The lockout has the Winnipeg Jets on hold, but this isn’t the first time the city of Winnipeg has been without NHL hockey. In 1996, the Jets flew to Phoenix and became the Coyotes. But last season, the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg and became the Jets.
The Jets’ return was a boon for many local businesses, but now Winnipeg is — at least temporarily — without a hockey team again. Tony Siwicki and his family operate the Silver Heights Restaurant in Winnipeg.
Q: Your family’s restaurant opened in 1957, so it’s been around a lot longer than either edition of the Jets franchise, but take us back to 1996. How much did it hurt business when the Jets left town?
A: Nobody was preparing for it. They just said somebody’s going to come through and make this thing work for everybody. And when it didn’t, when [the team] disappeared, it kind of was like a ghost town in lounges.
Q: How did it impact business when the Jets came back for their second inaugural season last fall?A: Night and day. We increased our business about 50 percent. Every night we got people before the game, during the game, after the game. It was just amazing. We had to hire more servers, more bartenders, security guys to control capacity. We had a bus that took everybody back and forth to the point where it was such a success that I bought my own bus this year.
Q: Restaurants offer pickup and delivery with cars or even vans, but a bus is interesting. Do you just park it out back?
A: I park it at one of my food suppliers. They’ve got a big parking lot. I don’t have any room for keeping a bus. So, it sits there waiting. We were actually buying it for the Bombers [of the Canadian Football League] as well when the new stadium was supposed to be this year … and it never opened up. So I’m sitting there with a bus for the Bomber game and for the Jets, and neither one worked out for us.
With the bus, the insurance, the paint job that’s coming—it was over $10,000.
Q: Tony, as a longstanding operation you’re prepared to weather big changes, but how has the lockout been affecting other businesses in your area?
A: Absolutely. There’s a lot of people downtown that are right next to the MTS Centre…they’re struggling more than I am. That’s what they relied on, all the hype. As far as the Jets—guaranteed 41 nights of the season they were going to be busy.
Q: The residents of Winnipeg were excited to have the team back and the Jets delivered a winning record last season. Do you sense any change in the enthusiasm among fans because of the lockout?
A: Not really. We’ve got a lot of people that have season [tickets] that are sitting there, they’re pretty upset. They can’t go to the games, they’ve spent all this money to get these things and they can’t even enjoy them. They’re sitting there waiting patiently and every single time they go to the board to discuss what’s going on, they come back and they’re all still upset. As far as the Jets coming back, whenever they start, these guys are going to be right beside them, right at the game.
Q: Enough about the lockout, what’s the specialty of the house at the Silver Heights Restaurant?
A: We’re known for our barbecue ribs, that’s what put us on the map many years ago—fall-off-the-bone ribs. We’re known for our certified Angus beef. [We’re] pretty much a big steakhouse.
Q: How fast can you get the bus down here with food for the OAG staff? It’s Boston, it’s not that far.
A: Not that far, no. I’ll get a driver, he’ll be here in about half an hour, get the food cooked…eight hours. (laughing) It’ll still be hot.