Lockout dealing big blow to Sabres' arena workers
by Dave Ricci/Correspondent
They call him “Larry the Peanut Man.”
Larry Owens is an affable, 60-something gentleman with a great laugh and a winning smile who has been selling peanuts in the same spot inside the First Niagara Center during Buffalo Sabres games since 1998.
But Larry, like so many other everyday people that tie part of their income to the National Hockey League, is looking for a “Plan B” when it comes to income this winter as the NHL is in the midst of yet another lockout.
“I ordered the peanuts that will carry me over for the hockey season. So I’ve got another hundred pounds of peanuts,” Owens said. “I’m gonna have to give them away or throw them away.”
Owens, who is an easygoing guy, said he harbors no ill will to the owners or players. He understands that both sides are just doing what they have to do to protect their interests. And he says he respects the hard work players put in to reach the NHL and how most have families they are trying to do right by.
But Owens, and hundreds of others like him, are trying to do right by their families, too. And they don’t have the kinds of bank accounts that players and owners have to guard against tough times.
“We have a very small cushion,” Owens said.
Saying that it took him over a year to recover after the last lockout, Owens is fearful that he could be broke in roughly two months if the labor woes are not settled soon. Until then, he’ll keep selling peanuts at the First Niagara Center during a few spot events like wrestling.
But for the most part, for him and others like him, it’s wait and hope.
Living in a blue-collar town that prides itself on hard work and being accountable, Buffalo hockey fans are shaking their collective heads as they watch billionaires and millionaires battle over a percentage of their large pie — while the average guy is left with … well … peanuts.
“We’re pretty concerned about it,” Buffalo bar owner Pat Gentile said.
Gentile and his partners, Rich and Jack Syracuse, have owned Gecko’s Bar & Grille, a popular sports bar in North Buffalo, for 13 years. Gentile, like so many other bar owners, is wringing his hands wondering how the lockout will impact his business.
“Average three games a week — usually one game on the weekend, two games during the week. It’s going to affect us pretty bad,” he said. “We’re probably going to be about 20 to 25 percent down on the nights that hockey won’t be shown. … We’ve already discussed possibly laying off some bartenders for this upcoming year, if there’s no season, if they can’t come to an agreement.”
While Gentile said they still are lucky enough to get a great crowd for Buffalo Bills and other football games, after the NFL season is over, the Sabres and the NHL are the keys to carrying business through those winter months.
Recalling the 2004-05 season that was lost to the lockout, Gentile said he and his partners lost a substantial amount of business. But they really were just building their niche as a sports bar that year. This go-around figures to be much worse.
He said he has spoken to other bar and restaurant owners, and all of them, especially those downtown near the First Niagara Center, are very worried. In addition to the brisk business they do during games, many host pre- and postgame parties that include live music. While the season is on hold, all of those musicians and DJs are on hold, too.
Shaking his head over the whole situation, Gentile, like so many others in the city, said he cannot fathom why the owners and players can’t figure this out. What’s especially galling, he says, is as the owners and players battling over millions of dollars and both trying to portray themselves as victims.
“I really don’t think they are realizing that and I really don’t think that they have a clue what’s going on, as far as what’s out there in the real world and how hard it is to make money,” Gentile said. “We go out there and work 40 hours a week, and the average person, what’s he making, six, seven hundred dollars a week?
“They’re making millions of dollars both ways, owners and players, and they’re squabbling over this. It’s just ridiculous.”
While an obvious lockout casualty is the layoffs in places like ticket departments, the loss of income is much broader. Venders, either at arenas or private operators, as well as arena security, maintenance, parking attendants and so many other people are out of work, people that rely on the jobs or the extra cash.
Buffalo-based Delaware North Companies Sportservice, which has several clients in the NHL, expects a significant impact on its business.
“As the food and beverage services provider at First Niagara Center, Sportservice is hopeful the lockout will end soon,” Delaware North said in a statement. “That being said, it’s currently business as usual for our day-to-day staff as they focus on catering events at the Harbour Club (inside the First Niagara Center).”
Delaware North — which is owned and operated by Jeremy Jacobs (Buffalo, N.Y.), who also owns the Boston Bruins and TD Garden — said it is making sure its employees are trained and ready to go when the lockout ends. In the meantime, the company is doing it’s best to cross-utilize its people in non-NHL venues.
Longtime hockey fan and Sabres supporter John Boutet is among the fans who are sick of the rich-fighting-the-rich scene. While Boutet thinks both sides should be ashamed of themselves, he has no problem dropping blame on the players’ doorstep. A former standout high school hockey player, Boutet says it’s a travesty that players who have the God-given talent and good fortune to play in the NHL are being so petty.
“Most of these guys do not have the qualifications to do anything else and would probably be making minimum wage, if not for the NHL,” Boutet said. “Evidently, being millionaires isn’t good enough for them; they need more. They need to talk with old AFL players for a dose of reality.”
Though there is a small pocket of fans that feels a shortened season would cost them less money and provide a more intense, better brand of hockey, Gentile said that the loss of even just 20 games from the schedule — a quarter of the season — would be damaging for bars and other businesses.
Mike Hagerty, a Buffalo native who has lived in Albany for 12 years, said he feels that some fans are still somewhat frosty over that last lockout, and that another one is only going to further damage the image of a league.
“I can’t talk hockey with anyone here; people don’t get it,” he said. “And this is the Northeast. Thank God I get the Sabres, Devils, Rangers and Islanders on TV every night. I guess my point is what we already know — hockey is not popular. This will just lose more of the fan base and cause further erosion of income and salaries.”
Many Western New Yorkers plan to quench their hockey thirst through the AHL — the Rochester Americans and Toronto Marlies — while others will turn to the college game, juniors or even high school.
Still others are going with the hockey jar plan. For every day the lockout remains, some fans plan on dropping “hockey money” in that jar and then spending it on other things.
Eventually the NHL will re-open its doors. The question is, how quickly will the fans walk through those doors again?
This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of New York Hockey Journal.