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Monday, October 25, 2004
Updated: October 26, 4:35 PM ET
Wide right! No goal! Now locked out

By Don Barone
ESPN.com

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Construction debris. Northeast tumbleweeds.

A 40-mph wind. Rain with a name, "lake-effect rain," as Buffalo's TV weather guys call it. It's raining sideways. The conditions couldn't possibly be worse. Anywhere.

HSBC Arena in Buffalo
Empty parking lots like this one could mean up to $70,000 in lost revenue for Buffalo.
It begins to hail. Then thunder.

The hockey gods do not want us here, in the empty parking lot of the HSBC Arena, Buffalo Sabres land. It's 7:30 p.m., plus nine minutes. That's when the Sabres' PR department said the puck hits the ice for the opening faceoff.

Not tonight. Not any night soon.

For this night, opening night in Buffalo, there is only wind, rain, sleet. Even the seagulls are afraid to take to the sky.

The parking lot, which is normally filled, stands alone. The arena sign glimmers in the waves of rain on the pavement. A lonely plastic tube, construction debris from a nearby building, blows by, looking for a parking spot.

Northeast tumbleweeds have come to see the Sabres play.

If only Metallica could skate. In the arena where pucks should be flying, it was heavy metal that took center ice. A rock band at the blue line was the last to bathe in the HSBC glare. Then slowly, section by section, hockey turned out the lights.

"Lives of the Lockout" will run periodically and profile people whose lives have been impacted by the NHL's work stoppage.
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• Poor get poorer
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• 'Movie Night in Canada'
• Legend-in-waiting
• Coaches: East | West
Listen closely to the sound of 18,595 empty seats. High in the rafters, a clink, a clack, movement. The 40-mph wind outside tickles the catwalk inside. This season, that noise is the sound of hockey. Ghosts above the cheap seats.

There's a storm brewing in Buffalo. It's a blue-collar town used to wearing snow boots under its Halloween costumes and new Easter suits. Only posters of the pope outsell those of Jim Kelly. In the Queen City of the Lakes, fame takes few words: Snow. Chicken wings. Wide right. No goal.

Money is tight, for the people, for the city. Twenty-two percent of the city's residents are older than age 60. In recent years, 300 to 400 teachers have been laid off and schools throughout town have been closed. If you want to sing, learn an instrument, or play sports after school, Mom or Dad needs to write a check. Pay-to-play is a fact of life in Buffalo.

Firehouses have been closed. And the police force has been cut, through attrition citizens are told. It still means fewer cops on the street. Buffalo is broke, $20 million in the hole, and 400 city workers have lost their jobs. A state finance control board has been sent to the city.

HSBC Arena
No one lines up to buy tickets -- for a Sabres game or any other event -- just hours before what would have been the team's home opener.
And now, the only major-league team that plays within the city limits has been locked out. It's "No goal!" all over again. "The Tonight Show" and snow jokes. It's tax dollars put on ice. For Buffalo, it's one more lock, one less key.

Marc Coppola, native Buffalonian, majority leader of the Buffalo Common Council and one-time Finance Committee chairman, is desperately trying to pick that lock. "It's like walking a tight rope," he says. "Anytime the shoe can drop on our budget, we incur a loss. A dollar is substantial. You can only cut so much materials, supplies. Bodies wind up going, and services end up going.''

Cars in the arena parking lot mean cash in city coffers. Empty is not good, and even losing $70,000 in parking revenue can cause big problems. Says Coppola: "Seventy thousand dollars to the city may not seem like a lot, in the grand scheme of things, to other cities, but to Buffalo that's more than a police officer makes, a teacher, a principal. It could close down two senior citizen centers."

This in a town where about 1-in-5 people were born at least 30 years before the NHL arrived. Now, if there is no season, there are no tax revenues, no breaks. "If we lose $200,000 to $300,000, which is easy, one of the first things to be looked at will be the senior citizen centers," Coppola says. That would affect the people who built Buffalo. Next would be "services," police, fire, animal control and dispatchers. Cuts to people, not pencils, to balance the books.

