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Fans, businesses hurt by lockout



Published: Thu, February 17, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Loss of the NHL season has disrupted the lives of many people in Columbus.

COLUMBUS (AP) -- Stewart Miller didn't need the commissioner of the NHL to tell him that the door was slamming shut on the 2004-05 season Wednesday.

"We all kind of already knew it," said Miller, who manages a bar not far from the front plaza of Nationwide Arena, where the Columbus Blue Jackets play. "It was already in the bag. We would have been pleasantly surprised if they had salvaged the season. But we'd pretty much written off the year back in December."

Miller didn't even watch Gary Bettman make the official announcement that the NHL was locking out the players for the rest of the season. He busied himself mixing an occasional drink and glancing at the two or three customers seated on the perimeter of the expansive bar.

In the Blue Line, the shop inside Nationwide Arena that sells almost every size and type of clothing on which you can put a Columbus Blue Jackets logo, three customers quietly stood in line.

Tony and Joann DiGioia shrugged when asked if they would miss the Blue Jackets and the NHL.

"It's kind of sad," Joann said. "It was good entertainment. It was lively at the games and it was good for Columbus. I thought the ticket prices were a little pricey, but no matter the price we would still probably have gone.

"We're going to miss them."

The Blue Jackets will miss fans like the DiGioias, too. While the arena hosts a variety of ice-skating shows, concerts and wrestling matches in the coming weeks, the franchise's players are spread out around the globe playing for a fraction of what they made in the NHL.

Trying to be optimistic

Doug MacLean, the Blue Jackets president and general manager, tried to be optimistic about the future of the league and the franchise.

"We've got some ticked-off fans," MacLean said. "We've got some fans that won't come back right away. Maybe we have some fans who'll never come back. Maybe I'm naive, but I'll challenge everybody in our office to work our tails off to get them back. I think we'll be successful. I really believe that."

In a statement, Blue Jackets owner John H. McConnell said he had a "heavy heart" because of the lockout. He apologized to the community and the team's fans and pledged to make it up to them.

"The relationship between the Blue Jackets, our fans and the city of Columbus has been a very special one," said McConnell, whose team has averaged more than 17,000 fans per home game during its four-year history despite never having a winning season. "I know that relationship has been strained by current events, but I promise you we will do everything we can to keep or win back your respect and support."

The Blue Jackets have not laid off any workers, although roughly 35 people have left the franchise since last fall and have not been replaced. Still, no season means no jobs for more than 1,000 people who are employed by the franchise as vendors, ushers, ticket-takers, security officers and janitors.

The Arena District

The businesses in the Arena District -- a mix of bars, restaurants, and shops -- have been hurt by the lockout. MacLean said he was well aware of how the labor problems have disrupted the lives of many people.

"We [the Blue Jackets] have been the centerpiece of the Arena District," MacLean said. "I'm sick when we go around to the restaurants. Some of the managers get mad at me: When are you playing? When are you playing? I don't blame them. It's devastating for them. I suspect it's 35 or 40 percent of their business."

Not far away, Stewart Miller sits in a deserted bar and wonders when the athletes, agents, owners, and league officials lost touch with the real world.

"We'll still be here next year," said Miller, who figures his bar will lose $200,000 to $300,000 because of the lockout. "I sure hope they come back and get their act together."




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