Darn right, Mike Schatzel is relieved. Every night First Niagara Center was empty, the doors of his place stayed shut. Every night the doors were shut, about $5,000 did not walk in. Take that hit long enough, and the doors may not reopen.
Schatzel is co-owner, with Jason Davidson, of Liberty Hound. The restaurant/bar sits alongside the historic Commercial Slip, within a long slap shot of the arena. The place, with its heady view of the Buffalo River, opened last spring. As the first sit-down restaurant in Canalside, Schatzel and Davidson took a risk and were rewarded. Liberty Hound was packed all summer.
They planned to stay open year-round, with Sabres game-night crowds infusing cash. Those best-laid plans were driven headlong into the boards by the National Hockey League lockout. With no hockey, the Liberty Hound’s doors stayed locked.
“We had 40 people who had to find other jobs,” said Schatzel, who’s 40 and defenseman-big. “Wait staff. Bartenders. Busboys. Chefs. It was a big hit. On a hockey night, we could bring in maybe $5,000.”
While NHL owners and players battled over billions, Schatzel and Davidson watched their bank accounts dwindle. Their workers moved on to other jobs or went on the dole. The loss of the Sabres had the concussive effect of a Milan Lucic cheap shot.
“It’s like we’ll be opening up brand-new again,” Schatzel told me Wednesday. “We have to put a whole staff back together.”
Multiply the Liberty Hound story exponentially. Factor in the cumulative anxiety that comes with bigger bills and smaller paychecks. It is an equation for the pain that rippled across NHL cities. News of Sunday’s settlement made headlines. But the real people story was written at the Liberty Hound and countless places like it. From arena ticket-takers who saw their holiday gift dollars vanish, to bartenders, servers and greeters whose jobs disappeared, the blow of the four-month lockout hit home – in a lot of homes.
Some of the Liberty Hound workers picked up hours in one of the Schatzel family’s other restaurants – Cole’s, Brennan’s, Blue Monk. Not everybody got accommodated.
“By reopening the [Liberty Hound], we’ll probably take a dozen people off of unemployment,” Davidson said as we sat Wednesday at Cole’s.
A cottage industry economy has grown around the hockey team. We’re not talking about one afternoon a week, like the Bills. The Sabres play 82 games, mostly nights, sometimes plus playoffs. It adds up to real money for hotels, bars and restaurants.
Even for places not within skating distance of the arena, merely having the games on TV draws a crowd.
“At Cole’s on a weeknight, instead of 50 people at the bar, we’ll have 120,” Schatzel said. “That’s thousands of dollars.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman apologized to fans and businesses hurt by the lockout. It was good public relations, intended to salve wounds.
It also acknowledged that there was more to the dispute than millionaire players’ contracts and billionaire owners’ bottom lines. There are businesses people depend on for paychecks, businesses built partly around the promise of a responsibly run professional sports league.
Break that promise, and an apology is the least you can do.