Columbus missed its chance to host one of the NHL's biggest events this month, leaving more than hockey fans feeling a sense of loss.
Nov. 23 was a different kind of Black Friday for Columbus, quipped longtime Columbus Dispatch sports columnist Aaron Portzline. While throngs of holiday shoppers swarmed malls looking for deals the day after Thanksgiving, the National Hockey League made the call very few were surprised to hear: Its annual All-Star Weekend, set for Columbus on Jan. 26 and 27, would be canceled due to the ongoing lockout.
Along with it, Columbus lost $12 million in expected visitor spending, plus an additional $50 million in media exposure, according to the Greater Columbus Sports Commission. And with a Forbes-estimated Blue Jackets operating loss of $18.7 million last season, news of the cancellation is even more troubling for a sports franchise hoping to reemerge into the black.
The league awards the All-Star Weekend to a different host city each year. Its centerpiece, of course, is the game, which features the NHL's best in an exhibition match. But more than that, the weekend consists of a handful of events, including skills competitions, concerts and a fan fair, giving hockey enthusiasts the chance to meet their favorite players, get autographs and buy merchandise.
Fans have endured league lockouts before, but here, hopes were particularly high that the All-Star Weekend would help shine a light on a city seeking to raise its profile. While the stoppage means money lost for the NHL and its players, the termination of the event-as well as a majority of the 2012-13 season-is costing local business owners (particularly those in the Arena District and Short North) mightily. Much of the struggle stems from high expectations.
"We were certainly going to be full," says Hilton Columbus Downtown spokeswoman Julia Hansen of the 532-room hotel that opened this fall with arms extended to the roughly 20,000 out-of-town visitors expected for the weekend.
Because of the city's location smack in the middle of Hockey Country, with powerhouse teams in Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Nashville all within reasonable driving distance, large crowds were expected for the All-Star events. "Because of that," says Bruce Wimbish of the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, "we thought maybe there would be a bump in attendance."
Also hoping for a record turnout were owners of the many Downtown restaurants and watering holes looking to cash in on the influx of patrons. For many, the loss of the All-Star Weekend-and the season up to this point-has caused a substantial blow to balance sheets.
"The revenue is definitely not where it was last year at this time," says Michael Darr, co-owner of R Bar, the hockey-themed pub next to Nationwide Arena. He estimates sales have fallen by roughly a third, and though he says the bar itself is not in danger, it's his employees who have his biggest concern. "Their income is based off tips," says Darr, adding a few have looked elsewhere for work.
Christopher "Chico" Garcia, co-owner of Garage Bar, has also seen about a 30 percent drop in sales.
"It just figures, it's like an Ohio thing," Garcia says of the All-Star Game's cancellation. "It just seems to be in line with the Blue Jackets' record."
It's been a rough outing for the Jackets and their fans. Just a few short months after finishing dead last in the standings, the team lost its captain, two-time Olympian and five-time All-Star Rick Nash, after he asked to be traded. But even before Nash's July departure, hope was in short supply for a squad that has qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs only once in its 11 seasons.
With dwindling season-ticket sales and a roughly 80 percent average home attendance last year, Blue Jackets president Mike Priest recognizes that fans are struggling to maintain patience and optimism for a team that's had just one winning season.
"We are absolutely committed to building a world-class organization that competes every night, and our goal is ultimately to win the Stanley Cup," he says. "There's no shortcutting that. People are being put into place, and it will take time."
Central to that effort was the October hiring of former broadcaster and onetime NHL goalie, John Davidson, as president of hockey operations.
"They desperately needed a guy like him," Portzline says of Davidson, whose job will be to oversee all things hockey, including the draft, trades and overall direction of the team. "Davidson is one of the rare guys about whom I've never heard a bad word spoken. He is unanimously respected around the league."
Davidson arrives having served a similar role with the once-lowly St. Louis Blues, a squad that has seen something of a transformation over recent years led by a core of quick, skilled and predominantly younger players. "He and his staff did this by drafting well, developing players and building the foundation of the team, then adding certain pieces where needed from outside the organization," Priest explains. "By doing it the proper way, when the team comes of age, it is set to be good for many years, not just a one-and-done team."
As for the All-Star Weekend, Priest views the cancellation as more of a postponement.
"We do fully expect it to come to Columbus," he says. "The NHL has made it clear to us that they want to bring a game to Columbus and that they'll work with us to do that."
The earliest that could be is 2015; Sochi, Russia, hosts the Winter Olympics in 2014, and the NHL has not hosted an All-Star Game in a Winter Olympics year since 2002. In a statement on Black Friday, the NHL indicated its desire to return the event to Columbus "as quickly as possible."
It's no surprise that the cancellation of the All-Star Weekend has stung in Columbus like an insult added to a severe injury. But Priest views the fans much like his team: The rebound will come, with time.
"We'll earn that support back," he says. "We'll earn our way back and we'll see the results and get the fire burning again."