You thought that I had forgotten. You hoped that my nightmarish reminders had stopped.
You were wrong.
For the third straight year, it’s time to strike of the Brass Bonanza, get Pucky in the lead car of a parade and march from Hartford to NHL headquarters in NYC. The 3rd Annual Bring Back the Whalers Entry is here (although slightly later than my previous two entries in 2009 and 2010).
There are several reasons for my lateness. First, there have been major developments in the NHL relocation front. Mainly, the first of what I think are many relocations started with the Atlanta Thrashers being sold and moving to Winnipeg. The NY Islanders and Nassau County are having a budget vote on August 1st to determine whether or not a new arena complex will be built. The city of Glendale, AZ agreed to pay $25 million to keep the Coyotes in Arizona. Sadly, no news on the Florida Panthers…yet.
Meanwhile, in Hartford, there has been a stunning turn of events. Former Whalers owner Howard Baldwin purchased the marketing rights for the NY Rangers AHL affiliate Hartford Wolfpack and rebranded them mid-season into the Connecticut Whale. Before the change, the Wolfpack’s record was a meager 6W-11L-5OT, good for an awful 17 points in 22 games. After the change, the team went 34-21-3, and only dropped one point (SOL @ Worchester) in their first nine games. The finished 40-32-8 with 88 points, good for third place in the AHL’s Atlantic Division and a spot in the playoffs. Though they lost in the first round to the Atlantic Division champs Portland in six games, it was an incredible rebirth for Hartford Hockey.
There was the epic Hockey Fest at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, where myself and thousands of other brave souls watched (for as long as we could anyway...details here) the Connecticut Whale take on the Providence Bruins outdoors in wind-chill aided freezing conditions. Over 13,000 people showed up at the XL Center to watch the first Whale game on November 27, 2010, a 3-2 shootout win over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, which by the way is higher than the average attendance for the Islanders and Coyotes and just behind the relocated Thrashers. It’s also the same arena (known to many still as the Hartford Civic Center) that one Peter F. Karmanos fled because he thought it was too old and he couldn’t sell it out. Also, after rebranding the team, the Whale averaged 6,540 fans per game (possibly including the 21,000-plus for the outdoor game. That number would be good for 7th in the AHL, but the Whale/Wolfpack averaged 5,695 combined for the season, 12th in the AHL.
There have been rumors that talks between the NHL, Hartford and Baldwin are happening, although Baldwin has stated that Hartford isn’t ready for an NHL team again, and he probably knows best. There are more rumors that a new arena is being planned near Rentschler Field in East Hartford and it would likely also host UConn Basketball much like the XL/Civic Center does currently. But these conversations probably happen all the time, and until Gary F. Bettman decides he wants to listen, it really doesn’t matter. But all of this is meaningless unless Baldwin’s master plan comes together and unites the fragmented Connecticut hockey fan bases and turns the Whale into an AHL powerhouse.
And for starters, this past season wasn’t too bad. The Whale made the playoffs again, after missing them for the first and only time in Hartford in the previous season. Also for the second consecutive year, the NHL Rangers were forced to make numerous call-ups and roster moves due to injury and giving the Whale an ever-changing roster of attacking and defensive lines. And still an invigorated crowd came in a supported a team merely because of the logo on the front of the jersey and for what it represents.
It represents a fan base long forgotten in the NHL. It represents the greatest theme/goal song in NHL history. It represents the greatest (and probably ONLY!) divisional title parade in sports history. It represents a sports fan base that is so diverse, it can be united only under rare circumstances (i.e. – UConn Huskies and the Whalers. That’s the list, and even that’s debatable). But most of all, it represents the spirit of a small state and city that stood toe-to-toe with its larger neighbors of New York and Boston for two decades. A spirit that embodies an area that never craved big-time players, or major success, just a chance to prove to the rest of the country that the little guy can win it too.
Just look at the rest of the major sports in America. New Orleans and Green Bay are the two most recent Super Bowl champions. The San Antonio Spurs won four NBA titles from 1999-2007. The Tampa Bay Rays have won the AL East two of the last three years with a payroll that is a fraction of the two highest payroll teams in MLB and the AL East, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. The New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers won a combined nine Stanley Cups in eleven years from 1980-1990 in two of the smallest markets in the NHL.
Yet Gary Bettman kept thinking that having NHL teams in major sports cities would work. It failed in Atlanta, twice. It might be failing in Pheonix and Miami. And perhaps now, with Winnipeg getting a franchise, perhaps Bettman is beginning to realize that the best way to support hockey is not with thirty franchises of big-wig corporate types, but with solid, die-hard and blue collar fan bases in smaller cities that continuously sell out arenas. This is potentially great news for Quebec, Hamilton and Hartford, three cities that along with Winnipeg were potential small markets looking for NHL teams.
Now, we’ve seen mid-markets like Colorado and Minnesota regain their franchises after losing them to relocation to New Jersey and Dallas respectfully. And with Winnipeg leading the way, perhaps now the little guys will return en force to the NHL. Where Edmonton, a city with a population slightly under 750,000 is talked about in the same breath as Montreal (1.6 mil pop) and Toronto (2.5 mil pop). Where Detroit (pop. 714,000) is Hockey Town USA and there’s not a thing that New York (8.2 mil pop), Chicago (2.7 mil pop) or Philadelphia (1.5 mil pop) can do about it.
And now, fourteen years ago the Whalers left Hartford, CT. And in those fourteen years perhaps some bits of knowledge and wisdom have reached Gary F. Bettman’s thick, stubborn skull, though I remain pessimistic to that idea. But perhaps, in the years to come, maybe Howard Baldwin will prove that Hartford will once again be known as a city with an NHL franchise. That maybe the all the little guy needs in life is another chance to prove to the world what it can do. And maybe, a city of 125,000 in a state of 3.5 million will once again have a major sports franchise to call home.