Raleigh has felt impact of NHL lockout

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Backyard Bistro should have been alive last Thursday night, but it wasn’t.

The pseudo hamburger, pasta, and draft beer home of the Carolina Hurricanes normally would have been filled before, during and after the ‘Canes’ scheduled home game against the Nashville Predators. Instead, there was no game, and only a smattering of sports fans came through the doors.

The Backyard Bistro is one of many businesses suffering as a result of the NHL’s lockout, which has stretched more than 100 days and has resulted in the cancellation of 625 games so far, as the players and owners haggle over millions of dollars. The locally owned restaurant relies a great deal on Hurricanes’ traffic.

It fancies itself as a hockey haven as much as anything else, supported by paintings and action photos of Hurricanes players, from former greats Rod Brind’amour and Ron Francis to current stars Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner. The Bistro, which is across the street from PNC Arena on Hurricane Alley Way, embraces the hockey culture in a region where college basketball and football reign supreme.

Needless to say, these are tough times.

“Unfortunately, it’s not a good topic,” said Stephanie Ianella, assistant general manager of Backyard Bistro. “I hate to say that it’s killing us — we’re very fortunate that it’s not killing us, but it is putting a big dent into our projected profits for the year. We’re definitely at a huge loss because of it.”

Ianella said the restaurant hires additional staff to meet the demands as hockey season approaches, and with no game nights to deal with the rush of fans, who also frequent the establishment to watch Hurricanes road games, they have plenty of staffers on the books but no hours for them to work.

If not for a successful catering business, the restaurant would be in trouble. It is way behind on its projected revenue, losing between $5,000-10,000 a night with each canceled game.

“All we have right now is NC State football and basketball but no hockey and no other major sporting events,” Ianella said. “Having hockey would have been really big for us.”

The NHL is also important to the Renaissance Hotel in Raleigh, which is where every visiting team stays with the exception of the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers.

According to general manager Richard Rose, the hotel has lost $300,000 in revenue and was particularly hit when it lost out on projected three-day and two-day stays by teams around Thanksgiving and Christmas, respectively. Those dates are hard to make up, Rose said, though the hotel has had success filling other missed dates. But the Renaissance is still losing money.

“It’s been an impact for everybody,” said Rose, who also said most teams book their rooms for two-night stays. “Fans that come to see the game, the teams, come and stay overnight. The food and beverages services because teams aren’t eating here.”

Former long-time Associated Press sports writer David Droschak teamed with Kurt Dusterberg three years ago to create Hurricanesbeat.com, a site solely devoted to coverage of the NHL team. But neither has written an article about the ‘Canes or lockout in months. Obviously, they aren’t charging for advertising right now, either. Droschak says it would be unethical.

“We are professional journalists, we don’t write for free,” he said. “The players don’t play for free, the owners don’t stage events for free… I’m not going to charge someone to sponsor the site if we’re not writing. That’s not right.”

Both men have professional jobs in other industries, but the site is more than just a hobby. It was a revenue source, though the men also loved their side gigs.

“It is minimal,” Droschak said of the financial loss. “We’re both hockey guys, and we miss the game more than the money.”

Harvey Schmidt, president and CEO of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, said there’s real no way to quantify the exact financial impact of the lockout on the region. He acknowledged the residual effect is considerable, and noted that hotels, restaurants and other service industries likely have been hit the hardest.

At the core of the issue, however, is the fact that the owners aren’t making money because fans can’t buy tickets if there are no games, and the players aren’t getting paychecks. But they aren’t likely going to feel the pinch the way a part-time bartender or a beer distributor whose income is based on volume might.

PNC Arena, where the Hurricanes play their home games, requires about 1,300 part and full-time employees on game nights. But with the league on hiatus, the staff’s workload has been significantly cut.

From parking attendants, ticket takers, custodial staff, security personnel, and those who put together playing and performing surfaces, everyone has been cut back.

Dave Olsen, the executive vice president and general manager of PNC Arena, hires a staff to work the hockey season every September. But with the uncertainty when play might resume, he’s been put in a bind if and when the lockout ends.

“We’ve had employees resign their positions because when they signed on in September the expectation was they’d be working several events a month, and during the lockout we’ve only had a couple of events per month,” Olsen said. “These people are saving money for Christmas presents, weddings or whatever it may be, and they come here to work and with the numbers of events we’ve had they’ve had to look for other work.”

Olsen hasn’t heard many stories about employees unable to meet certain financial responsibilities, though according to some personnel, Christmas was going to be rather light this year compared to recent years when there was no shortage of work.

Employees other than Olsen are not allowed to speak on the record to the media about the lockout or the arena would receive a $200,000 fine from the NHL. He did, however, acknowledge the lockout’s effect on local booster clubs that work game nights at the arena.

“It affects the parents of the booster clubs or whatever volunteer groups that work in our concession stands who come here to make money for their bands or football teams or whatever it may be,” Olsen said. “And not working those hockey games affects the amount of money they’re not going to make here. It has a residual effect.”

The NHL announced on Dec. 21 the cancellation of games through Jan. 14, and the sides have not had a face-to-face meeting since Dec. 13, so the lockout isn’t going to end before New Year’s. But if it ended then, Olsen would have to immediately hire a significant number of people and quickly get them ready to host a professional sporting event. That’s not an easy task.

Even the Hurricanes’ merchandise store, The Eye, which doesn’t fall under Olsen’s umbrella, has felt the pinch. The store also has many employees dealing with cut hours, some of whom have simply gone elsewhere for part-time work. Some need the extra cash to get by, others need it to make life a bit easier and more enjoyable.

“Everybody I work with is either a teacher, a mailman or are government employees, and they need that extra job to be able to get a little more in life,” said Carrie Vaughan, a game-night employee at The Eye since 2006.

Vaughan is an elementary teacher by trade and her husband is a young professional. Two years ago, the Vaughans used the money she made at the store to take a trip to New York City for several days. With a new baby, they’d now channel that extra income toward their child’s needs, though she says they’re getting by without hockey.

“I’m fortunate I don’t have to have that job,” Vaughan said, “but it sure helps.”

The reaching effect of the NHL lockout is about more than owners and hockey players. It affects the regular folks in life, too; those who turn the day’s pages and make the region hum.

Some are managing well and some are hanging by a thread. But all are in agreement, the sooner this lockout ends, the better for everyone.