NHL Lockout Leaves Chinatown Bars On The Bench

by Chris Chester

The streets are still busy outside the Verizon Center Dec. 11, but the energy one would typically find on game nights is absent. (Photo by Chris Chester)

Business owners in D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood have taken a major hit from the NHL lockout.

The NHL lockout has cost Washington Capitals fans more than 40 games this season so far. For D.C. businesses that depend on revenue from the seasonal infusion of hockey fanatics, the lockout has turned the Chinatown neighborhood into “an epicenter of suck.”

That is how Daniel Williams, general manager at the Iron Horse Taproom, describes the area surrounding the Verizon Center in downtown D.C., where the Capitals play. His bar is located just a block away, on 7th Street NW, well within the Verizon Center’s sphere of influence

“I think one thing that the hockey lockout has shown is that Chinatown is vulnerable on its own,” Williams says. “In the winter, if you don’t have something going on down here, people aren’t really coming to Chinatown to hang out anymore.”

Things are much the same just two blocks down 7th Street at RFD, where the allure of craft beer and shuffle board draws in a sea of red Capitals jerseys on game nights.

Owner Josh Alexander says the lockout has been a stressful time. Hockey season is usually when the bar is at its busiest, and they are feeling its absence acutely.

On a Tuesday night in December when the Capitals were supposed to be playing their hated rivals the Pittsburgh Penguins, RFD is populated, but bartenders say it’s nowhere near what it would have been on a big game day.

“I would say monthly sales are down $100,000-$200,000 from a heavier month during the season,” Alexander says. “We’re used to these months being our busy season. It’s getting more stressful every day.”

Alexander says that this was a game that, had the NHL not been locked out, could easily have made RFD’s month.

How far does fan loyalty go?

While bars and restaurants struggle without hockey, some Capitals fans, like Robert Hammond of Woodbridge, Va., say the lockout has been great for their wallets.

“I’m not spending $50-$100 on tickets, not paying for parking, not paying for gas to get up there, not buying jerseys, not buying anything hockey-related,” Hammond says.

Season ticket holder Matthew Witting doesn’t let the NHL get in the way of his love for the sport. He attends minor league games, as well as games in Europe, to continue to get his hockey fix.

But as much as other hockey leagues can be a fun distraction, Witting hasn’t abandoned the Capitals or the local businesses he once frequented on game nights.

He organized “The Opening Night That Isn’t,” a bar crawl to bring together die-hard Capitals fans on what was scheduled to be the team’s home opener against the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 12.

Hundreds of people in Capitals jerseys flocked to Chinatown to support their favorite game-day watering holes.

“Folks were talking about opening night — what to do, how to protest,” Witting said. “It was just supposed to be the Caps Road Crew and assorted friends, and people said, ‘This is is a great idea; let me invite my friends.’ And boom boom boom, it blew up from there.”

Witting said he thinks most established businesses can survive the lockout, but many may have to let some employees go, and that’s not something he wants to see.

“That’s why we didn’t want to make this event a protest. What’s the point?” Witting said. “Let’s find something positive we can do. At least throw our weight around as fans, there are at least some things we can control.”

And while he remains frustrated with the state of the league, Witting said doesn’t think owners should be too concerned about losing fans like himself.

“It’s just sad for us real fans, who are seriously invested in it. We’re going to come back,” Witting said. “There’s a little bit of self-loathing in it. How can we let ourselves be used like this?”

Hammond echoed a similar sentiment, likening it to an abusive relationship.

“The most frustrating thing is that people don’t care that the fans miss it,” said Hammond. “The owners don’t care. The players might care — they say they care — but it doesn’t mean they do. I just miss hockey.”

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Anticipating the long-term effects for Chinatown

Dan Williams says the Iron Horse Taproom is ready to welcome hardcore fans like Witting and Hammond back whenever the lockout ends, but he isn’t as confident that casual fans will show up in the same numbers as they did in years past.

“This would have been the year they could have broken into the mainstream,” Williams says. “If they lose the season, it doesn’t just hurt us this year, but it severely damages the brand for the next who knows how many years. And it’s going to have another long-term effect on the bars in this neighborhood.”

The last time the NHL had a lockout in 2004, the effects in the District were negative, but relatively modest. Home attendance in the 2003-04 season averaged 14,720 fans per game, compared to 13,905 the season after they came back.

As the team improved in the ensuing years, attendance climbed until to the point where the Capitals were selling out all 18,000 seats for every home game.

As one of the only proprietors that has been open during both lockouts, RFD owner Josh Alexander says his perception is that the Chinatown neighborhood now has more to lose because the expectations are higher.

“This is more hurting economically, because the last time Chinatown wasn’t as developed, so it wasn’t as busy and wasn’t as much of a destination,” Alexander says.

He says that while he hopes that attendance, and its positive effect for RFD’s bottom line, picks up where it left off, he’s not sure that hockey fans will have their heart in it anymore after the third lockout in two decades.

“To have this happen at the time when hockey is flourishing the most leaves a lot of questions as to why they’ve let it go this far,” Alexander says.

Those are questions that players and owners alike are likely contemplating themselves. Reuters reports that negotiations between the two parties have stalled. Federal mediators are now meeting separately with the players union and the NHL commissioner.

The lockout has already wiped out 526 games through Dec. 30, and the next step may well be to cancel the season entirely.

Local proprietors and fans are left to wait and wonder.

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