Does anyone really care that the National Hockey League owners may be fewer than 48 hours away from locking out players for the second time in eight seasons?
It depends on who you ask.
Earlier this week, during random sampling of the lunch-time crowd at Tommy’s Park in Portland’s Old Port, it was hard to find anybody who knew about the issues separating the sides in the on-again, off-again negotiations of a collective bargaining agreement.
Across town, where a few men were getting ready to play in a pickup hockey game at the Portland Ice Arena, it was a different story.
The NHL and the players’ association swapped proposals Wednesday in an effort to head off a lockout scheduled to start at midnight Saturday.
Not many people at Tommy’s Park wanted to talk about it.
“I follow sports, but not hockey nor golf,” said Jim Houle of Scarborough. “I don’t follow them for very different reasons. I don’t follow golf because nothing ever happens. The ball never moves. I don’t follow hockey because I can’t ever see the puck move, either. It moves too fast.”
Houle wasn’t the only person in Tommy’s Park who didn’t care about the lockout.
“I’m from Montreal but I don’t like hockey,” said Angelika Schecter, who was tending the information booth in the park. “The same way you have Mainers who don’t like lobster, you do have Montrealers who don’t like hockey.”
Schecter, who speaks English, French and German, said visitors sometimes ask about the local sports teams.
“It could be the Portland Pirates or it could be the Red Claws,” she said. “They just want to know what’s here.”
It could be the third time in 20 years a labor dispute has disrupted the NHL season. The last time, a lockout wiped out the entire 2004-05 season.
“I didn’t miss it because I’m really not a pro hockey fan,” said Gary Weiss, a vacationer who lived in Boston for 30 years before moving to Oklahoma two years ago. “I’m a college hockey fan. I just feel loyalty to BU because I want them to beat BC, but I don’t have loyalty to the Bruins. For some reason pro hockey never sunk into my brain.”
Said Houle: “I’m sure if you walked around the Old Port for the next two or three hours, you’re bound to find one (person) who cares about it.”
He was right. Among the dozen or so who were asked in Tommy’s Park, there was one who actually cared about the labor dispute.
“The last time, it really seriously impacted the sport and it took them a long time to recover,” said Mark Gatti, who runs a hot dog stand in the park.
“If it would happen again, it would take them years to recover. This is going to sound real vanilla, but the players and owners better meet on common ground in the middle because hockey as the fourth major sport in North America really can’t afford another long protracted strike.”
If the owners lock out the players this weekend, it could delay the opening of training camps scheduled for next Friday and the start of the regular season scheduled for Oct. 11.
The lockout won’t affect the Portland Pirates, who are scheduled to begin training camp Sept. 28 and play their American Hockey League opener Oct. 13 at Glens Falls, N.Y., against the Adirondack Phantoms.
“This might help the Pirates,” said Andrew Rice of Portland, while preparing to play in the hockey game at the Ice Arena. “They might get some two-way guys out of this, which actually might be good for Portland.”
A two-way player is signed to a contract that pays one salary for time in the NHL, another for time in the minor leagues. Most NHL players are one-way players, paid for NHL play.
In the agreement signed in 2005, the owners agreed to a 57/43 percent split of revenue in favor of the players. When negotiations started last month, owners want to flip the split in their favor. Last week the owners offered a 48 percent share.
“Being a member of the military, I think the players don’t get enough, just like the military doesn’t get enough. That’s a problem,” said Mike Tully of Pittsburgh, a Coast Guard member stationed in South Portland. Tully, who was getting ready to go on the ice, is the captain of the Marcus Hanna, a buoy tender berthed in South Portland.
“The real losers are the fans,” said Mike Komich of South Portland, who officiates Division I and III college hockey. “Hockey, in the last couple of seasons, particularly with the Bruins’ success, has brought itself to a point of popularity, so I think the losers are the fans because the momentum of that popularity will be lost.”
Komich, who is the business manager at Cheverus High in Portland, sides with the players.
“As I’ve studied the proposal, I do think it appears that the players are at a disadvantage when compared to some other sports, like major league baseball,” he said. “I would think it would be nice to engineer some equity between the owners and the players so hockey is somewhat competitive with its major league counterparts.”
Staff Writer Paul Betit can be contacted at 791-6424 or at: