HARTFORD — — From his office in Southern California, Howard Baldwin began his pursuit with one phone call after another to New York Rangers executive Glen Sather.
It was nearly a decade ago, and area hockey fans were still smarting from the loss of the Hartford Whalers to North Carolina. Baldwin, the founder and former owner of the Whalers, dreamed of running Hartford's minor-league team with the long-term goal of luring the NHL back to the market.
The pleas to Sather came at all hours. As years passed, Sather eventually forwarded Baldwin's inquiries to his assistant, Jim Schoenfeld, but the negotiations continued.
"Howard loves this city," said Schoenfeld, who runs the American Hockey League's Hartford Wolf Pack. "His heart's always been in this city. That's why he's back here. This is his baby."
Sure enough, Baldwin relocated to the area to ratchet up his chase. On Monday, Baldwin's persistence culminated in the announcement that his sports marketing company will take over the business operations of the AHL franchise.
The Wolf Pack, who begin their 14th season next month, will be renamed the Connecticut Whale before the end of the year. At an XL Center press conference, Baldwin promised to market and promote the team with a goal of increasing sagging attendance in the building.
Baldwin has always said the market must be "rebuilt" before the NHL will consider a return to Hartford. That mean increasing and sustaining the attendance at the AHL game, a goal that Baldwin says is realistic.
"Market, market, market," Baldwin said. "We'll get out in the community."
Last season, the Wolf Pack averaged 4,188 fans — down from 5,045 just four years earlier. Although the team has been successful on the ice, with 12 consecutive postseason appearances before missing the playoffs last season, a faction of the region's hockey fans refused to embrace them.
Many of the most ardent Whalers fans have viewed support of the Wolf Pack as settling for an inferior product. Wolf Pack fans, on the other hand, have resisted what they view as nostalgia in clinging to the hope that the Whalers will return.
Baldwin's first order of business is to bring the groups together.
"It's time to get over all that stuff," Baldwin said. "I mean, it is hockey. … We all have to get over this stuff about, 'It's my team, it's your team.' The team belongs here, right here. Get behind it."
Hence the new name. Baldwin insists that he was not legally blocked from using "Whalers," but instead decided to simply pay homage to the old franchise while declaring the start of a new era. It's unclear whether the copyright of the name and logo are owned by the NHL or the Connecticut Development Authority, but Baldwin says he could have used the name if he wanted it.
Instead, he picked a variation of the old name. And by placing "Connecticut" in the team name, Baldwin is saying he will market throughout the state.
Al Victor, president of the Whalers Booster Club, applauded the decision to choose "Whale" over "Whalers."
"I kind of like the idea," Victor said. "I was kind of put back because I always felt the Whalers name should be saved for the NHL. I like the idea of not going with the Whalers and saving it for the NHL. And they are paying tribute to the Whale with this name. This is a good compromise . . . we always called them the The Whale."
Victor was among the fans who began milling about the XL Center's atrium about an hour before the press conference Monday. By the time the press conference began inside the arena, about 100 or so fans were in the stands.
Sather, Schoenfeld and Wolf Pack coach Ken Gernander flew by helicopter from New York to Hartford for the announcement. Mayor Pedro Segarra and MetroHartford Alliance head R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel were among the speakers, but Baldwin was clearly the star of the show.
Baldwin has already unveiled plans for a 10-day outdoor hockey festival at Rentschler Field in February, which will feature high school, prep school and college games, as well as an AHL game, along with a celebrity All-Star game. His enterprise, Whalers Sports & Entertainment, staged a fan fest and Whalers reunion last month at Rentschler and the reaction sent a message that the market still has an enthusiastic core of hockey fans.
The announcement Monday that Baldwin's newly named Hartford Hockey LLC will run the Wolf Pack is a signal that the franchise will have a higher visibility in the market.
"We've got to do the grunt work now and do what has to be done to market this team and get the attendance up," Baldwin said. "But it is really more than this team. When you come into this building, you've got to make it more than an entertainment destination point."
The XL Center will continue to be run by AEG, Madison Square Garden remains the owner of the franchise and the Rangers will still supply the players. Baldwin said the renaming will happen during the season as a new logo and uniforms are revealed.
And, yes, "Brass Bonanza" will be return to the arena's sound system. Eventually.
"Maybe not from day one, but there will be a process during the year when we'll do the rebranding and then you'll start to hear it," Baldwin said. "It'll be back here at some point."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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