With the end of the National Hockey League lockout, the real work begins – in Langley, that is.
Local bars, restaurants, and sporting goods stores hope the Vancouver Canucks’ 48-game season will have a positive residual effect on their businesses.
Sports bars including the Shark Club’s Walnut Grove location will no doubt benefit when NHL hockey action flashes across their big screen TVs starting next Saturday, Jan. 19.
General manager Brent Chow knows from experience that NHL hockey can mean big business at the Walnut Grove Shark Club.
“We’ve been doing a lot of little things to make up for the loss of the hockey crowd but with hockey coming back, we’re definitely excited,” he said.
Chow said on nights when the Canucks were taking on hated rivals such as the L.A. Kings or Chicago Blackhawks, the Shark Club would be full of fans.
“Whereas, now, on what you’d call a Wednesday wing night, we’d have a half room,” he said.
To welcome back the NHL, Shark Club is giving away jerseys, prizes, and memorabilia, Chow said.
“We’re pretty excited and stoked,” he added.
Langley isn’t only a Canuck-mad community – there are plenty of fans of different NHL teams who live in the area, as well.
“We actually get a lot of Flames fans out here,” Chow said. “Any kind of Hockey Night In Canada in general brings people in. I can attribute an extra 20 to 30 people coming in every night to the fact that they want to come in and see a hockey game, any hockey game.”
Chris Levis, who owns Levy’s Source For Sports at 105-20740 Mufford Crescent, saw little interest in NHL merchandise prior to, and especially during, the lockout.
“Hockey sales for that sort of thing usually doesn’t pick up for us until after opening day [of the NHL],” Levis said.
Christmas and playoffs are also popular times for Vancouver Canucks’ jerseys and merchandise sales.
However, this Christmas, jersey sales “were nonexistent,” Levis said.
That said, Canucks’ jerseys are by far the most popular item, he added.
Since the lockout, the drop-off in NHL merchandies sales has been “significant,” Levis said, which is why he is taking a wait-and-see approach as the season approaches.
“We’ll see in the next little bit as the buzz gets going,” Levis said. “Some fans I think are still disgruntled, but we’ll see what happens here in the next little bit. I think [Canadians] will jump on board a little bit quicker than our southern neighbours.”
If the Canucks go deep into the playoffs, Canucks’ items historically fly off the shelves.
“Last year, it didn’t pick up,” Levis said. “They were out of the playoffs [in the first round] and then everyone forgot about the Canucks pretty quickly.”
Over at the Langley Events Centre, members of the Langley Rivermen junior A hockey team hope to keep some of the momentum they've built since the lockout started Sept. 15.
The Rivermen have seen a slight uptick in fan support from the 2011/12 campaign.
The club averaged 845 fans at each of its 30 home games last season.
Through 16 home dates this year, the number has risen by more than 200 fans, at 1,064 per game.
“There definitely seems to be more interest,” Rivermen head coach and general manager Bobby Henderson said. “Crowds are up, not a huge amount, but they’re definitely up with all of the teams in the league.”
Forward Derek Sutliffe has also noticed the difference this season.
“I see a lot more kids out at our games,” he said.
The ’Men will have their work cut out for them to keep new fans they’ve gained since the lockout – especially on Canucks’ televised game nights.
“It’s definitely easy to stay at home and watch [hockey on TV], especially after a long day at work,” Henderson said. “The fans who are getting out to the rink, I think they’ve been rewarded with some pretty entertaining hockey here, for sure.”
The numbers tell the story.
While the Rivermen possess a modest 15-14-1-5 record, they’ve scored 124 goals, more than any other team in the league, and have the league’s top goal-scorer and point-getter in their lineup in Florida native Mario Puskarich.
“We have a great group of young kids, here,” Henderson said. “The future’s bright.”
Henderson, a former defenceman with the Chilliwack Chiefs and University of Nebraska-Omaha, would have rather had the NHL season scrapped, than see the pieced-together model fans will come to know starting next weekend.
“My personal opinion is, if they’re not going to start the year, and they’re going to go this long, then they should just scrap the season and regroup, and go with the whole season [next year],” he said. “I don’t like the idea of a half season, especially when you’re playing for the Stanley Cup.”
Part of winning what is considered to be the hardest trophy to obtain in pro sports is going through the grind of a full season, plus playoffs, Henderson said.
“From a purist’s perspective, I’d like to see them just scrap it and play a full season.”
Starting the NHL season without any exhibition games is like hopping on a treadmill at a full sprint, and the bi-product could be injuries.
“These guys are multi-million dollar athletes and you’re throwing them out there,” Henderson said. “There will be a definite higher risk of injury right now.”
Rivermen defenceman Viktor Dombrovskiy said widespread NHL coverage will mean the ’Men will have to step up their game to keep its current fan base interested.
“Junior hockey’s a good league,” he stressed. “It’s a younger league before the pros or college, so it’s a good league.”
For his part, Dombrovskiy is happy to see NHL hockey return.
“When you’re growing up, you always watch your favourite teams. My favourite team is Detroit so I can’t wait to see my favourite players, like [Pavel] Datsyuk,” the 16-year-old said. “You can look at the game and see how they’re playing, and compare yourself to them, and see what you have to do. It’s a good learning tool.”
Sutliffe, also an ardent Red Wings fan, is excited to “see the boys back on the ice.”
“You can always pick up extra tips from the NHL stars,” he said. “I’m happy it’s settled and hopefully we can start watching some games, pretty soon.”