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Lockout's trickle down effect

Nadine Guerre is worried.

The rent for the apartment she shares with her boyfriend is going up. So is her health insurance. He has child-support payments to make. Then there's the electricity and telephone and groceries. Bills are starting to stack up faster than they can pay them.

And both just found out that their hours at work are being cut.

It's not their fault. They work at the St. Pete Times Forum as attendants during concerts, shows and Lightning games. Technically it's part time, but they have come to depend on the money full time. The National Hockey League, though, is two weeks into an owners lockout of the players, which could last three months, six months, a year, maybe longer.

That means no hockey. That means potentially 43 fewer nights of work for Guerre and her boyfriend. That means thousands of dollars.

So while NHL owners and the union fight over million-dollar contracts, salary caps, luxury taxes, Guerre is fighting to pay her light bill.

"While these owners and players are playing their little cat-and-mouse games," Guerre said, "a lot of people are getting hurt in the process."

Guerre calls them the regular people _ ushers, ticket-takers, security, first-aid attendants, all the people who work inside the St. Pete Times Forum on game night. It even stretches across the street to the restaurants and bars that make the bulk of their profits on nights the Lightning plays.

"Part of me understands what is going on," Guerre, 28, said. "But then I start thinking about how much money they are arguing over. Everyone is arguing because they are not making enough millions and here we are just trying to get by."

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The intersection of Channelside and Ice Palace drives outside the St. Pete Times Forum sits fairly quiet on a recent afternoon. No one is on the sidewalks. Only a few cars pass.

But on game nights, the intersection turns into Tampa Bay's version of Times Square.

The streets are crowded with hockey fans and vendors pedaling their brats and dogs. Tampa Police directs pedestrians and cars through the tricky turns and a maze of cones. Private land owners and Lightning employees wave flags to direct drivers where to park. Across the street from the Times Forum at Newk's Cafe, a band cranks out rock to the people crammed on the porch of the restaurant/bar. Waitresses push their way through a mass of bodies delivering beer and burgers and grouper sandwiches that the bartenders and cooks can't supply fast enough.

Down the street, the same scene is playing out at Beef O'Brady's and the Outpost and over at Channelside, where there are several restaurants, bars and shops. A few blocks away, the same scene is playing out at Hat Trick's, a hockey-themed bar and grill. Another band plays outside the St. Pete Times Forum across from a 1,500-space parking garage.

Every sight, every sound represents someone making money. The vendors, the police, the parking attendants, the bands, the cooks, the waitresses.

"You don't realize how many people this affects," said Jack Newkirk, part-owner of Newk's Cafe. "The trickle down effect is really something."

Newkirk, an insurance executive by trade, opened Newk's two weeks before the Lightning played its first game in the then-Ice Palace in October of 1996. Over the years, he has built a nice lunch and dinner crowd with a nautical theme that regulars seem to enjoy. But make no mistake, the reason Newkirk has a restaurant across the street from the St. Pete Times Forum is because of hockey.

Newkirk can't put a number on how much money he will lose during the lockout, but consider this: On a non-hockey game night, Newk's goes through four cases of beer. On a game night, it goes through 40. On most days, 20-25 people work at Newk's. On game days, that number swells to 50 or 60. Instead of having 100-200 customers, Newk's might have 1,500 order something on a game night.

"So think about it," Newkirk, 57, said. "If there is no hockey, then I don't need as many waitresses and cooks. I need less beer, so that means the beer vendor is making less money. I'm not going to bring in bands to play in front of 50 people at dinner. We purchase less food. On and on."

Last season's Lightning playoff run, which provided 13 sold-out home games, helped people such as Newkirk, Guerre and her boyfriend. For Game 7 of the final, Newkirk found an old television, hooked it up to a local TV truck and set up a spot out back where 300 people watched the game. And, of course, ordered food and drinks. For the first time, Newkirk had to stop people from coming into his restaurant.

Still, Newkirk sat down with his partners and managers last week to come up with contingent plans depending on how long the lockout lasts.

"At the end of the day, I'll be okay, the (cafe) will be okay," Newkirk said. "But some of the employees will feel it. I'll do what I can to help them, but I can't have six bartenders a night when I only need two. It will be hard on some of them."

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Palace Sports and Entertainment, owner of the Lightning, employs about 800 part-timers who work the 100-175 events a year, including hockey. Not all 800 work on a given night. Usually, the number is closer to 500. Most are either retired seniors looking to supplement their incomes or college students who like that the work doesn't interfere with school. Most part-timers make between $6.50 and $10 an hour. Many don't depend on the money to live.

"Well, you think of it as extra money," part-timer John Reeber said. "But then when it doesn't come in, you miss it. Maybe in a year, if this thing lasts that long, I will start to feel it."

Reeber is 65 and retired from Tampa Electric in 2001. He works in the XO Club, a giant party suite in the Times Forum. He checks tickets, offers information, points out directions. It's kind of like being a maitre d' in a nice restaurant.

"I do everything, concerts, shows, I even did the Wiggles last week and that was fun," Reeber said. "But I love hockey. I'll miss the money, but I will miss the hockey, too. The money is what I use to go to Las Vegas every year. It's money my wife and I use to take trips. Without it, I don't know."

Katrina Balentyne is like Reeber. She is 40 and single and has a full-time job, but uses the money she makes as guest services assistant event manager to have fun.

"I've gone to England and Africa and all around the U.S. and I haven't had to dip into my "regular' money, you know?" Balentyne said. "But I know that for a lot of people I work with, this is their only source of income. I don't know what they are going to do."

The Lightning is trying to help. It has held several Stanley Cup parties and has added other concert and show dates to make up for the loss of games. It has called on some part-timers to help out around the Lightning offices.

"We want to take care of these dedicated people because they are good employees and if they are happy, that translates to the public," Lightning president Ron Campbell said. "I do feel for many of these people. It impacts their quality of life and they're not the ones who should be penalized for this."

All of the part-time Times Forum employees interviewed for this story said they appreciate the way the Lightning has treated them as this lockout begins, but only the return of hockey can truly satisfy them.

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Many concession stands at the Times Forum are run by charity groups, who split the profits with the Lightning. Some are run by part-time employees. They will miss paychecks. So will the visiting locker room equipment managers, who rake in handsome tips from players. Some members of the Tampa Police work "extra duty" at Lightning games. Tampa General employees work similarly, providing first aid.

"This really is hurting people," Guerre said. "My friend works here. She has two kids and this is the only money she makes. I don't know what she'll do. We'll have to find other ways to make up this money."

Guerre and her boyfriend, both of whom work in the XO Club, are moving out of their apartment and in with a friend to save money.

"That should help," Guerre said. "But nothing will really help until this lockout ends. I'm optimistic. I heard they might come back in January. I hope so. If this goes on for a year, I don't know what we'll do."