NHL's return sparks relief, cool optimism

Heat centre Ben Street fires a shot at Rochester Americans goalie David Leggio on Saturday at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre. Street is likely to be recalled by the Calgary Flames for training camp now that the NHL lockout is over. - John Morrow
Heat centre Ben Street fires a shot at Rochester Americans goalie David Leggio on Saturday at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre. Street is likely to be recalled by the Calgary Flames for training camp now that the NHL lockout is over.
— image credit: John Morrow

by Dan Kinvig and Alex Butler, Abbotsford News

The tentative deal still needs to be ratified, and schedules for training camps and games have yet to be set, but 113 days after the labour battle began, the National Hockey League and its players association finally struck a new collective bargaining agreement.

There is no guarantee that hockey fans – many of whom were angered by the NHL’s fourth work stoppage since 1992 – will come running back.

But in Abbotsford, there was a sense of relief and cautious optimism among those impacted by the league’s impending return, from local businesses who rely on pro hockey’s popularity to draw customers, to Abbotsford Heat players who will soon be headed to the NHL.

Paul Esposito Sr., owner of Finnegan’s Pub & Grill, said business dropped as hockey fans stayed home.

While Esposito said the lockout impacted business, he felt it affected fans more. “People feel robbed. Now do they really want to support the NHL?”

But he thinks fans will eventually be ready for the return of hockey.

“The enthusiasm will come back. Maybe not immediately.

“Our TVs are going to be turned on to the Canucks. We’re glad to see the puck is soon to drop.”

Randy Bishop, owner of Mad Dog’s Source for Sports in downtown Abbotsford, said his store also felt the lockout. In a normal year, he sells about $25,000 worth of NHL jerseys. This year, he moved about $600 worth.

“If you’re not watching hockey, you’re not going to put on a jersey.”

Bishop doesn’t think the return of the NHL will have fans rushing out to buy merchandise right away, at least not until the playoffs.

“There’s a bad taste in people’s mouths,” he said. “I think it’s going to have a long-lasting effect.”

Other businesses weren’t impacted by the lockout to the extent they’d expected.

Trevor MacKay, manager at Cheers Bar and Grill in Abbotsford, was surprised to find that business was comparable to the year before.

“It was actually helpful to our business,” said MacKay, who speculated that more people are staying home to watch the NHL on TV in high definition instead of heading to a bar.

“Without hockey, people were getting stir-crazy and wanted to get out.”

MacKay said he expects business to stay steady at first, then pick up during the NHL post-season.

“People are still mad,” he said. “But it’ll come back for the playoffs.”

In the Heat locker room, there was a sense of excitement.

Sven Baertschi, the Calgary Flames’ top prospect, would have likely started this season in the NHL if not for the lockout. He got the news of the NHL’s return early Sunday morning via email.

“I almost couldn’t believe it at the start, because it’s been such a grind (with the negotiations),” Baertschi, 20, said with a grin. “But it’s great. Hockey’s back.

“Hopefully I’ll get invited to camp and get this thing started.”

The Heat got an attendance boost in the absence of NHL hockey, drawing an average of 3,819 fans over the course of 18 home games this season. That represents a 7.7 per cent increase over the 3,545 they averaged in 2011-12.

But while the lockout benefited the Heat, it hasn’t manifested itself on a steady game-to-game basis. Rather, the boost came in the form of occasional attendance spikes – most notably, back-to-back sellouts on Nov. 9-10 versus the Oklahoma City Barons, a team stacked with young NHL stars. Aside from those two outliers, the Heat’s average crowd was 3,417.

So while the lockout may not have been the Heat’s salvation, the NHL’s return isn’t likely to have a massive negative impact either, according to team president Ryan Walter.

“We’ll see how it plays out,” Walter said. “We certainly saw some increase, especially around the Oklahoma City games. That, to me, was all lockout. It was NHL in Abbotsford, basically, and to have those two sellouts was wonderful.

“But other than the Oklahoma City games, I’m not sure it had a huge upside. And I’m not sure (the NHL’s return) is going to have a huge downside. We’re growing the business in Abbotsford...”

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