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New York Rangers End Business Relationship With Baldwin's Group

Team Still In Hartford Next Season

By PAUL DOYLE

June 26, 2012

When Howard Baldwin's Whalers Sports & Entertainment took control of the Hartford Wolf Pack 21 months ago, the expectation was clear.

Baldwin, the man who ushered the Hartford Whalers from the WHA to the NHL three decades earlier, would resuscitate Hartford as a hockey market and eventually bring major league sports back to the capital city. The vision, as outlined by Baldwin for years, was to grab the attention of the NHL by passionately supporting minor league hockey.

But after two seasons in control, Baldwin has been nudged off Hartford's sports stage and the future of professional hockey in the city is in doubt.

The New York Rangers, owners of the AHL's Connecticut Whale, have severed their business relationship with Whalers Sports & Entertainment. The team will play at the XL Center for the 2012-13 season, but the franchise's lease expires after the season and an extension is not imminent.

It's unknown who will handle the day-to-day operation of the franchise for the upcoming season. AEG Management CT LLC, which manages the XL Center, could inherit operation of the team.

Madison Square Garden did not officially announce the change Tuesday, but a Tuesday night statement from Whalers Sports & Entertainment confirmed a Courant report that the Rangers were ending the partnership.

Rangers assistant general manager Jim Schoenfeld, the GM of the Whale, could not be reached Tuesday.

"This has always been about promoting activity and economic opportunity in the city," Baldwin said in the statement. "We have shown what's possible with the tremendous fans in this market. That hasn't changed."

Baldwin was informed of the change Monday and the Rangers immediately removed all references to Whalers Sports & Entertainment from the Whale's website while changing the team's official email address has from Info@ctwhale.com to CTWhale@msg.com.

Word of the change comes just days before city and state officials will be celebrating UConn's rise to Hockey East at an event scheduled for Friday at the XL Center. UConn will begin playing its Hockey East home schedule 12 to 14 games a season at the XL Center in 2014. The Whale played 38 home games at the XL Center last season

Meanwhile, WSE's negotiations with AEG have not been productive, according to sources.The team has been seeking more favorable terms after paying $25,000 per game in rent last season.

If an extension is not reached, the Rangers will shift the team to another market.

It's a stunning turn from the optimism surrounding Baldwin's return to the scene two years ago. Baldwin, a founder of the Whalers in the early 1970s, was a popular figure in the city as he led the Whalers from the franchise's move to the NHL in 1979 through successful seasons in the 1980s.

Baldwin eventually moved to Southern California and worked in the film industry. All the while, though, he talked to Rangers officials about forming a partnership and running the AHL team in Hartford.

When Baldwin moved back to the area a few years ago, he unveiled his plan to revitalize the market in hopes of catching the attention of the NHL. After a lengthy negotiation with Madison Square Garden and AEG, Baldwin secured control of the team.

"Howard loves this city," Schoenfeld said when Baldwin took over in 2010. "His heart's always been in this city. That's why he's back here. This is his baby."

And all along, a segment of fans viewed Baldwin as Hartford's best hope of bringing the NHL back to Trumbull Street. Baldwin, who says he remains connected to NHL power brokers, talked about renovating the XL Center to NHL standards and creating a buzz with large crowds at AHL games.

By the time WSE took control of the Wolf Pack in September 2010, the group was already drawing attention by embracing the past. There was a Whalers Fan Fest at Rentschler Field in August 2010 and the team was quickly rebranded as the Connecticut Whale, complete with the color scheme of Hartford's former NHL team.

In February 2011, WSE staged a 10-day outdoor hockey festival at Rentschler Field that culminated in a Bruins-Whalers alumni game before a night AHL game. But the cost of snow removal and extremely cold and windy weather the day of the marquee event left WSE with a significant debt from what Baldwin often described as a "celebration of Connecticut hockey."

Over the next year, the financial troubles became an obstacle in promoting the team, and attendance suffered. After a bump in attendance during the 2010-11 season, the team averaged 4,573 (23rd in the 30-team AHL) last season.

Meanwhile, the Rangers' hierarchy grew concerned with the financial problems surrounding the team. Reebok, the NHL's equipment and uniform supplier, was owed money by WSE and turned to the Rangers for help in collecting the unpaid debt.

Sources say Rangers officials were infuriated by the issue with Reebok and the relationship between the sides grew tense last season. Still, Baldwin insisted his company's financial issues would ease when an extension on the lease was reached.

But talks between AEG and WSE have been stagnant. Baldwin's son, Howard Baldwin Jr., was replaced as presidient of WSE and the company scaled back its office staff in recent months.

The legal structure behind the XL Center operations is complex, and there's no one who can say what will happen after 2013 because the board that's likely to run it has not even been seated yet. The building is owned by the city of Hartford, which leased it to the Connecticut Development Authority for 20 years, ending in August 2013.

The CDA, in turn, subeases the property to AEG, which took over for MSG several years ago. That sublease also ends in August 2013. After that, the state intends that a new master lease be held by the newly formed Capital Region Development Authority which will run Rentschler Field, the Connecticut Convention Center and other properties in addition to the XL Center.

The statement from WSE also said, "Mr. Baldwin has applauded State and City efforts to refinance and reposition the XL Center as a hockey venue and continues to believe that Hartford deserves a return of major league hockey. He looks forward to the opportunity in the coming year to address the restructuring of the marketplace and the continued re-energizing of Hartford as a great hockey market."

Business editor Dan Haar contributed to this story.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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