Dispatches from game-day ghost towns: Businesses struggle in unusual NHL season

·10 min read

Masks, nasal swabs and empty seats have all become the norm in NHL rinks.

Hockey may be back on the ice, but the conditions are far from ordinary — not only inside the arenas, but around them, too.

This is the weekend fans usually pick out their favourite jerseys and watch a rivalry matchup with friends for Hockey Day in Canada. This year, though, catching a game at the local bar is impossible in several places and no fans are allowed inside the arenas.

Here's a look at the unique scenes playing out inside and outside some of Canada's NHL venues during the pandemic-marred season:


SILENT NIGHT

The plaza in front of Vancouver's Rogers Arena is eerily quiet.

Occasionally, a pedestrian strolls through the blue and green spotlights, and every few minutes a SkyTrain rumbles by on the tracks overhead. But there are no scalpers bellowing on the corner, no fans decked out in jerseys queuing for pre-game hotdogs at Costco across the street.

There's no indication at all that, behind the concrete walls, the Vancouver Canucks are stretching muscles and taping sticks, preparing to battle the Calgary Flames.

The pre-game walk-in traffic that used to pack Shark Club a few blocks away from the rink has largely evaporated.

Some fans are still stopping in to have beers and watch the Canucks play on big-screen TVs, but tables have been spaced out, with dividers in between booths and servers wearing blue medical masks.

"It's very different than it used to be. There's still an atmosphere, people are still cheering for their team and having conversations. There's still that buzz in the air … but it's a contained vibe," said manager Grant Slatten.

The sports bar has made a greater push toward takeout and still sees limited-capacity crowds for special events, like UFC matches.

Slatten misses the bustle of game nights, though.

"It's a lot tamer than it used to be," he said. "It seems like a memory where you could high five a table or you could get up and cheer, or you could walk up to the bar and grab a drink."


OUT OF BUSINESS

Flames fans once headed to Scotiabank Saddledome early to beat traffic bottlenecks created by two rivers and a railway running through the downtown.

Pre-game options included the casino, which is currently dark, and nearby eating establishments.

The Vagabond restaurant kitty-corner from the Saddledome would normally be packed from 4:30 p.m. to just before a 7 p.m. puck drop.

"For the two-hour window, we wait, game's over, is it overtime, is it a blowout? Then we would know what was going to happen after," owner Darren Moulds said.

"You wait for the game to end and then it fills back up."

Flames' games were his "bread and butter," representing 34 per cent of the restaurant's revenue.

The Vagabond shuttered Feb. 1 after Moulds received an eviction letter from his landlord telling him to pay over $300,000 in back rent or get out.

"We had no choice," Moulds said.


GAME (STILL) ON

It's cold in Edmonton, the kind of minus-40, bone-rattling chill that causes pucks to explode on outdoor rinks.

Brent Saik knows this cold all too well. As founder of the World's Longest Hockey Game, he's seen it before.

This year, he's among the 40 hockey players lacing up their skates to challenge the Guinness World Record in the game's seventh edition.

"We are at 127 hours right now and we are going to 252 hours," Saik said around 2 p.m. Wednesday.

The record attempt comes less than five months after another notable Edmonton hockey event — the Stanley Cup being presented to the Tampa Bay Lightning in front of no fans at Rogers Place after they beat the Dallas Stars, with the hometown Oilers long since removed from the post-season bubble.

The World's Longest Hockey Game, which raises money for cancer patients in Alberta, received a special exemption from the province to play this year and has rules in place to prevent COVID-19.

Saik said it's been a difficult year with an extreme cold warning in effect for much of the event.

"It's been horrible," he said with a laugh.

The ice is chippy, skate blades are breaking in half and they're going through pucks at an alarming rate.

"The one night 50-some pucks broke," Saik said. "Any little shot — it doesn't have to be a big slapshot or anything, any tiny little pass against the boards — they just shatter, they break apart."

The goal is to keep playing until Monday and to raise $1.5 million.

"This has been by far the hardest game that I've ever done," he said. "But it's working and we're going to raise the money that's needed, so we're in good shape."


EMPTY FEELING

Before the pandemic, Browns Socialhouse on Portage in downtown Winnipeg would be buzzing with sports fans grabbing a bite before the city’s NHL team hit the ice at Bell MTS Place located right across the street.

The people who couldn’t get a seat in the rink to watch the Jets would fill the chairs at the restaurant to watch on a gigantic television on the wall, still feeling the energy of the game taking place nearby.

“When the Jets play, downtown Winnipeg definitely has an energy and a vibe,” said Justin Guest, the restaurant’s general manager.

It hasn't been the same the past 10 months.

Restaurants were closed by public health orders in Manitoba in November after a significant spike in COVID-19 case put pressures on the health-care system.

Guest said the restaurant saw a bit of a spike in takeout orders when the NHL returned last month. But it’s difficult to say whether that has sustained with the Jets' current schedule. Delivery wings and beer aren’t quite the same as eating at a table with friends watching your hometown team together, Guest said.

Guest said all nearby restaurants are feeling the financial burdens of the pandemic.

