BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Most everywhere Lou Billittier turns these days, the Buffalo restaurateur is reminded of the NHL lockout, and its impact on his blue-collar, sports-mad town where Dominik Hasek became a star and the French Connection is still revered.
Billittier misses the familiar faces of Sabres players having their traditional game-day lunch at his restaurant, Chef’s. He recalled a recent conversation he had with his seafood supplier, who’s struggling because he also provides salmon and chicken wings to the Sabres arena, the First Niagara Center.
And then there are the arena’s idled, part-time employees who stop in looking for work. With his own business down 15 percent, Billittier can only turn them away because he’s concerned whether there’s enough work for his staff.
“It’s amazing the trickle-down effect,” Billittier said, standing in his lobby, not far from Chef’s “The French Connection” room, honoring the famed former Sabres line of Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert and Rick Martin. “It bothers me, not only because we’re down, but it affects everything. Our community out-reach, we can’t donate to the people we normally donate to. It’s brutal.”
From south Florida to Vancouver, Montreal to Anaheim, a wide array of businesses located in the NHL’s 30 markets have taken a significant hit because of the lockout, which is now in its fourth month and has wiped away 625 games. On Thursday, the league canceled all games through Jan. 14.
Joe Kasel, owner of the Eagle Street Grille in St. Paul, Minn., last month wrote a letter expressing his concerns to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
“I had to look 32 of 48 employees in the eyes and inform them that I no longer can afford to keep them on staff,” Kasel wrote. “The impact on our lives is immeasurable. One city’s devastation may not seem like a powerful incentive to end the lockout; but I know this is happening in other cities around the nation.”
Chris Ray, manager of the Brewhouse Downtown in Nashville, said his establishment is losing an estimated $5,000 for every canceled Predators’ home game. That’s already a $90,000 hit, given 18 Predators’ home games have been wiped out.
It’s no different at Wayne Gretzky’s sports bar in Toronto, where much of the Great One’s memorabilia is on display.
“Yes, it’s been very slow,” said a bartender, who wouldn’t give her name. “I’m scared about January.”
The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto is feeling the pinch. Hall of Fame spokeswoman Kelly Masse said they’ve made “adjustments” to staff because gate and retail revenues are down significantly.
And so’s Hockeytown, aka, Detroit.
The downtown three-level Hockeytown Cafe, operated by Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, was nearly empty on Monday.
“If there’s not a show at the Fox, this is what it’s like in here,” bartender Molly Brown said, referring to the Fox Theatre next door. “We haven’t fired anyone, but everyone has had their days and hours cut because the Red Wings aren’t playing. We’re all suffering.”
The effect goes beyond bars, restaurants and tourism.
In Chicago, Gunzo’s Hockey Headquarters, a four-store chain that sells hockey equipment and jerseys, is losing business.
“It’s been a huge impact. Huge, huge, huge. People don’t see the games and it’s out of sight, out of mind,” owner Keith Jackson said. “It’s kind of a double-whammy for us. We’re losing out on equipment sales and we’re losing out on the jerseys and licensed apparel sales.”
With the Christmas shopping season nearly over, Jackson worries those are sales he’ll never get back even if the NHL resumes playing soon. Mid-January will be a critical time, since Bettman has said the league doesn’t want to play a season shorter than 48 games per team.
With an entire season wiped out in 2004-05, outsiders are wondering whether the two sides — rich owners and well-paid players — are indifferent to the effects their labor disputes create.
“People are disgusted,” said Tom Woolsey, owner of Andrews On the Corner in Detroit. He estimates his business is down 75 percent on nights the Red Wings are playing.
“It’s incomprehensible to me that after four or five prosperous years in the NHL, that they can’t figure out how to split $3.2 billion (in revenue),” Woolsey said.
It’s mind-boggling to John Heidinger, chairman of the Service Employees International Local 200 in Buffalo, who represents about 225 ushers at First Niagara Center.
“When you’re making 12 bucks an hour working at an arena, and these guys are haggling over hundreds of millions of dollars, I think for a lot of people it’s a hard reality to understand,” Heidinger said. “It really frustrates you.”
Sabres president Ted Black can understand the frustration.
“We are disappointed the NHL and NHLPA have not been able to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement,” Black said. “Our fans are extremely disappointed, and we know the lack of NHL hockey is having a negative impact on many local businesses. At the same time, we want to play hockey under the right circumstances that the NHL will negotiate on our behalf. … The league has our full confidence.”
The impact of another lost season would be high.
In Buffalo alone, the city’s tourism bureau, Visit Buffalo Niagara, estimates local hotels that host visiting NHL teams will lose between $850,000 and $1 million if there’s no season.
City transit is affected. Douglas Hartmayer, spokesman for the Niagara Frontier Transportations Authority, says up to 1,700 riders use Metro Rail to attend each Sabres home game.
There’s even a psychological cost, especially in a place like Buffalo, where the winters are already long, and the Sabres provide an entertaining outlet, particularly when the Buffalo Bills are struggling, as they are once again are this year.
“Especially with Pegula, you had some hope,” said Joe Allman, bartender at the Swannie House, referring to Sabres owner Terry Pegula, who’s raised expectations since purchasing the team two years ago. “They probably are our best chance to win.”
With no hockey, and the Bills out of playoff contention for a 13th straight season, there’s little for Buffalonians to fall back on.
“You want to have something,” Allman said. “And right now, we don’t have anything.”
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