Many downtown St. Paul businesses are watching anxiously as National Hockey League owners and the players' union each prepare to take up a proposed deal that may end this season's lockout. The two sides emerged from a marathon 16-hour negotiating session Sunday to announce a proposed contract.
Just hours after the deal was announced, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman stood inside the Xcel Energy Center -- home of the Minnesota Wild -- wearing a wide grin.
"They've at least reached a tentative agreement. Hopefully they'll get it ratified very quickly and we'll get some hockey back in St Paul. It's been a long time coming. We wish this hadn't happened, but we're just glad that it's over," he said.
The collective bargaining agreement must be ratified by a majority of the league's 30 owners and the union's membership of approximately 740 players.
"It was a battle," Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey, a key member of the union's bargaining team, told The Associated Press. "Players obviously would rather not have been here, but our focus now is to give the fans whatever it is -- 48 games, 50 games -- the most exciting season we can. The mood has been nervous for a while. You want to be playing. You want to be done with this."
Coleman said the lockout that began Sept. 16 has crippled businesses throughout downtown St. Paul. The city has cited as evidence the last NHL lockout in 2004, which officials say sucked $60 million out of St. Paul's economy. But an MPR News analysis showed sales tax revenue actually went up slightly that season.
A legislative hearing later this month will look at whether lawmakers should consider holding organizations that receive public money accountable when it comes to labor disputes like the current NHL lockout.
Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, said the hearing Jan. 23 will examine the economic impact of the NHL lockouts, the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
Coleman's office has acknowledged that estimating economic impact isn't an exact science. Yet Coleman insists the lockout has been a hardship, and says this NHL agreement may come just in time for downtown St Paul.
"We're fortunate that hopefully they're going to be back playing before anybody actually lost their business as a result," he said.
APPEAL TO HOCKEY FANS
Fans shouldn't hold the lockout against the Wild, the mayor said.
"It's kind of like Congress. You hate the overall state of Congress but your individual members? You still like them, right? If you boycott the games coming back, you're only hurting the businesses that have been struggling. So our message is let the past be the past, hopefully we can make up on the backend with a long playoff run what we lost with a shortened season," Coleman said.
Long-time Wild blogger Derek Felska, of StateofHockeyNews.com, says the proposed agreement is too little, too late for some fans. They've shifted attention this season to minor league or college hockey. Tickets in those leagues are cheaper -- especially for families -- and, in his opinion, the games are just as exciting. Felska himself spent the money that he usually puts aside for Wild games on season tickets to a minor league team in Wisconsin.
He says there is a segment of Wild fans who are happy games may resume, but he says many people are genuinely angry.
"Our loyalty will be taken for granted if they just think we're all going to show back up and act like nothing happened, which is what happened last time. The fans returned in droves back in 2005, and I think they kind of banked on that happening again, but this time I think fans feel like we've been taken for granted and the money they're talking about is our money," he said.
"If you feel like you don't want to give money to the owners, then go to the local establishments in and around the arena and watch the game from there instead of going to the game," he added.
Feelings of resentment against the NHL are familiar to Pat Boemer, the owner of Patrick McGovern's, which is down the street from the Xcel Center. But Boemer says he's gotten over it.
"People have amnesia. They'll forget about it in two weeks. And people will come out and they'll support the Wild," he said. "They'll have probably the best team they ever had. So with that being said, I think they'll fill the stands and because of the shortened season it's actually better for me now because you know they'll fill every game up."
Boemer said that despite the delayed season, he's still excited for the Wild's newest players -- Zach Parise and Ryan Suter -- to take the ice. NHL officials say if the tentative agreement is ratified, games may start later this month.
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