NHL lockout deal has businesses hoping for boost

Companies that rely on the NHL to attract customers are anxiously awaiting the start of a condensed hockey season following a months-long lockout, but some wonder if fans will return in the same numbers.

Restaurants and bars near arenas have seen sales drop by at least 10%

A new deal expected to end the NHL lockout is good news to many businesses, such as bars including this one in Vancouver where fans gathered prior to the start of Game 3 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in Boston on June 6, 2011. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Companies that rely on the NHL to attract customers are anxiously awaiting the start of a condensed hockey season following a months-long dry spell that has cost some businesses dearly.

Claude Lesperance, owner of La Capsule Sportive, a sporting goods chain in Quebec, said the lockout has been a battle for survival that has cost him several of his stores.

Back in early October, the company was operating 13 locations across the province. But by mid-November that number had dwindled to seven, with plans to shutter two more stores.

"This could have been avoided if the lockout would have been over in mid-December or the beginning of December," Lesperance said of the latest closure at Montreal's Centre Eaton mall. "We could have made it through."

Shrinking the retail chain was necessary, he said, to "keep the company alive and the remaining stores alive."

The NHL owners and the players’ union reached a tentative deal early Sunday, and while it has yet to be ratified, the agreement is widely seen as precipitating the end of the lockout after more than 110 days.

The breakthrough in negotiations couldn't come soon enough for the wide range of businesses, from tour bus operators to scalpers, that have felt an impact from the game's absence.

Walt Judas, vice-president of Tourism Vancouver, said that local hotels, restaurants and transportation companies have all felt a hit, along with some retail shops.

"It's had a fairly dramatic effect," he said.

Boycott campaign

The lockout has also left many fans bitter, leading to worries that customers may not return in the same numbers.

A social-media campaign that encourages people to boycott the NHL has garnered more than 21,000 "likes" on Facebook and media coverage by outlets including the New York Times.

Some businesses that have slowed over the past three months wonder if customers will return in the same numbers, and if the lockout has left too many fans with a sour taste in their mouths.

"It's been tough," said Ryan Karkkainen, manager of a Jersey City retail sports store in Calgary. "We're just trying to maximize any sale in terms of hockey and most people don't want to buy hockey — they don't want to support even buying a T-shirt or a hat.

"People just don't want to support the NHL."

Restaurants and bars near the arenas that host NHL games have seen business drop by at least 10 per cent as a result of the strike, the chief executive of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association estimates.

"The close you are to the arena, the harder the hit,"  Garth Whyte said in a phone interview. "Some of our members have been holding their breath."

Low sales at sports bars

Jim Siwicki, owner of the Silver Heights Bar and Restaurant in Winnipeg, said that sales have been down about 20 per cent this winter compared with last year, when the Jets returned to the city. Still, he's optimistic that business will recover.

"It's too bad that it took so long, you know?" he said of the lockout. "I think that they could have done it a lot quicker, but nobody really knows what was said in all those meetings."

At the Melrose Bar in Calgary, manager David Fida is waiting anxiously to find out if fans will flock back to his establishment when the shorter season begins, likely in the middle of this month once the deal has been ratified.

"I think the first couple of games it's going to be interesting to see where people's emotions lie," Fida said. "And I wouldn't be surprised if there is very little traffic the first couple games ... people are still just a little upset about it."

It could be difficult for the league to recover much-needed sponsorship revenue this year as companies like Kraft have looked elsewhere to spend their advertising dollars, said Keith McIntyre, CEO and owner of marketing agency the KMAC Group.

Although the lockout has angered many hockey fans, McIntyre still believes they'll return in huge numbers as soon as the puck hits the ice.

"You know what? Hockey's hockey," he said. "That first game that CBC airs, when that gets on it is going to be a full audience. It could very well be much stronger than your typical Hockey Night in Canada Saturday night.

"People have missed the game."