To paraphrase Robert Kennedy, others ask why and Howard Baldwin asks why not.
Mr. Baldwin, founder and owner of the Hartford Whalers as a young man in the 1970s, has returned to the city to get involved in hockey once again. After years of negotiation, Mr. Baldwin's sports marketing company will take over the business operations of the city's American Hockey League team, the Hartford Wolf Pack.
Mr. Baldwin's long-term goal is to build so much support for the minor-league team that the National Hockey League will welcome Hartford back. To that end, the name of the team will be changed to the Connecticut Whale, which recalls the NHL team that left Hartford in 1997 — cue the banner with the green broken heart — to become the Carolina Hurricanes. In addition to the name change, Mr. Baldwin promises to market and promote the team vigorously.
Just that will be a major boost for downtown Hartford. Wolf Pack attendance has dropped from more than 5,000 fans a game four years ago to 4,188 fans last season. Mr. Baldwin, a skilled promoter, has unveiled plans for a 10-day outdoor hockey festival at Rentschler Field in February, which will feature, among other events, a celebrity All-Star game.
As for the Captain Ahab dream of rejoining the NHL, it's hard to say. Some factors that worked against the team in the 1990s may have changed. Escalating salaries helped price the league out of small and mid-sized markets, but the salary cap created after the cancellation of the 2004-05 season may work to the advantage of smaller-market teams.
Also, the Whalers move was part of an attempt by the league to broaden its fan base and TV appeal by expanding out of Canada and the northern U.S. to cities in the South. This has not been an unqualified success, resulting in large losses and failed TV ratings. The league might soon want to reconsider a Northern market with a strong fan base, which Hartford was.
The sticking point could well be a new arena, but that's not an immediate problem. In the short term, Mr. Baldwin needs to convince the cohort of hard-core Whaler fans who don't support the Wolf Pack to get down to the games, and he needs to attract other fans from around the state as well. We wish him well — cue "Brass Bonanza."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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