Empty feeling: NHL locker rooms across the country have remained vacant and the lockout has no end in sight.

Empty feeling: NHL locker rooms across the country have remained vacant and the lockout has no end in sight.

San Jose businesses, fans feel the impact of lingering NHL lockout

Jorge Villagran is used to the sight of teal jerseys spilling out of his restaurant on December nights. Zapata’s is usually brimming with patrons who throw down beefy burritos, slam back frosty beverages and rock out to live music before heading across the street to HP Pavilion to watch their beloved  Sharks.

But on a recent Saturday night, the place was nearly empty.

“It’s really depressing,” Villagran said. “You really think that something like this is never going to happen. You feel secure at this location, like there’s always going to be hockey.”

On the surface, the NHL lockout is a staring contest between millionaires and billionaires tussling over how to split up the league’s $3.3 billion annual pie. But as the 2012-13 season faces cancellation, many San Jose residents whose livelihoods are tied to the spillover are wondering how they’ll make ends meet without hockey.

“It affects a lot of people,” Villagran said. “At the end of the day, everybody loses.”

Villagran opened Zapata’s in November 2006, one year after the 2004-05 season was wiped out by the league’s last labor dispute. With the Sharks as his neighbor, he found a reliable revenue stream. But he said without an NHL season, business is down 60 to 70 percent right now.  

To cope with the losses, he has let go of three employees, worked longer hours himself and trimmed whatever fat he can find, like cutting back on the bar’s cable package. In October, he couldn’t pay his rent on time. Fortunately, his landlord understood his predicament.

“I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had to ask for some time to just pay the rent,” he said. “That’s when it really hit me.”

But it isn’t just restaurant owners who are struggling because of the lockout. Waiters and bartenders who rely on gratuity are especially pinched. Rich Aranda, a bartender at Henry’s Hi-Life near HP Pavilion, said he’s tightening his Christmas budget this holiday season to account for the losses.

“The rent is still paid, but the presents under the Christmas tree are going to be a lot smaller this year,” he said. “As a dad, that’s depressing.”

Theresa Prescott, a single mother of two boys who works the merchandise counter inside HP Pavilion, is facing tougher choices.

She said Sharks games account for more than half of her annual income and she recently applied for unemployment insurance to fill the gap.

“I’ve been trying to pick up side work anywhere I can,” Prescott said. “Fifty bucks here, $80 there, doing anything.”

In addition to finding odd jobs, Prescott is selling furniture on Craigslist and walking away from her credit card bills to make ends meet.

“The thing I’m really concerned about is losing my vehicle,” she said. “I have to find money to pay for that.”

The NHL and the players’ association could reach an agreement and save the season, but Prescott isn’t optimistic. She never expected that the dispute would put her in such a bind.

“The reality really hit me pretty hard in early November. I was like, ‘This really isn’t going to work out for me financially,’” she said.

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