With the announcement this week of the National Hockey League (NHL) returning to Winnipeg (the Atlanta Thrashers relocating to Winnipeg), we can all be reassured that our strategy to bring Hartford back to pre-eminent status as a hockey market works. This announcement could be a brass bonanza for Hartford.
Like Hartford, Winnipeg was an original World Hockey Association city. Like Hartford, Winnipeg was one of four WHA franchises that merged with the NHL in 1981. Like Hartford, Winnipeg lost its NHL team in the mid-‘90s. And like Hartford, Winnipeg developed a plan and a passion to get back to the NHL.
If it can happen there, why not here?
Winnipeg sent a message of success to the NHL. Their American Hockey League franchise, the Manitoba Moose averaged more than 8,000 fans over the past two years and more than 7,700 for the past four years. We salute their efforts to showcase the fan and corporate interest in hockey in their market, and congratulate the management of True North Sports and Entertainment for successfully returning the City of Winnipeg to the NHL.
In 1979, the NHL and the World Hockey Association successfully concluded an expansion, with Winnipeg, Edmonton, Quebec and, of course, our own city joining the NHL. While Edmonton still remains, the other three all saw their franchises move, due to circumstances beyond their control. Winnipeg and Quebec were hurt by arena issues and the weakness of the Canadian dollar, and lost their teams to Phoenix and Denver respectively. As we all know, despite a successful community season ticket drive, strong fan and corporate support, the Whalers relocated to Raleigh, North Carolina. This was a devastating blow to downtown Hartford and the state.
When we started Whalers Sports and Entertainment more than a year ago, our goal was, and remains, to bring Hartford back to its rightful status as a pre-eminent hockey market. Using the strategy that has now been proven successful in Winnipeg, we are very confident that we can showcase our state and city as a top-level hockey market, and the rest will follow.
Whalers Sports and Entertainment continues to invest many resources in developing our Connecticut Whale team into a successful American Hockey League (AHL) franchise. And look at the progress we have made. Consider that:
• Thanks to the commitment of our partners, the New York Rangers, Hartford has participated in the AHL playoffs 13 of the 14 years the AHL has been here.
• Despite assuming operations of the team just two weeks before Opening Night, we raised attendance by more than 3,000 per game to an average of over 6,000. Highlighting these efforts were the Nov. 27th game — the inaugural game for the Connecticut Whale — when more than 13,000 greeted the return of the blue and green and “Brass Bonanza,” and the Harvest-Properties.com Whale Bowl at Rentschler Field, which attracted more than 21, 000.
• Many of the top community corporate partners have come on board to support these efforts to make the Whale a success, fueling our drive to re-energize the hockey market and bringing a renewed vibrancy back to downtown Hartford.
• We are creating a major media network, details of which will be announced shortly. This will provide outreach to our statewide fan base as never before.
• We are taking significant steps to integrate the Whale more deeply into the community — reaching out to scores of community groups, youth hockey organizations and schools.
• We are in the midst of a season ticket drive this summer, supported by many community organizations and corporate partners.
Admittedly, we all have a lot of work to do. And we certainly can’t do it alone. We need everyone to get behind this effort. But the return of the NHL to Winnipeg should silence the skeptics and encourage us further in our goals in building a premier AHL franchise. This speaks volumes to the hockey world about the strength of a city’s hockey market.
When pro hockey was first here, in the 1970s, it was through the WHA that Hartford proved it was an outstanding hockey city, and we are proud now to be members of the AHL, one of the consistently best-run and most successful leagues in pro sports.
With the support and partnership of Greater Hartford’s corporate community, and enduring enthusiasm of the area’s loyal and knowledgeable fans, we look forward to showcasing the Whale as one of the flagship franchises of the AHL.
Once we generate that type of momentum, anything is possible.
Howard Baldwin is chairman of Whalers Sports & Entertainment in Hartford. He founded the New England Whalers and has held ownership interests in several NHL teams. He also is a successful film produce, including the Academy Award-nominated ‘Ray,’ and a serial entrepreneur.