Commentary

Unchain My Heart

Visiting the environs of the arenas darkened by the NHL lockout

Updated: October 29, 2012, 4:05 AM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- On the corner of Eighth Avenue and 31st Street, there's a slice joint. It's called New York Pizza Suprema, and it's much better than the brass and brick and sneeze-guards suggest. This is across from Madison Square Garden. Up one side of the block and down the other are a couple more pizzerias; also Brother Jimmy's BBQ, and the peepshow at DVD Explosion, and that cheesecake place; then Irish Times and the Amadeus and the Tempest and the Blarney Stone and the Molly Wee, where the cops and the hard hats line up their breakfast shots and short beers with grim precision. This is under a billboard six stories high, all legs and heels and nylons, for the Rockettes' Christmas show.

Anyway, maybe you're working on a story and you get in line for a slice behind a busload of British tourists pale as potato meat, and you try to get your question across that sneeze-guard and into the head of any of the four guys working behind it. They're wearing red-and-white striped shirts, like a barbershop quartet. One is stretching and pounding and flinging dough into the lights while another sauces the pies and a third is paddling pizzas in and out of the ovens, the doors dropping and the heat blasting and the doors slamming shut again and the radio playing and the fourth guy yelling "who's next?" at the ceiling while the tourists look down at their pocket maps of Manhattan as if to find the answer.

[+] EnlargeNew York City Pizza
AP Photo/Dima GavryshThe narrow slice of the NHL business that goes to restaurants and bars near arenas is currently locked away, too.

"Are you losing any business to the NHL lockout?" you shout back, and the dough stops and the ladle stops and the paddle stops and three men speak at once.

"Yes."

"No."

"The what?"

The fourth guy just stares. And there, in every part, is the story of the NHL lockout.

The lockout will be wrongly described by the sporting press as "labor trouble." It is not. Like other pro lockouts of the very recent past, it is owner trouble, capital trouble, robber baron trouble. It is rich guys in hard times trying to claw back the money they wasted on their hobby when things were fat. And NHL decommissioner Gary Bettman, whose job it has been these last 20 years to make the NHL invisible to casual sports fans, is going to help them do it.

The hard news is here and here and here.

Maybe there was supposed to be a Rangers preseason game tonight. It's impossible to know for sure. Calendars of every team in the league have been scrubbed Stalin-style from websites and memory. October 2012? We don't know what you're talking about, comrade. Fitting, really, since so many North American players have defected for now to Russia's KHL.

To restaurant or saloon owners in every NHL city, a season-long lockout might mean 50 nights or more of bad business or no business at all. Make a million, lose a million. Lose a million more. It won't make much difference here in midtown, where 18,000 hockey fans can come and go unnoticed among the pizzaiola and the gawkers and the rubes, the sidewalk still a blur of square johns and dope poets and bad saxophonists.

(Eight hundred miles west the weekend before, with the brother and the sister and the cousins, there was no Blackhawks hockey in Chicago, either. Ride the Green Line out of the Loop or drive West Madison to the United Center and it's all sunshine and empty sidewalks and the promise of basketball and Derrick Rose.

As an exercise, you picture 30 arenas dark.

And even without skaters the rinks ring with silence, an acoustic trick of all that ice and Plexiglas. As loud with imagined echoes as a catacomb, each smells faintly of city water and ammonia and monoxide. With no one in the seats to warm the air, every one of them is cold as hell.)

[+] EnlargeNew Jersey Devils, New York Rangers
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesThe echoes and warmth of the Devils playoff run are gone in Newark, N.J.

Then home and headed out to Uniondale to see what difference the lockout might make to the Islanders, an antique dynasty in an abandoned museum. Before the machine can even spit out the train ticket, the news breaks they're headed to Brooklyn. Business was so bad at and around Nassau Coliseum that even a lockout can't save them. Or hurt them. They'll play a couple more years in the ruins, then move back into town and the 21st century. Into the new Brooklyn of Jay-Z and money and the Barclays Center, of Greenpoint and Williamsburg and more money, of the old borough of churches and Whitman and Mailer and Crane, of the bridge and the river and the Heights. Brooklyn falling and rising with the money and rising again.

Across the harbor Newark, N.J., remains our constant apocalypse.

The Devils and the Prudential Center and the bars and restaurants on Edison Place can't afford to miss a night of revenue. Not one. The Devils dodged bankruptcy this summer by the thickness of the ink on some hastily redrawn broadcast contracts. This city can't afford to lose them. Newark survives on hope of better days, but the Nets are gone to Brooklyn and the Devils and some concert dates are the attractions left behind. Every job at the arena, every bar and business, from Mulberry to Broad to McCarter and from Market down to Hill Street, hangs by a thread. Ask at the Brick City Bar and Grill, Loft47 or the Edison Ale House, and nobody here wants to talk about money or the lockout or what it could cost. That incredulous stare is their answer. The price is too high.

To the extent that professional sports ever intersect with real life, this is it. That the franchise deliver on the promises it made when it begged that arena from your city. Any franchise. Any arena. Any city. And that promise was more and better of a bigger pie, of jobs and prosperity and loyalty.

Instead, NHL owners want to be indemnified against their own vanity, weakness and greed. Lockout or bailout, fans and small businesses pay and pay and pay again, and can only stand and watch until the one question capital ever asks comes back around.

"You want a slice or not?"



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