Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Great Whale

We head back to the mailbag, or email inbox, for Thursday's question, and it's quite a doozy if I do say so myself. Personally, I like the tough questions, and I really want to be sure that I get this one right. It means a great deal to me, and I'm sure it means a great deal to the email writer and the people of Hartford, Connecticut. They may have the AHL's Hartford Wolf Pack playing there now, but it sounds as if the "Whalers" may make a triumphant return to the city they called home through the NHL and WHA eras.

I've cleaned up the email a little bit in terms of grammar, but Sal S. of East Hartford, Connecticut writes,

"I’d like to get your take on if you think the NHL could and should return to Hartford. Obviously, this is not going to be an overnight adventure. We are trying to build support again here in this city (not that us fans ever lost it).

"I think Baldwin is the right guy to try his hand at this. He did it before here, and we believe he can do it again. There is a lot of renewed energy here again with Howard in the picture.

"But with Bettman still as commish, I just don’t know. We here in Hartford also support the return of the Winnipeg Jets and the Quebec Nordiques. That the Whalers merchandise is the 11th best selling merchandise in the NHL should say something about this once proud franchise. P.S... we still HATE Karmanos!!!!"
First off, a great email to hit me with as I am still a huge fan of the Hartford Whalers franchise. The Whale can do no wrong in my eyes, and I used to love the old Boston-Hartford/Montreal-Hartford battles in the Stanley Cup Playoffs before Peter Karmanos decided to pack up his gear and head south to Raleigh, North Carolina.

Here's what I know thus far.

First, according to Howlings - a reliable Hartford Wolf Pack blog from all I've read - the movement to bring the Whalers back to Hartford is already on, albeit in a different form. Mitch Beck wrote on July 24, 2010,
"[T]he last hurdle has been cleared for Howard Baldwin and his Whalers Sports & Entertainment to take over operation of the Hartford Wolf Pack. Larry Gottesdiener and his Northland Investment Corporation’s essentially removed itself from the equation in the operation of the XL Center. They turned over their interests to AEG. Well, it is only a matter of time now, as early as next week, that it should become official. When that happens, the Hartford Wolf Pack will be no more and the new team will be the Connecticut Whalers. The relationship with the Rangers will remain in place."
So while the Connecticut Whalers are on the verge of being born as an AHL franchise, the question of whether or not the city of Hartford can support the NHL returning is a murky one.

There are a few things to remember here: the NHL currently owns the logo of the former Hartford Whalers, and is marketing it extremely well. Sal S. correctly points out that Whalers merchandise is eleventh-best when it comes to merchandise sales, so the new Connecticut Whalers will undoubtedly be forced to come up with another logo.

Secondly, if there is an opportunity for an NHL team to move back into Hartford, there are some questions that have been raised about the arena, the XL Center. For hockey games, the seating plan allows for 15,635 people, and this would be the smallest arena in the NHL by a longshot. The smallest, and oldest, arena right now is Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Long Island, and it seats 16,297. If the Islanders are suggesting that they need a bigger place to play, Hartford might also have to examine their arena options.

There was a push by Hartford mayor Eddie Perez to secure the funding to replace the aging XL Center with a new arena. There are good points and bad points to this plan, but the truth is that this decision comes down to the people of Hartford. Do they want to push for a new arena in the hopes of getting an NHL team one day?

My thoughts come down to this: the citizens of Hartford need to come out and show the world that they are passionate about hockey, in particular the new Connecticut Whalers/Hartford Wolf Pack. In 2009, the Pack averaged 4190 fans per game, putting them eighteenth in league attendance. In 2010, they actually had less fans out to games as they averaged 4188 fans per game. Comparatively, one city that continues to pop up on the NHL map is Winnipeg, and the Manitoba Moose have finished second in league attendance for two straight seasons.

The NHL notices these numbers, and normally responds in kind. The fans of the Whalers need to start going to games if and when the franchise changes its name from Wolf Pack to Whalers. While I get that the people of Hartford never felt as though the Pack were a part of their community, shunning the AHL team only looks bad on the city if Whaler fans are truly passionate about getting an NHL team back.

Can Hartford become an NHL city once again? I believe they can. The greater Hartford area has a population of 1,188,841 people, but those people need to start supporting their local team. The NHL will notice, but it takes a concerted effort from the community for the NHL to actually consider placing a team there if one is available.

Hartfordians, the opportunity to be back in the professional hockey ranks is certainly within your reach. But you have to make the effort by showing that you're willing to support your pro team.

You know what you have to do to bring back the Whale. Now do it!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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