In the early morning hours of Jan. 6, when most National Hockey League fans—or former fans—were fast asleep in their beds, an exhausted NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters a tentative deal had been reached on a new collective bargaining agreement following a 16-hour marathon negotiating session in New York.
The lockout was over.
It didn’t take long for the news to spread, and before many had poured a bowl of cereal, they knew NHL hockey would be in full stride within a couple of weeks.
The news was met with mixed reactions.
Some weren’t willing to lift their spirits for athletes and owners whose arguments over money negatively impacted business owners, employees and fans throughout North America.
Others couldn’t help but be excited for the return of their favourite sport and were happy the pain was about to end for those who had suffered during the lockout.
In this week’s Close-up, Capital News reporter Wade Paterson chats with local business owners, managers and fans of the sport in an attempt to gauge whether Kelowna has an appetite for professional hockey, or whether four months of watching athletes in suits and ties has left a bad taste in their mouths.
From a business point of view, Alex Draper, president of Shut Out Sports Collectibles, is looking forward to the return of hockey.
But not without some resentment.
“I’m a huge hockey guy, and personally, I’m pissed,” says Draper, who also works in corporate sales with the West Kelowna Warriors.
“There are a lot of people I deal with in the hockey industry and everybody’s choked.”
Draper’s business focuses on autographed sports memorabilia including jerseys, pucks, footballs, baseballs, basketballs and pictures.
He says 90 per cent of his sales are generated through silent auctions at various minor hockey and community events.
Most of the items he sells are typically related to hockey.
“What I have noticed is a lot of the items have been going for minimum bid. This time last year, I’d have four or five bids on items,” says Draper.
“For instance, I went to the SPCA gala and had 10 items there. Eight of them sold—every one of them for minimum bid.”
When asked why he thinks people are hesitant to put money toward signed hockey merchandise, Draper says: “Out of sight, out of mind.”
“We haven’t had (NHL) hockey since June. I think people just got accustomed to not hearing about the Canucks.”
While Draper has struggled to sell his hockey gear, he says sales of football, basketball and baseball merchandise is on par with previous years.
After a slow fall, Draper was relieved when he learned the players and owners had come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement.
“During Christmas my business did really well, but I was really nervous about what January, February and March would bring without hockey. So the timing was perfect for me.
“But I really think it’s going to be about a month grace period to get people revved up again.”
One positive that was generated by the lockout was an increased attendance at Warriors games.
According to Draper, average attendance was around 1,000 at home games last season; this season it’s common to see more than 1,200 watching West Kelowna’s team at Royal LePage Place.
He’s optimistic those fans will continue to watch live local hockey after the NHL returns to their TV screens.
The president of Shut Out Sports Collectibles admits he’ll tune in to watch his favourite team—Vancouver Canucks—with the exception of Saturday night’s home opener at Rogers Arena.
“My protest is that I’m not going to watch the first Canucks game that’s televised,” says Draper.
“People who love the game should be mad. It’s my business, without a doubt, but my personal side is: I’m choked at these guys.”
Bart Dorssers, general manager of food and beverage at Boomer’s Sports Bar and Grill, also has a strong opinion about the 2012-13 lockout, but now that it’s over, he’s focusing on the positives that may come with the return of the professional league.
From what he has observed over the years: When spirits are lifted, spirits—and beer—are sold.
As an example he points to this year’s Wold Junior Championship.
“The World Juniors were fantastic for us because we were starved of hockey and all of a sudden we saw everybody’s spirits lifted because we got to watch some games and we realized how much we missed it.”
Those who followed the tournament know Canada’s non-medal performance ended in bitter disappointment, leaving many feeling worse than they did before the tournament started.
But Dorssers is hopeful the first NHL games this weekend will bring a similar excitement to what he observed in late December, in the early stages of the junior tournament.
The food and beverage general manager says Boomer’s was impacted last fall when NHL regular season games were cancelled.
“At the start of every hockey season we get all the hockey pool enthusiasts. They come in and do their picks, they’re in a festive mood and spirits are up,” says Dorssers.
“We didn’t get that at all this year.”
He notes things were much worse for sports pubs in the Lower Mainland.
“Every game night at Roger’s Arena, their places are packed. If you’re not going to the game, you’re watching the game with everyone (at the bar).
“The interior of B.C. didn’t feel the crunch as bad as the coast. But we did feel it.”
Dorssers says Boomer’s plans to once again subscribe to the NHL Center Ice package to broadcast as many different games as possible on any given night.
“What I’m trying to tap into is everybody’s spirits boosted a little bit. Canada’s game is back. If it helps to loosen up the stress of the economy, hey, I benefit.”
He adds this year may be redeemed if the Canucks can put together a strong playoff push.
“As the Canucks success increases, people jump on the bandwagon and it becomes kind of a festive time as well—to be part of that run for the cup.”
The sun struggles to peak through the clouds on a crisp Wednesday afternoon.
As locals lace up their skates beside the Stuart Park outdoor ice rink, they’re quick to share their thoughts when asked about NHL hockey.
No two opinions seem to be identical, but the conversations have a commonality: Passion.
One gentleman, who asks not to be named, sums up his thoughts with two words before skating away.
Others use milder language but still express disappointment as they feel their sport has been tainted.
It’s hard to say how long these emotions will linger after the first pucks of the new season are dropped in Philadelphia, Winnipeg and Los Angeles Saturday.
But it may take some time for Kelowna to fully regain its hunger for NHL hockey.