit.

Well, Black Wednesday has come and gone, and we learned that nothing is lockout proof. We found that the last recorded signing before the outbreak of spit-covered war was defenseman Barrett Jackman by the St. Louis Blues, after an injury-packed season in which he played only 15 games. And if there were signings after him, well, who the hell cares at this point? As though the facts will keep you warm on a hockeyless night in Regina in February.

Therein lies the problem. The Hockey News is a lot like Baseball America in that it expends a fair amount of space and energy to non-NHL hockey, but the truth is there isn't a whole lot of interest in non-NHL hockey.

There's the World Cup hangover.

There's Sidney Crosby, the well-documented Next Gretzky, next Lindros or next Branko Radivojevic, depending on your jaundice level.

There's the Todd Bertuzzi court case, which will run its course before the games resume, trust us.

And then there's ... and then there's iced-over tumbleweeds skidding across the prairie unencumbered by public interest.

Man, if I worked at The Hockey News, I would be tres bummed, and looking through the office supplies cabinet to whack myself out on Xerox toner.

The World Cup ended about 100 years ago, which gave the staff one last thing to get all giggly about, but the spectre of Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow fighting to the death for something that will probably end up destroying them both no matter who wins is, well, daunting.

In other words, there will be a lot of bad-natured glue huffing in the editorial offices for the next ... millennium?

That's the real debilitating thing here. Both sides will stay on message throughout. Neither side will emit anything informative, let alone substantive, unless it is to leak their latest spin on the day's nothingness to a friendly journalist. Both sides will claim it is the other's fault.

And we are now perilously close to hockey fans growing sick to death of the sight of either side. They will hate the people who did this to the game, and they will therefore hate the people bringing you the up-to-date hatred roundup. They will demand silence from all and sundry until someone says, "We have been stupid long enough."

And there sit our good friends at The Hockey News, holding the fuzz-covered lollipop, editorially speaking: "Extry, Extry, Goodenow Calls Bettman A Weasel ... Bettman Calls Goodenow A Vampire Bat."

Fact is, The Hockey News needs games just as much as the players do, because the Brandon Wheat Kings and Shawinigan Cataractes just aren't going to sustain any more than the Albuquerque Isotopes and Lansing Lugnuts can sustain Baseball America. At some point, someone is going to say, "All these 17-year-olds are working hard to realize their dreams as Wal-Mart greeters because Billy Wirtz likes the idea of having no hockey team more than he likes having a hockey team? Yeah, that's some reading for you."

And unlike your favorite non-pornographic Web site that covers everything sport related, from chair-throwing relief pitchers to marching bands getting in trouble for mocking polygamy in front of Mormons, The Hockey News covers ... yes, I think we all know where that thread leaves us.

So let's hear it for the Countdown Clock. Yes, we lifted the idea, and we cheerfully credit our pals at The Hockey News for giving it to us. But a word of advice, ladies and gents -- you need to branch out a little bit, because it looks like these empty hats in Toronto (the owners and labor guys, not the The Hockey News guys) are completely unmotivated to do anything to save themselves from themselves.

We'd recommend curling. There's ice, there a puck you can see, the best announcers are nearly incomprehensible, and it's a largely untapped market. Hey, we stole poker, for God's sake, so pride should not be a consideration.

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