SUN Hockey Pool

Hockey war hurting T.O. business

DAVID STEINHART -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:20 AM ET

Toronto's hockey industry is on life support, and estimates show the risk of it flatlining is high if the rest of the season is cancelled. While NHL clubs have saved the cost of all the in-game hoopla at their rinks throughout the current lockout, anyone directly associated with the usual hockey schedule -- performers at between-period shows, private-box hostesses, merchandise sellers and even street musicians who open their guitar cases looking for coins -- is suffering greatly.

A conservative estimate by StatsCan has the NHL lockout costing Canada's entertainment industry alone about $70 million so far, or $17 million for each puckless month.

Extrapolate that over the course of an entire hockey season and the cost hits $153 million.

On the street, the pain of no hockey to bars, hotels, restaurants and other businesses at least partially reliant on the NHL season in Toronto is incalculable.

FROM 42 GAMES TO NOTHING

Forty-two nights of Leafs' home-game business could be stripped away to nothing, leaving establishments looking for other ways to take up the slack.

"You can't replace the NHL in Toronto," says Mike Young, general manager of Gretzky's Bar, beside the SkyDome. "We're a hockey place, so of course the NHL being down has affected us negatively."

Young is typical of most bar managers in that he speaks in hushed tones about losing business.

After all, he has a boss to answer to and doesn't want to sound overly negative.

But he knows Gretzky's has felt the pain and will feel more if owners and players continue their stalemate.

"The next few months are going to affect us a lot more than the first four, especially as we move closer to playoff time," he said.

The word layoff has not as yet hit Gretzky's Bar. But employee schedules have been reduced, Young said.

Rick Powers, a University of Toronto professor and sports marketing specialist, says the "trickle-down effect," felt from the ice to the cash register, is occurring at Toronto businesses.

"I'd say that city bars, restaurants and hotels have already lost into the low millions," he said. "And if the season is scrapped altogether, the NHL will lose $500 million in sponsorships. And that will have a big effect on advertisers (many locally) who are not pouring their dollars into hockey, while being forced to look elsewhere to make up the ad gap."

It's not just so-called sports bars feeling the pinch. Even drinking establishments that don't cater to hockey fans are scrambling.

Ivan, manager of Down One lounge on Front St., says the lockout continues to chip away at business.

"With nothing going on at the Air Canada Centre on hockey nights, we lose out, it's that simple," he said.

EDGINESS

A straw poll of city hotels produced very little on-the-record chat. And although occupancy rates are back to pre-SARS levels at many, there is an edginess out there.

One source at a downtown hotel, where NHL teams stay, said lockout losses are mounting.

"I can see the difference in business," the source said. "In the past, we looked forward to teams booking big blocks of rooms. Now, it's quiet at a time when it's usually bustling with autograph seekers and people milling about."

Most analysts said that it's particularly tough to gauge specific hotel losses, but each has suffered bigtime on one front: They've lost NHL business -- about 30 to 40 rooms per visit which can't be replaced.

Prof. Powers worries Toronto's overall downtown core will suffer even more once the season is cancelled.

"If you break it down, 19,000 fans go to Leaf games, which means they are looking for a place to eat and drink before and after," he said. "That's a lot of extra dollars for businesses on game night that will disappear."

So where is that extra hockey money going? Not to plays or the city's theatres, Powers says.

"Hockey fans really don't spend a whole lot on plays."

Corporations have also shifted their sports spending as the shutdown continues. Recent polling suggests firms are doling out less and less on entertainment these days in general, with about 15% of their overall budget going to hockey, while executives use money they would have spent on hockey to take their families on vacation.


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