The province loosened restrictions Friday to allow restaurants to open at 25 per cent capacity. A handful of dinners came in around noon to eat out for the first time in months.

Guest said he’s already received calls from people wondering if they can come in to watch upcoming games — the Jets host the Ottawa Senators in a matinee to kick off Hockey Day in Canada.

Guest is excited for people to return, but said he feels like it won’t be quite the same as before.

“There's definitely been a loss of energy.”


TESTING, TESTING

The gate at Toronto's Scotiabank Arena off Maple Leaf Square, where fans would normally teem through the doors on the way to their seats, has been transformed into a COVID-19 rapid testing site for employees, scouts and media.

After filling out a standard online health form and going through security, people line up for a nurse to administer the antigen screening using a nasal swab, which provides results in roughly 15 minutes.

Media then head up to a makeshift press box in what would normally be a massive corporate suite, opposite from the normal gondola where reporters usually watch games. Everyone is required to wear masks, work stations are spaced six feet apart, and all player and coach availabilities are conducted via video conference call.

Outside the empty arena, on streets that would normally be packed with jersey-clad fans moving quickly through the biting February cold past hot dog vendors and scalpers hawking tickets, a few people mill about as a couple of taxis await the next fare. The nearby Hockey Hall of Fame sits dormant, while some of the bars and restaurants that would normally be jammed offer curbside delivery.

Jordan Turley, a manager at Scotland Yard pub, which sits a few hundred metres east of Scotiabank Arena, is taking orders for the one cook working in the kitchen two hours before a recent Saturday night game between the Maple Leafs and Canucks.

"We would be completely full," Turley said, comparing the empty space to a non-pandemic game night. "We would all be running around like crazy. Everyone would be in jerseys because we're such a close walk to the rink.

"We would have maximum staff, everyone would be in great spirits. It would be crazy. It would be so busy."

Scotland Yard would normally have close to 20 people working. On this night, there's only two.

"What I'm selling … it isn't even comparable," Turley said. "It's so hard to see the numbers a year ago on a game night to today. It's disgusting.

"I'd be shocked if it was even 10 per cent."

Turley worries what the vibe will be like around the arena, and in the service industry across the board, in the years to come even with vaccines signalling a light at the end of this long pandemic tunnel.

"Morale is very low already," she said. "Even though there is an end to it coming, a lot of the damage is done.

"I don't think the end being in sight is necessarily hopeful. It's just as scary."


'HOCKEY AT HOME'

Beyond the stone-arched doors of the Lieutenant’s Pump in Ottawa, the TV screens were silent Thursday night.

The Senators were facing the Jets in Winnipeg, but the downtown pub has been shuttered since Ontario came under a stay-at-home order in mid-January.

“We cancelled our Rogers subscription, and so we can’t show the games anyway,” said John Couse, owner of the 37-year-old establishment.

“It’s a wait-and-see attitude right now … At the moment everybody’s watching hockey at home.”

The Pump tried offering takeout, but found few customers without the lure of Senators matches and sit-down dining amid its red-leather benches and wall lanterns.

The homey British-themed pub used to run a shuttle that ferried customers directly to the Canadian Tire Centre, well outside the downtown core, for each Senators home game.

“Hockey is a big part of our marketing and we have a lot of Sens fans that come to watch the games,” Couse said.

“What’s sorely missed is the camaraderie and the team spirit among the fans, all the talk and enthusiasm. I think there’s still a pretty strong core base of fans even if the team’s in a rebuild and not very successful on the ice.

“We just miss being part of the whole hockey scene.”


SIGN OF THE TIMES

In Montreal on Thursday, it was unclear for a time whether there'd be any hockey at all.

Forward Jesse Puljujarvi of the visiting Oilers had been placed on the NHL's COVID-19 protocol list and a tilt with the hometown Canadiens was pushed back an hour as the league awaited more test results.

The delay didn't seem to register on the streets around the Bell Centre.

In a normal year, game nights would see the route jammed with cars and red-jersey-wearing fans. On Thursday, they were dead quiet, save for the occasional passerby, with a curfew starting at 8 p.m.

Rahul Raja walked his dog Scruffy past the square featuring statues of Canadiens greats Guy Lafleur, Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau. He lives in a nearby condo tower and said the silence around the arena goes beyond hockey.

"It’s the concerts, the shows, everything," Raja said.

At La Cage sports bar next to the Bell Centre, televisions flashed the Canadiens’ pre-game show to an empty room as a lone manager manned the phone for takeout orders.

Sportscene, the restaurant chain that owns the bar, has seen revenues drop by 70 per cent since the pandemic began, said spokesman Marc Pelletier.

Takeout orders have gone up by about 30 per cent on game days, however, and Pelletier is hopeful La Cage can reopen by summer — maybe even in time for a Habs playoff run.

By Gemma Karstens-Smith in Vancouver, Donna Spencer in Calgary, Colette Derworiz in Edmonton, Kelly Geraldine Malone in Winnipeg, Joshua Clipperton in Toronto, Chris Reynolds in Ottawa and Morgan Lowrie in Montreal.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 12, 2021.

The Canadian Press