Economic impact of NHL lockout worsens

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Most everywhere Buffalo restaurateur Lou Billittier turns these days, he 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 is struggling because he also provides salmon and chicken wings to the Sabres arena, 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 is 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 outreach, we can't donate to the people we normally donate to. It's brutal."

From 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. Thursday, the league canceled all games through Jan. 14.

Joe Kasel, owner of the Eagle Street Grille in St. Paul, Minn., a month ago 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, Tenn., 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.

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.

The downtown three-level Hockeytown Cafe, operated by Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, nearly was empty a few days agp.

"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."

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 nearly over, Jackson worries those are sales he will never get back even if the NHL resumes playing soon.

After an entire season was wiped out in 2004-05 and the current lockout developed, outsiders wonder whether the two sides -- rich owners and well-paid players -- are indifferent to the effects of the labor dispute.

"People are disgusted," said Tom Woolsey, owner of Andrews On the Corner in Detroit. He estimated his business was down 75 percent on nights the Red Wings would be 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."

In Buffalo alone, the city's tourism bureau, Visit Buffalo Niagara, estimates local hotels that play host to visiting NHL teams will lose between $850,000 and $1 million if there's no season. 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 such as Buffalo, where the winters already are long, and the Sabres provide an entertaining outlet, particularly when the Buffalo Bills are struggling, as they are once again this year.

"Especially with Pegula, you had some hope," said Joe Allman, bartender at the Swannie House, referring to Sabres owner Terry Pegula, who has raised expectations since purchasing the team two years ago. "You want to have something. And, right now, we don't have anything."

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