EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 2, 2012

NHL lockout leaves local fans in the cold

By Brian Messenger
bmessenger@eagletribune.com

---- — Karen Czifrik is a typical hockey fan. To say she’s passionate about the game would be an understatement on par with describing 6-foot-9 Bruins captain Zdeno Chara as on the tall side.

Czifrik ranks Boston’s Stanley Cup-clinching victory on June 15, 2011, as one of the best days of her life — rivaled only by the birth of her children. Hitting the Powerball jackpot? Czifrik said she’d trade that just to see the Bruins back on the ice.

“Hockey’s my escape,” said the 41-year-old from Salem, N.H. “I’m not even in the holiday spirit. It’s already been a hard winter.”

She’s not alone. In September, the National Hockey League locked out its players for the third time in 18 years. All the action since has taken place in the boardroom, leaving hockey fans to play an all-too-familiar waiting game.

A third of the NHL’s regular season has already been cancelled due to the lockout, along with the league All-Star Game and popular Winter Classic outdoor game on New Year’s Day.

In question is $3.3 billion in annual revenue. But progress has come slow on a new collective bargaining agreement between team owners and the players’ union, leaving fans to wonder if the entire season will be erased just like it was in 2005.

“We bounced back from the last lockout pretty well,” said Tim Corcoran of Lawrence, who plays pickup hockey in Methuen and coaches his son’s youth team. “Hockey was doing great. I don’t know what’s going to happen now. I don’t know if they’ll survive this one.”

Puckheads in the Merrimack Valley are blessed with a number of alternatives. Top-tier college hockey is played in North Andover, Lowell and Boston and the NHL’s feeder league — the American Hockey League — has franchises in Manchester and Worcester.

Additionally, local high school players are lacing up their skates for team practices and will begin games as soon as next week.

When he’s not at the rink playing or coaching, Corcoran, 46, said he’s watched a few college games on TV and plans to attend an AHL contest or two this winter. If the NHL season is cancelled, Corcoran said the impact could be felt in the youth hockey ranks.

“Over time, you see the numbers dwindle,” said Corcoran.

The same might hold true at the adult recreational level. While ice time is still being sold at Methuen High School, ice rink manager Paul Trussell said attendance is down: pick-up games once featuring 20 skaters are now down to 10 or 12, he said.

“Our numbers are low,” said Trussell. “Nobody’s watching hockey, so nobody’s got the fever to play.”

A Bruins season ticket holder for five years, Trussell said he’ll lose nearly $3,000 if the lockout forces the cancellation of the entire season because the franchise won’t offer him full refund.

“I’m losing my shirt,” said Trussell. “And so are all the other season ticket holders ... All the small people are taking a hit.”

Trussell’s message to the players and owners is simple: “Do the right thing. Get back to work so everybody’s happy.”

“We miss hockey,” said Trussell. “It’s an empty feeling.”

A League on Ice The NHL lockout is 79 days old. So far 422 games have been erased from the schedule. A brief timeline of events: Sept. 15: Team owners lock out players as collective bargaining agreement expires Oct. 16-18: Owners' CBA proposal, counter proposals from players' union gain no traction Nov. 2: Cancellation of Jan. 1 Winter Classic outdoor game Nov. 21: Owners reject players' latest proposal Nov. 23: Cancellation of all games through Dec. 14 and All-Star Game Nov. 29: Sides scrap federal mediation after two days of talks without progress Boston Bruins Abroad A number of Bruins are now playing overseas in professional leagues. How a few are fairing so far: Name League Games Goals Assists Tyler Seguin Swiss Elite 21 20 12 David Krejci Czech Extraliga 17 8 9 Patrice Bergeron Swiss Elite 13 9 10 Zdeno Chara KHL 16 3 5 Dennis Seidenberg German Elite 16 1 8 -- Brian Messenger