Olympics time difference and lack of NHL players have bars expecting struggle
Some regions have made exceptions to allow fans to gather in bars, restaurants in the early hours
Sports bars have tempered hopes of scoring big bucks during this year's Olympic Games in South Korea because many of the major competitions will be held long before most Canadians have crawled out of bed.
The time difference between Olympics host Pyeongchang and many Canadian cities will mean the puck drops for some hockey games as early as 2:40 a.m. ET, the opening ceremony will land at 6 a.m. ET and some snowboarders and skiers will take to the slopes at 2 a.m. ET.
The Olympics are usually a boon for bars equipped with televisions to broadcast high-stakes games and competitions — but this year "the timing doesn't really work out," lamented San Yoges, general manager of the Office Pub's two downtown Toronto locations.
"I don't really know how much of a boost we will really receive from the Olympics," he said.
Yoges said he'll open early for the hockey semi-finals and finals, and is toying with offering a breakfast buffet to lure in crowds. But for other competitions, the time difference means customers shouldn't expect anything special, he added.
In the days leading to Friday's opening ceremony, several bars across the country said they hadn't had anyone reserve tables for viewing Olympic events yet, but hoped bookings would pick up after the opening ceremony, which usually amps up the Olympics hype.
In past years when Canada made the hockey finals, bars have hosted sold-out crowds, sometimes necessitating wait lists or extending party spaces with heated patios and rooftops.
During the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia had so many people glued to their screens that Toronto and Edmonton malls and office towers rolled out lounges where fans could catch competitions if they couldn't nab a seat at a pub. Restaurants and bars across the country were packed and serving beer at dawn to watch the men's hockey team take down Sweden to win Olympic gold.
But with much of the action this year set to happen in the wee hours of the night, some regions have already made exceptions to allow fans to gather and imbibe in bars and restaurants in the early hours. Businesses in other areas of the country hope similar allowances will be made for them.
The City of Toronto has passed legislation allowing licensed bars and restaurants to start serving alcohol at 7 a.m. ET on Feb. 19, 23 and 24, when the semi-final and final men's and women's hockey games will be played.
The Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission has suggested there could be a blanket, province-wide extension of serving hours if Canadian hockey teams play in the early medal games, but businesses will have to apply for a licence. Because the gold medal games take place during regular hours, an extension isn't needed.
For other provinces it's been too early to make those calls, leaving bar owners' Olympic playbooks still unwritten.
Lawrence Tomkiewicz — the brand manager at 1909 Taverne Moderne, which has locations attached to Montreal's Bell Centre and in Laval — has tamped down expectations after looking at the Olympics schedule. Prime bar hours are filled with "mostly curling, which won't drive a lot of customers," she said.
But even if Canada's hockey teams end up in medal contention, she suspects packing bars will still be a tall order because of the NHL's decision to force league players to sit out the Games — a disappointment for Montreal Canadiens fans who adore watching the Habs' Carey Price and Shea Weber play for Team Canada, Tomkiewicz said.
That's less of a concern for Dan Fougere, the general manager at Halifax's Bubba Ray's Sports Bar Too. He admitted the lack of NHL stars minimizes his own excitement around the Olympics, but he said that overall he isn't worried about the time difference having a large impact on crowds because "people will sacrifice a few hours of sleep to see a big event."
Matt Kittle, the general manager of Red Card Sports Bar, had his fingers crossed that the City of Vancouver would approve an application he submitted to allow his business to serve alcohol during popular morning sports. But since the Vancouver riots after the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup final in 2011, Kittle said the city has been "hesitant to approve any activities with beer, so we have been restricted."
Even if Red Card doesn't get approval, Kittle said he plans to offer drink specials, throw contests for Olympics swag and to bring in former Team Canada athletes and high-profile skiers and snowboarders in hopes of boosting crowds.
"Hopefully, it will be enough to bring people in," he said.