Assessing the NHL lockout fallout
The lack of hockey has been felt far and wide by Montreal businesses
Owners of downtown parking lots are suffering with the NHL season on hold.
Photograph by: Allen McInnis, Montreal Gazette
Sports stores, parking lots, hotels, memorabilia outlets, ticket scalpers, bars and restaurants — wherever there’s a buck to be made off hockey in this city, the NHL lockout is cause for despair.
It’s hard to quantify, but some bars are reporting a 25 per cent to 30 per cent drop in sales; parking lots are down by 50 per cent, and half-price sales on Habs gear in stores are routine.
And the scalpers — some of whom rely on the Habs for three-quarters of their annual revenue — are going back to their day jobs.
Fact is, without the Habs’ usual home games Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, downtown Montreal can seem like a wasteland at night.
No hockey, no fun. No fun, no spending. And no end in sight.
The lockout is now in its 56th day; negotiations between the league, club owners and the NHL Players Association for a new collective agreement are off and on, although they’ve ramped up lately; games have been cancelled to the end of November; and no one knows if the 2012-13 season will ever be played.
Meanwhile, business suffers.
At Sports Crescent on Ste. Catherine St. W., hockey items usually account for a good 50 per cent of sales. Now, most of it’s priced to go — at 50 per cent off. You can get a Carey Price T-shirt made by Reebok for $17.50, a Reebok Centre Ice Playdry polo shirt with the CH logo goes for $29.99 and there’s a wide choice of cut-rate hoodies, too. And don’t worry about finding help from the staff — there’s no one else in the store.
Well, almost no one. On what would have been a home game night (Habs vs. Canucks) last Saturday, store manager Santana Enrique had so little to do, he brought in his 5-year-old daughter, Yasmine, to save the cost of a babysitter at home.
“Normally, it’s completely packed in here,” said Enrique, who’s been in business 20 years but has never seen it so slow. Not even in the last lockout, in 2004-05, did sales go south so quickly.
“We’ve cut our prices in half, but still nothing is selling — we are really, really hurting,” he moaned.
In October 2011, the store did $68,000 in sales; that was down to $32,000 this October; some days it barely makes $200. Enrique has had to return merchandise to wholesalers and close one of two stockrooms upstairs, and instead of four staff members he gets by with two, including him. Montreal’s a hockey town, he said, but not anymore.
“We don’t have basketball, we don’t have baseball, in winter we have nothing, just hockey. If there’s no hockey, where are you going to go?”
Certainly not the bars. Marty Devey is the manager of the Irish Embassy, a large Bishop St. pub. On a regular Saturday night when there’s a game at the Bell Centre, over 200 customers come in three or four hours before puck-drop. They eat and drink and listen to the pregame radio show broadcast live by TSN 690 right on the premises. Last Saturday, the TSN crew was there, but their show was decidedly downbeat — and inaudible to the few patrons at the bar; the sound system wasn’t on. “I usually hook the big speakers up so the house can hear,” Devey sighed. “Now there’s no point.
“There’s only so long you can talk about the lockout, right?” he said as hosts Simon Tsalikis and Bobby Dollas, a former NHL defenceman, chatted into their headsets about basketball and football and whatever else was on the agenda that day in the wide world of sports — ones actually being played. A CFL game in Winnipeg between the Alouettes and the Blue Bombers was on the overhead TVs.
On hockey night, the pub would normally be at full staff — about 20 employees, from bouncers to bartenders to busboys. Now it gets by with 10. On a Tuesday game night, the bar at the back would be filled with 80 customers; now “it’s a ghost town,” Devey said. Business is down 15 to 30 per cent. “We have our regulars, but those 80 people who come here with their Canadiens outfits on, making a lot of noise, that ambience is not there anymore.”
Instead, Devey has to be proactive and go after business from other Bell Centre events, like rock concerts. Every day, he checks the arena’s website to see who’s coming, then he goes on Facebook and other social networks to advertise to that demographic and encourage them to come to the Irish Embassy. He’s also trying to line up Habs stars like P.K. Subban to participate in TSN events at the pub.
“The Canadiens cast a huge shadow,” he said. “We all rely on them in the wintertime, and when they’re not at the Bell Centre we all lose. We lose employees, we can’t give them the shifts they want to get, so they’re not making money, and those are the same girls and guys who would go out and spend money. It’s a domino effect. If there’s any comfort to take in this, it’s the fact that everyone else — our competition, so to speak — is affected. Everyone’s talking about the woes of this lockout.”
One of the unfortunates is Steve Tsatas. Talk about bad timing: The president and founder of Madisons, a Quebec chain of New York-style grill restaurants, opened his 14th location at the end of October, right in front of the Bell Centre. It’s a big place — 325 seats — built at the foot of the 1250 René Lévesque skyscraper where a National Bank was before. Four thousand people work on the office tower’s 47 floors, so lunches are busy, and nighttime events at the Bell Centre keep the kitchen hopping. But hockey — that would made things really hum.
“The decision to locate by the Bell Centre was 100 per cent based on the hockey,” Tsatas said last Saturday over an espresso in one of the restaurant’s booths. Outside, scalpers and fans of that night’s Lucian Bute-Denis Grachev boxing match at the arena were starting to arrive — good for Madisons. So were other events there in the restaurant’s opening days: concerts by the Australian Pink Floyd Show, Journey and ZZ Top, and a minor-league hockey matchup between the Hamilton Bulldogs and the Syracuse Crunch on Friday. But nothing would be better for business than the Habs.
