Owners, players aren't alone

Updated: February 17, 2005, 9:25 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

There are probably 100 gathering places like Newks across the NHL universe. They might not all have the great wooden deck that looks out on the St. Pete Times Forum and Tampa's Channelside area. And they might not all have the crunchy grouper, for which Newks is famous. But they are in every NHL city, attached to the arenas like brightly lit barnacles offering fans a place to meet, to commiserate, to celebrate and to share the game.

Still, for all their sameness, for a few magical weeks last spring nowhere else was like Newks. The bar literally grew up with the Lightning, so much so that after Game 7, the Newks gang received an invitation onto the ice where the Stanley Cup had been awarded.

"It was probably one of the most intense things I've been through in a long, long time and I've been in the restaurant business a long time. It was electric," general manager Kim Curtis said. "Was the place built for hockey? It certainly was."

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On Lightning game nights, Newks would add between 15 to 20 staff members to handle the influx of fans. None of those people, who range in age from 18 to mid-60s, are needed this season, except for the occasional concert.

Now, with the cancellation of the 2004-05 season, Curtis expects revenues to drop 50 percent.

"They haven't been able to work. That's the bottom line. It's not a pretty picture," Curtis said.

The NHL, like any large corporation that operates in 30 cities, is at the center of a delicate web of relationships. That web was ripped apart when commissioner Gary Bettman and union chief Bob Goodenow cut off its financial support for the entire season.

Ticket takers and ushers, cleaning staff and parking lot attendants, restaurateurs and bar owners, companies that supply linens and ones that service the ice resurfacing equipment, bus companies, equipment companies -- they're only part of the long list of people and industries suffering from the collateral damage created by the NHL lockout.

Ray Barile, the president of the National Athletic Trainers Association, has been the St. Louis Blues' athletic trainer for 10 years. He has treated and cared for a slew of multi-millionaire stars over the years, from Glenn Anderson to Peter Zezel. Now the father of two boys, 10 and 12, he has had to take a freelance job at a friend's physical therapy clinic to make ends meet.

Most teams have kept trainers and equipment managers on staff, Barile said, but most have cut salaries anywhere between 10 percent and 50 percent. NHL trainers earn an average salary of $60,000 a year, while equipment managers make an average of $55,000.

Some trainers have found work in gyms and clinics, while equipment managers have tried to land jobs in sporting goods stores or mom-and-pop repair operations, which have also felt a pinch from the lockout.

"Our membership is being hurt tremendously, there's no question about that," Barile said. "We're the guys that are kind of left behind."

Another byproduct of the lockout has been the cancellation of the annual meeting of trainers and equipment managers, the first time in 30 years the event won't take place. The educational forum and equipment trade show would have drawn 375 industry members, Barile said.

According to an NHL source, each team budgets in the neighborhood of $400,000 for sticks, helmets, skates, pucks, nutritional drinks and other items needed to operate. The lack of orders is a $12-million blow to the equipment industry.

Among those whose company is taking a hit is Robin Burns, owner and president of Mission-Itech, one of the top hockey equipment manufacturers in the world with as many as 275 employees. Burns wouldn't divulge his company's lost revenues or staffing reductions as a result of the lockout but said, "it'll be worse the longer it goes."

Burns is also the president of the 150-member International Hockey Industry Association. He said companies that worked around the clock last spring to produce licensed Calgary Flames and Tampa Bay Lightning jerseys are now laying off staff because the market has withered to nothing.

InGlasCo, of Sherbrooke, Quebec, which makes about 300,000 pucks and souvenirs for NHL teams annually, laid off half of its staff prior to the cancellation of the season.

The NHL represents only a fraction of hockey teams throughout the world. That's the good news. The bad news is it's also the biggest and best stage on which to unveil new lines of products. Fans in North America can't watch Ilya Kovalchuk play for AK Bars Kazan of the Russian elite league so they don't see Bauer's Vapor XXX hockey stick or CCM's Vector skates. And if they aren't seeing NHL stars' new gear they aren't buying it, or bugging mom and dad buy it for them.

"You've got a space shuttle with no launching pad," Burns explained. "Kids from 7 and 8 through to 14 and 15 years old, they live and breath it."

Even people who have no business dealings with the NHL are being affected. Every NHL city has lost hundreds of thousands of tax dollars from the teams, the players who visit on road trips, and ticket and concession sales. The city of St. Paul, Minn., for instance, will reportedly lose $369,000 in sales tax linked to the Wild.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation president Robert Rabinovitch has predicted the public broadcaster, home to the flagship property "Hockey Night In Canada," will lose $16 million.

The Globe and Mail, citing government figures, estimated it would cost the Canadian economy $138 million.

Tallying the total economic impact of the lockout is difficult because it all comes down to the fan and the affect the lockout will have on his or her dedication to the sport. Sporting goods retailers and marketers insist NHL fans are the most loyal in all of pro sports. This lockout will test that belief.

Julie Stevens, a former women's hockey player, coach and now a hockey scholar teaching in Brock University's sport management program in St. Catharines, Ontario, believes the lockout is shifting even Canadians' attitudes about the NHL.

While Canadians on the whole are still passionate about the sport, Stevens said many fans are finding their fascination with the NHL has merely been an addiction to the form of the game.

They'll come back, Stevens predicted. "But they might be more astute and demanding about the game they want to see."

Jim Boone, president of the National Hockey League Fan Association, likens what fans are experiencing to the stages of grief -- shock, anger, denial, apathy.

"It sort of feels like a family member has died. OK, maybe not a family member, maybe a close friend," he said. "I'm sort of between anger and apathy. You say, how could this possibly have happened? Then, after a while, it turns to apathy. You find other things to do."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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