Puck Off!

Courtesy Long Beach Ice DogsIt's a measure of your average Canadian's love of hockey that cops there attribute the recent spike in serious crimes to the ongoing NHL lockout. In Orange County? When serious crime goes up here, you figure it's just the opening of The Glory of Christmas at Crystal Cathedral.

No, around here, the four-month-old lockout barely registers—unless you're one of the hundreds of people working at the margins of the sport.

The lockout began with the mid-September expiration of the contract between NHL players and owners. Owners say they want “cost certainty,” better known as a salary cap. The union says no but has offered a one-time 35 percent pay cut. The owners rejected the deal and made no counteroffer. No new talks are scheduled.

If the dispute continues, the Arrowhead Pond will lose 40 Mighty Ducks home games.

It's hard to weep for rich hockey players. Each NHL Players Association member can draw 24 months' of lockout compensation pay, up to $10,000 per month. Some NHL players, including Pittsburgh Penguin Aleksey Morozov, have joined European teams to supplement the lockout pay.

But those in supporting roles are feeling the hit. At the Pond, Anaheim Arena Management LLC (AAM) employs about 1,200 part-time workers for all events—ticket takers, ushers, food workers, custodians, technicians, conversion crews, parking attendants—people we rarely think about, including that guy driving the Zamboni to resurface the ice between periods. AAM ignored our request to speak directly to workers and paints a surprisingly rosy picture of their situation.

“Because the Mighty Ducks are a major tenant of the Pond, there has been only a little negative impact,” said AAM CEO and president Tim Ryan.

The argument seems counterintuitive—we'd expect major tenants to yield major impacts. But Ryan insists it's true. “We haven't had to cut any full- or part-time staff as a result of the NHL lockout,” he said. The reason? More music. “We average 170 to 175 entertainment events per year at the Pond, and 2004 was a record-setting year for the number of concerts we presented.”

The Weekly tracked down several part-time Pond staff, all of whom said terms of their employment prohibit them from speaking to the media. One, who requested anonymity, said his hours “have been cut way back,” but “I blame the NHL, not [AAM].”

Nearby restaurants and bars report only modest drops in business. National Sports Grill assistant beverage manager Steven Tucker said, “Hockey fans around here are complacent. Now, baseball's another story. If it were the Angels, we'd feel it in a big way.”

Across Katella Avenue from the Pond, though, JT Schmid's Restaurant and Brewery staffers tell a different story: “We had anywhere from 12 to 15 servers working at a time during hockey season last year,” said Cecelia Wohlschlag, who also studies psychology and sociology at Cal State Fullerton. “Now, we're down to four to six. And it's not just us. Our cooks, our valets . . . a lot of us have had to get a second job because we just can't make enough money when it's this slow.”

And there's no sign of a turnaround. Wayne Gretzky, part owner of the Phoenix Coyotes, said recently it's possible the dispute will kill not just this season, but also the next.

Mighty Ducks head coach Mike Babcock is more optimistic. “I've always said that if we can get play started by Feb. 1, we can get 40 games in,” he said. “But we can't work toward something if there's no proposal on the table. The business side has to be worked out for the health of the league, but the players do want to play, and I want to coach.”

The aging Long Beach Arena is no Arrowhead Pond, and you won't see the dazzling speed and skill of Sergei Fedorov or the disciplined, rugged leadership of Steve Rucchin. But, lockout or no, you will see the Long Beach Ice Dogs, the minor-league affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens. A recent 3-2 Dogs' victory over the Idaho Steelheads (won on an overtime shoot-out, no less) was dramatic, end-to-end action, with Dogs goalie Chris Madden making spectacular saves against an aggressive, attacking Idaho offense. And it's good for the soul to see players busting their butts for less than $500 per week just for the chance to make an NHL team.

Tickets are also far cheaper than for the Ducks (from $11 to $40 in Long Beach vs. $17.50 to $85 for the few available seats in Anaheim). And perhaps because of the lockout, attendance is up about 8 percent this season, to 2,800 per game.

“For the price, it's the best show in town,” longtime Dogs fan Fritz Milas told me between periods. “You can see decent hockey in a friendly, family-oriented atmosphere. Who knows? Someday you might even see one of these guys wearing an NHL jersey.”

If the NHL survives.

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