“We estimate those game nights would represent close to 25 per cent of our sales, which is substantial,” Tsatas said. He knows that without them, the growing pains of his latest and most high-profile restaurant will be all the more acute. Not that there’s much he can do about it. “It’s disappointing, the lockout — a) speaking as a true Habs fan, and b) as a business. Having the team here would really make a difference.”
Just talk to the scalpers. In a cold, raw wind outside the ZZ Top concert Wednesday night, J.D. Wolf trolled the sidewalk barking out “Tickets! You want tickets?” but knew he’d come away with little from the evening. “Concerts, you only make a couple of bucks, but hockey’s where the money’s at — it’s very big.” Except now — “it’s dead.” In a typical year, about 60 to 70 per cent of his sales are hockey tickets; on a night when Toronto or Boston are in town, he can sell a pair of seats behind the Canadiens bench for $600 to $900 — double or triple their face value. Now that income is gone, and Wolf’s looking for work.
“The last lockout, everyone survived, because the economy was still strong,” said Wolf, who’s been scalping tickets for 15 years. “Now the economy’s gone from bad to worse — I mean, look at the gas prices,” he said, pointing to the service station across the street, “they’re ridiculous. Even if the hockey comes back — and I don’t think it will this season — it’s not going to be strong like it used to be. Gas is up, food is up, people aren’t going to spend money on hockey games when they’ve got priorities to take care of.”
And him? “I’m going back to snow removal,” Wolf said, almost embarrassed by the admission. “I wouldn’t be shovelling snow if the hockey was here, that’s for sure.”
One bright spot: Sales are hopping at the 530-unit Tour des Canadiens — a condominium tower to be grafted by late-2015 to the Bell Centre’s western flank, and where Habs season-ticket holders get first dibs. “When people decide to live next to the Bell Centre and the legend of the Montreal Canadiens, it’s a decision that transcends the lockout,” said developer Daniel Peritz, senior vice-president of Canderel Group. “It’s a long-term decision. The franchise has been around for over 100 years, and I think everyone in their heart of hearts knows that there will be hockey. We would have liked to have a season to build momentum ... but (the project) has still been exceptionally well received.”
For others around the Bell Centre, however, it’s a different story.
Owners of parking lots are suffering. They haven’t taken down their “Bienvenue au Centre Bell” signs yet, enticing drivers with the CH logo and game-night flat rates of $15. But they’re calling the gridlock in the NHL a nightmare for traffic to their properties. “It’s killing every parking lot, every restaurant, every store, everything,” Emmanuel Mavridakis, owner of Stationnement E.M. Parking, said Monday afternoon at a lot on Drummond St. His company has several lots totalling about 400 places around the Bell Centre.
“Hockey gives life to downtown — without it, it’s dead,” he said emphatically as a few random flakes of snow — the first of the season downtown — suddenly drifted into view, a reminder of the long winter ahead. Mavridakis has been in business 32 years and can’t remember when it’s ever been worse. “These days, I close every night at 7:30,” he said. “People are saying hockey’s not coming back until January; I don’t know. We can hope. We have no choice.”
A drop in tourist traffic — the kind of people who come to Montreal, take in a Habs game, stay overnight, go up to Mont Tremblant the next day and then home — is affecting hotels downtown as well.
Thomas Deegan is general manager of the Novotel on de la Montagne St., whose restaurant, L’O, is also not nearly as busy as it usually is. The hotel has lost business during the week from out-of-towners who used to come for the hockey, Deegan said. “Especially the Saturday games, when people would come from out east or the United States and see a Canadiens game — that’s what I’m losing. You have to deal with it; what else can you do? I hope it comes back. But I don’t think they realize the damage they’re doing — both sides, players and management.”
Retailers who deal in NHL collectibles are also hurting. Alan Pearson has owned Raxan Collectibles, a sports card and memorabilia store in Kirkland, for 23 years, selling licensed NHL products like T-shirts, hockey cards, photos, blankets and more. He’s so livid over the lockout and what it’s done to his business, he’s announced on YouTube that he expects to go out of business by the end of the year. The video — a manifesto against greed and a plea to save what’s left of his life’s passion — is called The NHL Destroyed My Business.
“I have paid current and former players for autographs, and now the millionaires and billionaires are killing the little guy like myself for the second time in eight years,” Pearson said, referring to the 2004-05 lockout that resulted in the entire season being cancelled, as could well happen this time, too.
“I am like a car dealership with no 2013 models to sell,” he continued. “The goodwill I have built up for the last 23 years is basically gone.” With no new inventory “and a backlash of fans who no longer want to buy items of their favourite teams,” the time is nigh when he’ll have to close up shop.
“No one wants to give more money to greedy people who make more money in one year than most make in 40 years,” he said bitterly.
Except, perhaps, the real fans — Ron Biron, for one. In town the other day with his wife, the Dunbarton, N.H., tourist came into the Sports Crescent store and plunked down $35 — full price, plus tax — for an official NHL Canadiens jersey for his 2-year-old grandson, Jackson, in Tucson, Ariz. You see, Biron (pronounced Byron, the American way) considers the Habs part of his French-Canadian heritage, and he wants his grandson to grow up feeling the same way. The last lockout turned Biron off hockey for some time, but now he’s reliving it through the boy.
Sort of — the NHL is AWOL on TV. What will he tell his grandson about the lockout when he gives him the jersey? “I won’t tell him anything,” replied Biron, who normally gets to an NHL game twice a year but usually makes do with cheaper outings to see the affiliate teams. “I’ll just tell him it fits him well and it’s part of who we are, and I’m sure he’ll love it. And hopefully the lockout ends really, really soon and we can take him to games. We’re still fans, and I think that’s the key to the whole thing.
“So, a note to the owners: Move!”
© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette