October 19, 2012

Pirates fans get added treat: NHL players

By Paul Betit pbetit@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Peter Perzel said he feels like he's won the lottery after buying two season tickets to Portland Pirates games.

He's referring, of course, to the fact that a labor dispute has shut down the National Hockey League, meaning that a number of the sport's top young players will be suiting up full time for American Hockey League teams like the Pirates.

"If they are going to have some NHL players coming down to play, then I lucked out," said Perzel, 41, a major in the Army who lives in Windham. "It's like me winning the lottery. All I know is I've got awesome seats on the blue line."

The lottery starts paying off for Perzel at 7 p.m. Friday. That's when the Pirates play their first home game of the season -- against the Worcester Sharks at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston.

Because of the lockout, the Pirates' roster will include eight players who have spent time in the NHL and likely would be called up from time to time this season if a labor agreement is reached. One of the eight -- Oliver Ekman-Larsson, a defenseman -- spent the last season and a half as an NHL regular.

The Pirates are playing a total of six home games in Lewiston because of ongoing renovations at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland. The team, which opened the season last Saturday with a 6-3 loss to Adirondack at Glens Falls, N.Y., will play its first game in Portland on Nov. 2

Negotiations are ongoing in the NHL labor battle, but that's just one factor driving fans to Pirates games. Some enjoy, and even prefer, the game at the AHL level compared with the NHL, and some are simply fans of the Pirates, whose parent team in the NHL is the Phoenix Coyotes.

Perzel, commander of the military processing station in Portland, is disappointed by the NHL lockout, but he's extremely happy to see the North American brand of hockey after spending the past 12 years on assignments in Germany.

"I'm a big Bruins fan, but in order to watch any kind of NHL hockey in Europe I had to be up at 2 o'clock in the morning to see it on my lousy little satellite TV," said Perzel, who grew up watching and playing hockey in Connecticut, but won't necessarily miss the NHL. "To tell you the truth, I prefer to watch this level of hockey live. The players seem hungrier."

John Massengill, a Pirates season ticket holder from Scarborough, also is a big fan of AHL hockey.

"I love the player development and watching these guys come from the junior leagues and ultimately trying to make it into the NHL," Massengill said. "The players that are here still have not lost sight of the fact that someday they want to play in the NHL.

"Even though the lockout is taking place, they're still working extremely hard to get there," he said. "The lockout is temporary. Even if it lasts the whole (season), which I think it won't, these kids are busting their humps to get to the NHL and they want to be ready for when that day comes."

To some Pirates fans, the presence of some NHL players in the lineup is just an added bonus.

"According to what I've read, there's only a few NHL guys coming through the system," said Jason Cote, 33, a season ticket holder from Portland.

It is difficult to determine just how many bona fide NHL players will start this season in the AHL. Tony Notoarianni, who covers the NHL for his website (www.toomanymenonthesite.com), has compiled a list of more than 100 players who could be playing in the NHL this season, but instead will be suiting up for an AHL team.

"In terms of criteria, players who spent the majority of last season in the NHL were obvious inclusions," he said in an email explaining how he assembled his list. "After that it gets a bit murky. Not all of these players would have been full-time NHL players this season, but they were expected to at least challenge for a roster spot and to play at least some games with the big club."

Notoarianni's list is tilted toward young prospects still on their three-year entry-level contract, or older players who could be moved from NHL teams to the minor leagues without being lost during the waiver process.

Some NHL-caliber players are playing in Europe, but nearly 500 locked-out NHL players will remain idle until the contract dispute between the league and the players association is resolved. The last time the NHL owners and the players failed to reach a new agreement, the entire 2004-05 season was wiped out.

While AHL fans may care what happens in the top league, they won't have to give up watching professional hockey.

"I decided to come back to the Pirates prior to the lockout happening. I went to one or two games last season, and they were pretty fun," said Stephen Tapley, a South Portland resident who has followed the team off and on since 1999. He also owns two season tickets to the Boston Bruins.

"I'm pretty upset this lockout is taking place," he said. "It's just ridiculous. It's too soon to have another lockout."

Staff Writer Paul Betit can be contacted at 791-6424 or at:

pbetit@pressherald.com

Twitter: PaulBetitPPH

CORRECTION: This story was updated Friday, Oct. 19 to reflect that the Pirates will play a total of six games in Lewiston.

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