In Buffalo, empty seats mean empty pockets. Every locked-out game means the 600 people who work at the HSBC Arena get their pockets picked. When the NHL locks up, 125 ushers and ticket-takers lose $50 a night.

Buffalo on $50 a day. Here, second jobs get you cable TV. Not digital, but premium. With a second job you can buy, not lease. Fifty bucks times 41 games helps pay for your kid's education.

In Buffalo, Pat "Fitz" Fitzgerald is a union guy. Thirty-three years in the Service Employees International Union and now chairman of Local 200, which represents ticket-takers and ushers. Fitzgerald knows his members and what the job means to them. "A lot of our people are middle income, middle class," Fitzgerald says. "They count on this money as part of their budget. It's not vacation or going-on-trips money. They basically use it to pay mortgages, pay car loans, pay tuition for their kids. It's not fun money; it's money they need month in, month out."

Darryl Carr and Marisa Milbrand
Darryl Carr and Marisa Millbrand, co-owners of Cobblestone Restaurant, employed only one bartender opening night. "It's devastating," Millbrand said.
The players might choose between playing, in say, Sweden vs. some other cold place, but for the guys who bring the fans to their seats, the options are far different. Fitzgerald says the lockout means tough choices in the real world. "What are you going to pay?" he says. "Do you not pay your gas bill to pay your tuition? Do you not pay your mortgage to pay your car?"

Ask John Parkinson. He spent more than 20 years seating the Sabres faithful. "Section 200, that's me," he says. Pride defined in rows. A South Buffalo guy who grew up a 9-iron from the "Aud," the Sabres' original home of fog and ice. It, too, is locked now.

Parkinson, a recently retired nurse, says he needs his "50 bucks a night, minus tax."

"I was counting on the $2,500 to $3,000 that I would be making for the Sabre season to help supplement my income," Parkinson says. "I knew I was on a razor's edge as far as retiring. The offsetting of the Sabres' games & would help offset it. That was working until the lockout of the National Hockey League players."

The arena employees aren't the only ones who have been deserted. How desolate is downtown Buffalo? Sans Sabres, the trolleys travel empty. Buffeted by the wind and rain, a lone security guard patrols the pathos.

Think four deep -- beer, wings, beer, shots. Game night at the Cobblestone Restaurant, probably the closest eatery to the Sabres' arena. A factory/warehouse for a couple hundred years, the past five or so it has been a favorite stop for fans before and after the game.

One block over the NHL locked the doors, and the bar's owner says the chain has shackled her business as well. Marisa Millbrand, co-owner of the Cobblestone, says game nights mean "easily 300 to 400 people, five bartenders, 15 employees" in the restaurant. Not this opening night. On this night there's one bartender, and she's making coffee. "It's devasting," Millbrand says. "It's 50 percent of our business, gone." Layoffs are looming.

Joe Luero
Usually, 600 people work game nights at the HSBC arena. On opening night, Joe Luero was the sole employee on duty.
It's worse for the bartender. Used to $200 tips a night when the Sabres play, 41 times a season, Keila McConkey has problems. "Seventy percent of my income comes from Sabres nights," she says. "I depend on that for my living." A grad student at Buffalo State, McConkey says she cut back on spending "a lot." School might be next. "This is how I pay for my tuition, bartending," she says.

No one comes into the bar on opening night.

Back at the arena, Joe Luero is on patrol. Every night, Luero guards HSBC Arena. "Five miles around all the levels, takes a couple of hours," Luero says. "Stomach looks good, huh?"

On this night, and every subsequent non-hockey night, Joe will make his rounds. In a cavern that holds 18-thousand plus, there's only Joe.

Always on duty, always on guard, watching and waiting for the NHL.

Don Barone, a feature producer for ESPN, can be reached at don.barone@espn.com