Thursday should have been a big night for hockey fans here, with South Buffalo native Patrick Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks coming to town for their only game of the season against the Sabres in First Niagara Center.
Fans wearing jerseys and blue-and-gold gear would have packed the arena to the rafters and filled bars across the region.
Instead, if you stopped by the Cobblestone Bar and Grill, which bills itself as “your Buffalo Sabres hockey headquarters for pregame warm-ups & post-game parties,” on Thursday night, you found it empty.
“I’m not even open,” said co-owner Marisa Proietta-Milbrand, who estimated that the South Park Avenue tavern gets 600 patrons on home-game nights but now is down to a skeleton crew and open mainly on weekends and for holiday parties.
The Cobblestone is one of numerous businesses in downtown Buffalo and beyond feeling the pinch of the National Hockey League lockout that began Sept. 16 and has seen the cancellation of 17 Sabres home games through Dec. 30.
No hockey games means no fans parking downtown near the arena in paid lots, ordering food before the game, buying a beer afterward, booking rooms at hotels or meeting friends at a sports bar to watch the Sabres. At least one business owner is worried about the lockout’s long-term effects.
“No hockey means no revenue, and that’s less revenue that gets reinvested into the City of Buffalo,” said Mark D. Croce, who owns downtown restaurants, bars and parking lots. “New projects on the drawing boards get delayed.”
With no end in sight to the standoff between NHL owners and players, elected officials and government agencies are stepping in to offer resources to small businesses most directly harmed by the loss of hockey-related revenue.
This afternoon, at the prompting of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., the local office of the Small Business Administration will host a seminar providing strategies on how to survive the lockout.
“I strongly encourage our businesses to work to take advantage of all that is available to help make it through this difficult time,” Gillibrand said.
This is the second time in eight years that NHL owners have locked out their players in a labor dispute. The last work stoppage cost the league the entire 2004-05 season, and frustrated hockey fans fear this lockout will end just as badly.
“At this point, I think I feel like most fans: Just tell me when it’s over,” said Andy Boron, managing editor of the Die by the Blade blog, who summed it up as “squabbling over money.”
He said he misses the hockey action as well as the social aspect of meeting at a bar or a friend’s house to watch the games. “It’s what drives a sense of community in Buffalo in the winter, just as the Bills do in the fall,” he said.
This year’s lockout, which enters Day 90 today, is taking the heaviest toll on the businesses near First Niagara Center and downtown.
Christmas parties and related revelry have kept many of those restaurants and taverns afloat, but their owners are worried what January, February and March have in store for them if the NHL dispute isn’t resolved in time to salvage a partial season.
Templeton Landing will shut down its regular restaurant business for a couple of months this winter because of the lockout, concentrating on parties and other catered events.
“We’re going to have to close for January and February, which we’ve never had to do,” said Christy Vukelic, manager of the restaurant at Erie Basin Marina owned by her family.
The restaurant relied on big pre- and post-game crowds, offering shuttles to the arena and discounts for people who brought their ticket stubs.
Without the Sabres games, Vukelic said, “it’s devastating.”
Tim Wiles, owner of the Swannie House on Ohio Street, said he’s worried about people forgetting about his place.
“When you have hockey, it keeps your establishment in the back of people’s minds,” he said. “They might stop for lunch [on another date]. But if they don’t have that stimulus to come to the area, then we kind of get lost in the shuffle.”
Hotels such as the Avant Building’s Embassy Suites, which puts up nearly every visiting NHL team, could lose up to $1 million if the entire season is lost, according to Visit Buffalo Niagara.
“Downtown, that surrounding area, they really rely on that business,” said Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, Visit Buffalo Niagara’s president and CEO. “The other thing about this particular loss is that hockey happens during a time that is not our traditional tourism season.”
Bars near the arena aren’t the only ones affected.
David Shatzel Jr., owner of Brennan’s Bowery Bar at Main Street and Transit Road in Clarence, said the lack of hockey has meant slower business.
“There’s no question about it,” he said. “It’s substantial.”
Brennan’s is considered a hockey hangout where Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff would stop by on occasion after a game.
“People are really ... they’re just fed up,” said Shatzel, whose family owns Cole’s Restaurant on Elmwood Avenue, among other businesses. The players and owners “make a lot of money,” he added, while “there are people out there struggling.”
The Sabres, who have not imposed layoffs or pay cuts on their full-time staff, say they recognize the lockout’s negative effect. “We empathize with the frustrations that small-business owners and fans alike from the Buffalo area have in regards to the NHL lockout,” Sabres President Ted Black said.
The seasonal, part-time employees who staff the arena on game nights haven’t had work this season.
The game checks provide them with a little extra spending money, and those workers have sought other part-time jobs, taken up new hobbies or otherwise tried to occupy themselves, said John Heidinger, union representative with the Service Employees International Union, Local 200, whose members include arena ushers and ticket-takers.
“Some people just sit around waiting for this to end because they don’t know what to do,” he said.
Today’s Small Business Administration program offers assistance from representatives of SCORE, the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, the Canisius College Women’s Business Center and Empire State Development, among others.
The SBA and other agencies can’t offer grant money to ailing businesses, but they will provide owners ideas on how to cut costs or market themselves to nonhockey fans to better position themselves to make it through the lockout, said Franklin J. Sciortino, the SBA’s Buffalo district director. About 60 businesses had signed up as of Thursday morning.
State Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-South Buffalo, said businesses can take advantage of loan programs such as Empire State Development’s Linked Deposit Program or Small Business Revolving Loan Fund.
Kennedy, who shares Sabres season tickets, also said he wrote a letter to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman urging the league to provide “emergency hardship grants” to affected businesses, but he never received a response.
“It’s petty,” Kennedy said of the lockout. “They’re thinking about their own pocketbooks, while the community and businesses are left holding the bag.”
Some businesses are learning a lesson from the lockout.
At the Cobblestone Bar, renovations are under way on the second floor to add a “chic restaurant” set to open this summer that would bring in business year-round.
“We’ve realized now, after the second lockout, we can’t depend on hockey for a huge percentage of the business,” said Proietta-Milbrand, co-owner.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had the wrong figure for how much local hotels lost do to the lockout.