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Not all cash in on tournament ; Business downtown uneven, ranging from 'phenomenal' to 'far below' expectations

The world junior hockey tournament in town has been so good for business at the Pearl Street Grill & Brewery that it's on pace for its best week ever.

"Things are absolutely phenomenal," said Bill Casale, the restaurant's general manager, "just about what we had expected."

But only a few blocks away, at the Century Grill, business from the World Junior Hockey Championship has been a letdown.

"It's OK," said Century owner Otis Bartlett, "but it's far below what we were led to believe was coming."

That, in a nutshell, shows how cashing in on the World Juniors in Buffalo isn't as simple as it might seem.

Bars and restaurants close to HSBC Arena, like the Pearl Street Grill and W.J. Morrissey's Irish Pub, as well as renowned establishments such as the Anchor Bar, are profiting.

"Business has been really good," said Lindsay McKay, a manager at Morrissey's. "Last night got a little more congested, where there was really not even standing room."

Downtown hotels are big winners, too.

"We're so excited and grateful to have the tournament here," said Jay Dellavecchia, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Buffalo. "It's great for not only the hotel and our employees, but also the City of Buffalo. This is what we need to grow Buffalo into a destination point."

But local establishments not as close to the hockey action have been disappointed, largely because the expectations were so high.

Bartlett and other restaurant owners got the impression from the Buffalo Sabres, who are hosting the tournament, and the Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau that tens of thousands of visitors would be roaming the streets.

They're not.

"I would say it's not even remotely as busy as the NCAA Basketball Tournament, or even a medium-size convention," Bartlett said. "I would compare it to 10 straight Sabres home games."

Bartlett isn't the only one noticing.

Hockey Towne USA FanFest, sponsored by Western New York Hockey magazine, was a big four-day party with food, games and entertainment in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, but attendance was poor, according to vendors.

"We definitely will not make money," said Mike Albarella, a vendor selling fried dough and other treats at FanFest on Wednesday. "I feel like the promoter did everything he could to get it off the ground, but it just didn't happen. The people didn't come out, for whatever reason."

Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, president and chief executive officer of the Convention & Visitors Bureau, has heard some of that disappointment and has a couple of explanations.

"What we are understanding about these fans is they're going to watch hockey, they're drinking a few beers, and they're going to the next hockey game," Cohen said. "They're kind of sticking close to the arena."

The Canadians, meanwhile, are the X-factor. Hockey fans from Canada purchased roughly two-thirds of the more than 300,000 tickets to the tournament, and many of them live just a short drive from home in Southern Ontario.

"The predominant factor in this is you have a lot of people commuting and, for whatever reason, not sticking around -- or not as much as we'd like them to," Cohen said. "We all knew that was an unknown, because of the proximity to the border."

But Cohen expects more activity during the medal rounds, and points to all the booked hotel rooms downtown as confirmation of how well the tournament is going.

A mid-December survey of local hotels found they had booked an additional 11,000 room nights stemming from the tournament, equivalent to about $840,000 in additional revenue.

The 396-room Hyatt is 95 percent occupied, playing host to the U.S., Switzerland and Finland teams, along with fans, Dellavecchia said. Normally at this time of year, the hotel might be 30 percent occupied.

The 139-room Hampton Inn & Suites at Delaware Avenue and West Chippewa Street is essentially booked for the full run of the tourney, said Bob Karmazyn, the general manager.

The Comfort Suites Downtown Buffalo expects some sold-out nights during the tournament, said Jennifer Taylor, front office manager. And some hotels are seeing "walk-up" traffic this week, possibly to avoid the backups at the international bridges, Cohen said.

Jay Manno, president of the Buffalo Entertainment District Association, agrees that business from the hockey tourney has been a little disappointing, but he's holding out hope that fans will give bars a boost for New Year's Eve festivities.

He's perplexed, though, by the crowded hotels yet the absence of fans on Chippewa.

"They're here, but where are they?" said Manno, owner of the Soho Bar. "Do they grab a six-pack of Molson and go back to their room? It's like a mystery to us. We can't figure out that part of it."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com and mglynn@buffnews.com

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