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On Hockey Nights, a Center of Inactivity

MCI, Surrounding Businesses Feel Hit From NHL Lockout

By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2004; Page D01

It's a Wednesday night in early November and the Washington Capitals should be hosting the New Jersey Devils at the 18,277-seat MCI Center, but the arena is empty and dark. A floor-to-ceiling steel curtain seals off the main entrance on F Street. What normally passes for the ice rink is a giant, gray slab of concrete. The goal nets are hanging on a wall, not far from the idle vehicles that apply new coats of ice between periods.

The only sign of life at a concessions stand is a pilot light from the grill.

Kurt Kehl, Caps' director of communications, points out team banners while standing on floor where the rink would be. (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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Outside the building, the rhythm on the streets and sidewalks has dropped a notch. You could mount a go-kart race in the new Gallery Place parking lot, which had hoped to park several hundred cars on hockey game nights. The bar area at Austin Grill, normally wall-to-wall with Capitals fans, is nearly empty.

An owners lockout has led to the cancellation of a what is now a quarter of the 2004-2005 NHL season. While the area surrounding MCI Center is thriving, boosted by the recent opening of a 14-theater multiplex and retail center above the Gallery Place Metro stop, many local businesses say they are starting to feel the loss of hockey crowds that normally pour into the downtown area a couple nights a week this time of year.

The arena's 600 part-time employees who work Capitals games have lost a valuable source of income. And parking garages, restaurants, bars, sports stores, even the Metro, which is drawing about 7,000 fewer passengers through the Gallery Place station on scheduled game nights, are taking a hit.

"We're definitely missing hockey," said Stephano Dubuc, owner of EPARK of D.C., Inc., which manages a 700-car garage under the new Gallery Place complex adjoining MCI Center. "We will have to cut back if hockey doesn't start playing."

The prospects of that happening soon are slim. The NHL's 30 owners, led by Commissioner Gary Bettman, have locked out players in hopes of curing the league of its economic ills. They want to institute a system that would limit the amount of money each team could spend on salaries, similar to the salary cap in place in the NFL.

The NHL says it lost $224 million last season, with about two-thirds of the teams, including the Capitals, unprofitable. The NHL Players Union says the losses are much lower, and Forbes magazine recently estimated that the losses were less than $100 million.

The two sides are not negotiating. The league has canceled the All-Star Game scheduled for February in Atlanta, and the conventional wisdom of people in and out of the game is that the entire season likely will be lost. Many of the sport's best players already have taken jobs skating in professional leagues in Europe and Russia.

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and his partners, who say they have lost $100 million since they bought the team five years ago, voted with the other NHL clubs to shutter the game until they get a new labor pact. As a result, the Capitals' revenues have dropped to virtually zero, with nothing coming in from tickets, luxury suites and concessions.

An average Capitals game, based on last year's attendance of 14,720 per game, draws about $900,000 in tickets and concessions alone, not including tens of thousands more in advertising and promotions from sponsors. If just 10 percent of those fans spend $10 each before or after the game, that is around $15,000 that gets circulated into local businesses.

Ten of the Capitals' home games have been canceled so far. If the entire season is abandoned, Leonsis and MCI Center majority owner Abe Pollin stand to lose millions.

"We're going to lose money as a result of the hockey work stoppage," said Matt Williams, spokesman for Washington Sports and Entertainment, Pollin's parent company for MCI Center and the Washington Wizards and Mystics professional basketball teams.

But Leonsis, who owns slightly more than 40 percent of Washington Sports, says he is losing less money by not playing hockey under the old labor agreement this year than he would be if the Capitals were on the ice. Leonsis says he will lose around $10 million if the season is canceled, about a third of what he lost a year ago. And the losses are being absorbed by a prepaid, $10 million lockout fund that the Capitals -- along with each other NHL club -- set aside in anticipation of the labor strife.

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