Those uber-privileged cigar-sucking fat cats playing god with our game won’t be the only ones kissing off a ducket or two this fall. Ditto for the 700-odd puck-wielding demi-gods whose jerseys we don roughly 82 times a year. Arena workers around the league were summarily given notice by their respective employers that they could expect fewer shifts, shorter work-weeks
and/or layoffs as a result of the NHL work stoppage. From mascots to security personnel, they’re all feeling the crunch.
While many arena employees are part timers, a loss of income is still tough to take for anyone, from the college kid slinging slabs of ‘za in the concession stall to the crew carving out a living maintaining the ice, to the guy sitting in a parking booth freezing his tail off, and beyond.
The minions caught in the crossfire of an ownership group led by Gary Bettman, whom wages a war of wits and too few words against Donald Fehr and the P.A, are perhaps the ones hit hardest in all of this. For many an owner, an NHL franchise is a plaything; a vanity item, and a solitary piece of a much, much larger empire. Like some toy truck requiring frequent battery changes, when the drain of playing with it outweighs the enjoyment it brings, the moving parts quickly start to loosen and rattle before ultimately falling off. Hence, the third lockout under the Bettman regime.
Not surprisingly, those wheelers and dealers coming most unhinged are also quite often the ones doing the lion’s share of the rattling. They are also the ones most prone to blatant acts of poor stewardship, signing elite players to back-diving, bonus-laden lifetime deals they can ill-afford afford to cut due to sagging box office takings. Even Bettman himself frowns at such acts considered contrary to conventions established in the now-obsolete Collective Bargaining Agreement, if not in letter, than certainly in spirit. Recently, he characterized such deals as smacking of circumvention, although perfectly permissible under the recently expired accord. Does it not strike anyone else a tad ridiculous that the group that locked the players out for a year to get a deal of their own design then goes to such great lengths to exploit its principles?
The solution to the madness, depending on one’s personal bent, lies either in the owners sharing pieces of an ever-growing pie more equitably, or the players submitting once again to the whims of those cutting those big cheques and taking it on the chin for the good of the game. Sadly, there does not seem to be anything resembling middle ground at this stage, as both sides are apparently deeply entrenched, with Bettman executing 82- game chunks of the season he holds hostage until the players, many of which are enjoying paid European vacations, ultimately blink.
The inconvenient truth is that both sides are more than wealthy enough to ride out a prolonged stoppage without any noticeable alterations to the lavish lifestyles to which they’ve grown accustomed. Sadly, the game as we know it, along with those who rely on it to varying degrees to make a living, won’t fare so well if an agreement isn’t realized soon. As tweeted by NHL analyst Bob McKenzie recently: “I think, like last time, we’ll lose the season before anyone blinks”. Bobby Mac is something of a soothsayer on all things puck, and this latest pronouncement may prove prophetic, as so many of his previous social media musings have.
For many a local gin-joint, sports bar or hot dog vendor, 41 nights with no local NHL hockey in town means hundreds of thousands in accrued lost revenue, and criticizing said proprietors for relying on hockey to stay afloat is about as meaningful as finding fault with a blackjack dealer for believing he/she stands a better chance of making a living in Vegas than, I dunno, Wainfleet, Ontario. Successful establishments and entrepreneurs of all descriptions do their due diligence when setting up shop, paying premium real estate fees and exorbitant tariffs to operate in the downtown core for the purpose of cashing in on the city’s sports culture. Fall and winter pub promotions based around hockey, are generally planned in concert with corporate sponsors well in advance of the NHL’s opening night and lengthy stalls can prove catastrophic for an outlet manager who has resources committed.
Let’s hear from a businessman in the hospitality industry on the subject. Tim Wilcox, Mississauga manager of Wacky Wings, a chain of casual eateries across Ontario says, the losses in potential revenue as well as the impact on the workforce the brand has put time into training -- and resources in developing -- aren’t so easy to take. Without discussing dollar figures, based on our chat, it’s not just downtown locales dealing with the economic downturn caused by the NHL stoppage:
“We anticipate seeing a noticeable decrease in attendance on hockey game nights versus last year. We also are seeing a reduction in group bookings on game nights. This in turn negatively impacts our serving staff in an already challenging economic market”.
In an effort to be proactive, Wacky Wings will continue to attempt to mitigate the effects of lost revenue during game nights by driving up patronage during other sporting events: “We are…seeing a shift in hockey clientele towards the NFL”.
How impactful that shift in clientele will be for businesses like Tim’s is still unclear. What was clear during our exchange was the concern Tim and his CEO share for the impact on his staff.
While I cannot disclose dollar figures, we’re not talking chicken feed, here, Nation. And that’s just one hospitality-based entity with a handful of locations, and there are literally hundreds of others with similar stories to tell. A veritable army of minimum wage workers in the industry relying on opportunity to earn gratuities for good service will soon find themselves vocationally displaced due to lack of patronage if the lockout drags on. Wait and bar staff, like arena workers, parking lot attendants, security guards and cab drivers will have to get used to shorter shifts and frequent nights off due to shrinking demand for staffing on would-be game nights.
Is the NHL board of governors required to give a damn about the college student slinging wings and beer, or the local business owner paying through the nose to cater to sports-centric patrons missing in action? No, they are not, but that doesn’t make the problem disappear, any more than the often caustic reaction to the suggestion that the problem exists will. There’s no revenue sharing discussion these members of local communities across NHL cities are considered in. Scoff if you like, but that’s the reality of the current situation, for thousands of Canadians.
For puck heads like you and I, no NHL hockey is just an inconvenience, like gas price fluctuations, Toronto traffic and the inevitability of GO train delays. I’ll get by feeding my jones the way I often do, and support AHL hockey to a greater level. I may log into a live KHL stream and watch the likes of Ovie, Chara and Malkin strut their stuff across the pond. Hell, I might even get my butt out to a few Steelheads games and throw some support behind the little guy. And please - spare me the rhetoric about MLSE owning teams in both NHL and AHL leagues; my quarrel is not with MLSE. Shelling out for a loss leader competing in an entirely different league is nothing close to resembling a conflict of interest. For thousands in the hospitality industry relying on game night revenues to put food on the table, this stoppage is more than a matter of convenience; it’s a shot in the wallet that is taking a heavy toll.
If there’s any doubt about the toll it takes on ACC workers, here’s what former employee Sean McAuley, now driving a limo in Niagara Falls said recently on the subject:
“It’s going to destroy the businesses around here for sure,” he said. “I remember in 2004 when they had a lockout then, it was bad as well.”*
The palatable position may be to feign apathy during this unwelcome lapse in action, but who are we kidding -- no hockey hurts -- on many levels, and the minute the moratorium is lifted, we’re all gonna come running back with our wallets wide open. We shouldn’t have to deprive ourselves of a key piece of Canadian tradition to send Bettman and the NHL a message, and frankly, in markets like Toronto, you’d be in tough to make a dent on their bottom line, considering the local corporate community underwrites so much of their operating costs. MLSE profits whether you hit up a game or two a season or not. No Burkie foot-long chili dogs for you this winter? No big whoop; nobody in MLSE is going hungry…well, nobody in the office, anyway…
*source: Bars and Stores Lose in NHL Lockout, Maryam Shah, Toronto Sun