“No one wins. One side just loses more slowly.”
— HBO’s The Wire
Which is the more troubling scenario for the NHL on what would have been opening night: That sports bars in hockey-mad markets are half-empty?
Or that establishments in bigger, more lucrative markets are jam-packed with sports fans who couldn’t give a damn about the NHL lockout?
In hockey-centric cities like Ottawa or Montreal, where the Senators and Canadiens would have been rekindling their rivalry while 20,000 fans screamed themselves silly on Thursday night, the league can reasonably assume those flag-waving fans will come crawling back before the ink is even dry on the next contract.
But in coveted markets where the casual fan’s loyalties are divided, like New York, St. Louis, Washington, Detroit — all swept up in October baseball fever — contract squabbles between millionaire players and billionaire owners don’t even register with any but the most hardcore hockey fan.
What sports fan in those markets, or others, would wade into a conversation concerning such irksome acronyms as HRR — the much-ballyhooed hockey-related revenue share that remains the major obstacle in negotiations — when others, like MLB, NFL, and soon enough, NBA, dominate the water cooler chatter?
All those Hollywood celebrities that ventured out to the Staples Centre during the Kings’ Stanley Cup run — while the entire league hooked its wagon on the runaway momentum — will soon be occupying the very same courtside spot at Lakers games where hockey’s Holy Grail was awarded a few short months ago.
Meanwhile, there’s no sympathy for NHL players, there’s no sympathy for the owners, and so all that remains in the void is apathy unhinged.
And perhaps the most troubling sign of all is the evidence of that apathy seeping north of the border into places, like here in Ottawa, where that sentiment simply didn’t exist when it came to our nation’s great frozen game.
On a bitter October night, when most fans would form a huddled mass over a cold beverage and a wall of TV screens at a favourite local watering hole, most barstools are either deserted or their occupants are tuned in to whatever else happens to be on.
On the Elgin St. strip that was once ground zero for the Sens Mile revelry that erupted during the ’07 run to the Stanley Cup final, smatterings of patrons halfheartedly flip between the Yankees game and the NFL Thursday nighter.
“It’s definitely disappointing, but there’s other stuff going on,” says Megan Bishop, general manager at the same St. Louis Bar & Grill that would normally cater to a packed house on the NHL’s opening night.
“(The lockout) is probably keeping some people from going out, but others are still coming out and watching football instead. We’ll show Aussie rules rugby if we have to, whatever people want to watch.”
That’s a whole lot of hockey-related revenue — and a share neither the NHL owners nor players will touch — being flushed right down the tubes.
Just ask Peter Jennings, owner of E.I. Sports & Collectables at Billings Bridge, who set up shot in 2007 with the entire city swept up in the pinnacle of Sens fever.
“It’s a disaster as far as I’m concerned. It’s severely hurting our store,” he says. “Normally at this time of year people would be getting hyped up about a new season starting, and maybe looking for new products, whether it’s a T-shirt or a hat, and that’s just not happening.
“It’s hard to tell the long-term effects. You can look at it on a weekly or monthly basis, but there’s no question (sales) are down.”
Sales are down, certainly, but so are spirits.
“People just don’t care,” Jennings says with more than a touch of bile rising in his throat. “There’s such apathy among people coming in, just saying ‘Wake me when it’s over.’ And that hurts our business badly. They don’t understand how the league can’t solve this.
“At the end of the day, (players) are replaceable commodities. People move on, and either way, they’re the ones who lose.”