NHL lockout effects may linger locally

| Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, 2:40 p.m.

Penn Hills Councilman Gary Underwood has been tearing Pittsburgh hockey fans' tickets for nearly half a century.

His days as a ticket-taker go all the way back to when the Pittsburgh Hornets were playing hockey as part of the International Hockey League.

These days, he works at the Consol Energy Center, and business is about to pick up with the end of the National Hockey League lockout and the beginning of a shortened, 48-game season, reportedly starting on Jan. 19, a cause for celebration among Penguin fans. And when it comes to fans, it's hard to beat Bonnie and Dennis Langford of Delmont. If it's associated with the Pittsburgh Penguins, or penguins in general, the Langfords probably have it somewhere in their house.

“Every room in my house is Penguins,” Bonnie Langford said, estimating she has at least 10,000 items in her home.

The Langfords have been collecting Penguin/penguin merchandise for 30 years, and have been following the Pittsburgh Penguins just as long — so it is an understatement to say Bonnie Langford was happy when she heard the lockout was ending.

“I was thrilled, what do you think?” Bonnie said.

Penguin fans are not the only people overjoyed at the prospect of the upcoming season. Business owners throughout the region who benefit from the dedication of hockey fans also are celebrating.

Linda Shook, owner of Elegant Nails by Linda on Saltsburg Road, has been selling Penguins merchandise for 17 years and said the lockout “definitely took a toll on me this year.

“It sucked, to be honest,” she said. “And that's putting it pretty mildly.”

Shook said 2012 was a bad year for both the Penguins and Steelers merchandise at her business. She was in the process of changing out her Steeler gear for more Penguins items, but said the announcement about the NHL season starting already has things looking up.

“Even in the few days since the lockout has ended, I've gotten a few calls from people asking about Penguins gear,” Shook said.

Bill Waldsmith said sports memorabilia makes up about 25 percent of sales at his store, Pamela's Gifts, Cards and Sports Gear in Irwin. Even though some fans were looking for Penguins merchandise, retailers felt the economic effects of the lockout, he said.

“The problem I saw was people were looking for Penguins merchandise, but the wholesalers canceled their orders,” Waldsmith said. “The availability of it was low, even though people were looking for it over Christmas.”

Waldsmith said most consumers' spending goes up when Pittsburgh teams are successful, but goes down during slumps. The lockout, coupled with a dismal football season for the Steelers, led to low sales, he said.

“It was tough, especially with the Steelers playing bad, and the Penguins not playing at all,” Waldsmith said. “People don't like to see Pittsburgh sports (teams) lose, and with the Penguins out of sight and out of mind, people really weren't coming.”

Since the end of the lockout, Waldsmith said more customers are coming to his shop for Penguins gear.

Underwood said the lockout has affected him financially — although as a multipurpose venue, Consol has hosted other events that require Underwood's services — as well as businesses near the sports arena.

“It's affected many other people who work in the area: the restaurant people and the hotels around the facility,” Underwood said.

“Really, I thought about the fans. I mean, we suffer in different ways. They suffer because (hockey) is what they purchased the tickets for. They bought the tickets and have supported the team over the years. I've lost count of how many sellout crowds they've had to date, but it really shows how a lot of Pittsburgh people and businesses support the Penguins,” he said.

Even though the Penguins are back, Waldsmith said retailers might continue to struggle with hockey merchandise sales, especially since they sell seasonal sports-related merchandise. Soon, retailers will be preparing for baseball season, he said.

“I still think it's a little too late for the retailers, because who is going to bring in a lot of inventory for just half the season?” Waldsmith asked. “The problem is, if we don't sell it, nobody is going to want to have it sitting on the shelves all summer long.”

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or pvarine@tribweb.com. Brad Pedersen is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bpedersen@tribweb.com.

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