Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

City hotels, restaurants and bars cheering for NHL resolution

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With the possibility of a lockout hanging over the NHL, downtown businesses are preparing for the worst.

A year ago, owners of bars and restaurants in and around the MTS Centre were giddy with excitement at the prospect of 15,000 hockey-mad fans descending upon downtown 41 times during the season. Today, they're planning for life without hockey.

"We're pretty much nothing without the Jets," said Courtney Isfeld, assistant general manager at the Boston Pizza location just a stone's throw from the Jets home rink. "If there is a lockout, it's going to affect our business terribly. (The Jets) are our whole fall and winter business."

Hotels stand to be negatively affected, too, as many Jets fans come from beyond the Perimeter Highway and often stay the night or weekend in Winnipeg. Jim Baker, president and CEO of the Manitoba Hotel Association, is afraid of losing the momentum that has built up over the last 12 months.

"(A lockout) is a step back in terms of the buzz and the buzz is important. You have repeat people who want to come up from Minnesota or Thunder Bay for hockey and we don't want to lose that revenue. It's going to be a hit to the business," he said.

Not every cloud on the horizon is black, though. The arrival of IKEA's much-heralded store in late November or early December has the potential to mitigate much of the negative impact from any lockout. Baker, however, isn't consoled by the silver lining.

"I'd rather have a plus and a plus than a minus and a plus," he said.

Business owners can't shutter their doors until the NHL and its players association come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement -- they have long-term leases to pay, after all -- so they'll have to be more creative in convincing customers to darken their doors, according to Dave Angus, president and CEO of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.

The very places that benefitted from the return of the NHL last season are the same ones that will suffer in the event of a lockout, he said.

"There is certainly concern but they're entrepreneurs, they'll find a way to get through. They'll have to market in other ways, such as promoting a little harder or having some more specials," he said.

For example, Isfeld said concerts are too sporadic to bank on for regular business so her team will likely focus its efforts on building up its lunch crowd. It will be virtually impossible to replace all of the lost sales, particular over the noon hour, as lunch customers are in and out in an hour and buy a minimum of liquor compared to more boisterous evening crowds.

The fact that so many Winnipeggers were reintroduced to downtown Winnipeg last hockey season has given Angus some confidence they won't completely abandon the central business district if the season opening is delayed.

"They'll come downtown to watch NFL football or Major League Baseball playoffs or to eat at a new restaurant they discovered. The impact of the Jets doesn't go away. I still think there will be opportunities for downtown businesses to make economic gains," he said.

"If there's a lockout, it's not going to last forever. The crowds will come back."

There are no answers yet for Jets season ticket holders wondering what will happen in the event of a lockout. Team spokesman Scott Brown said it will continue to operate "business as usual until we're informed otherwise."

You don't need to be an historian to remember the last lockout of professional athletes. The NBA shortened its season from 82 to 66 games last season after it took a 161-day delay to come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement with the players.

Aaron Seehusen, a spokesman for the Minnesota Timberwolves, said the team refunded ticket holders for the nine home games that weren't played and provided fans with discounts on merchandise and at concession stands.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 15, 2012 C2

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