- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Alex Walker admits to being in his mid-70s. He walks with a limp, something even more pronounced now after surgery on his spine this summer.

For the past 13 years, he worked for the Washington Capitals at their Piney Orchard training facility in Odenton, Md., redirecting phone calls and performing clerical tasks. He received an hourly wage, plus a stipend in the summer.

The NHL lockout has changed all that. Forgotten in the labor dispute between the players and owners are the little people whose lives have been disrupted — destroyed, Walker claims. His twice-a-month checks have stopped, and Social Security is his only means of income.

“It’s tearing me up,” he said yesterday. “I’m in financial trouble, especially now right after back surgery. The checks stopped coming but not the bills.”

How serious is his situation?

“Serious. Real serious.”

Players and owners have been saving money for more than two years in preparation for the work stoppage, which could last a full season or longer. Of course, it’s one thing to put a little aside when you’re making $1.83million, the NHL average; it’s quite another when you’re getting paid by the hour.

“I feel sorry for both sides,” Columbia resident Walker said, though he expressed less sympathy for the players.

“Professional athletes today are paid entirely too much money to play a game, a child’s game,” he said. “The players, they should be able to give a little back, and it’s a shame they won’t. If the owners don’t get a [salary] cap, there won’t be any hockey. If the players win this thing, the salaries will keep going up and up.

“There has to be a limit on spending. Owners want to win, so they go out and get these players, [but] they still don’t win. There has to be a point where it all has to be cut off. How much are these guys worth, anyway?”

Walker’s situation isn’t unique. More than 100 of the NHL’s 224 staffers in New York City were laid off, and others were reduced to part-time status; the situation is the same at the league’s Toronto office. There have been layoffs and unfilled jobs around the NHL as the lockout enters its second week with no end in sight.

The Washington Capitals have had no layoffs, but a significant number of positions were left open after workers departed for other jobs.

“We have a lot of young people, and there is usually some turnover,” team president Dick Patrick said. “What we’ve done is use attrition to get to a point where we feel comfortable with the size of our staff. Our biggest problem now is keeping the good people.”

Patrick said the Caps have lost about 40 percent of the non-hockey staff. The hockey operations department has about six jobs that eventually must be filled, including two assistant coaches.

The revenue stream at MCI Center has been cut by the lockout, with potentially 45 nights of lost business for preseason and regular-season games. In fact, the Caps canceled their first two home games of the regular season and all of their home preseason games yesterday. That trickles down to the restaurants, bars, parking lots and other commercial operations surrounding the facility.

“The ushers, ticket-takers, people like that, they’re hired on an event-to-event basis, paid by the hour,” said Matt Williams, vice president for communications for Washington Sports & Entertainment. “They won’t be laid off, but they will be out that money for those lost dates.”

The dozen or more off-ice officials who act as goal judges, timekeepers or computer technicians are out the $60-$75 a game they made as part-time employees of the NHL.

“No one does it for the money,” said Larry Brooks III, who heads the Washington group of officials. “For us it’s more of an inconvenience because all of us love hockey.”

Meanwhile, nearly a third of the 700 locked-out players have found employment elsewhere, albeit at less than their customary wage. More than 150 are playing in various European countries. About 75 are playing in a six-team, barnstorming league in Canada, and there is talk some players may form touring teams.

“I just can’t grasp the figures they’re throwing around because talking about that kind of money is mind-boggling to me,” said an MCI Center worker who asked not to be identified. “But I saw in the paper that the players were making [on average] $1.8million last season, and the league is offering [$1.3 million] now. I am only speaking for myself here, but I’m pretty sure I could make it on [$1.3 million], and I’d sure like the chance to find out.”

For Walker, more than just a paycheck has disappeared.

“Maybe it’s not that big a deal, but I had an income I was satisfied with, and I enjoyed the job,” he said. “It was fun. It was a place to hang out, and the guys, they always treated me pretty good.

“But this thing here, this lockout, it’s a trickle-down thing. I guess I was hoping it wouldn’t get down to me.”

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