On the day the Hartford Whalers announced that they were leaving town, Mark Anderson didn't leave his house. Couldn't leave his house. He was, as he puts it, "an absolute wreck."
It was March 26, 1997. Less than three years earlier, Detroit businessman Peter Karmanos had purchased the beloved NHL franchise—best known for its iconic whale-fin logo and catchy "Brass Bonanza" theme song—and vowed to keep it in Hartford for at least four more seasons. Only now, he was ripping the franchise from the city it had called home since 1974 and shattering a piece of Hartford's psyche in the process.
Blamed on poor attendance and corporate support, the Whalers' departure stripped Hartford of its lone professional major-league sports team—and, in a sense, its lone claim to status as a major American city. Connecticut's capital couldn't match the country's major metro areas in population, industry, or cultural importance, but on the sports page, at least, Hartford had a place next to Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.
Now that symbol of relevance was gone, sent south to Raleigh as the Carolina Hurricanes. Anderson, a diehard fan who bought tickets whenever he could afford to, vowed then and there not to attend another game that season, lest he give Karmanos another cent of parking or concession revenue.
"It felt like a death in the family," Anderson says. "They were never very good, but they were always there. It was the one professional team that was truly ours. It was Hartford's team. It was Connecticut's team."
Twenty years later, Hartford has a shot—albeit a long one—at rejoining the NHL. The New York Islanders could be booted from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and might soon be seeking a new home. In early February, Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy and Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin penned an open letter to Islanders ownership pitching them on Hartford.
The biggest obstacle to hockey's potential return? Hartford's XL Center, the state-owned, 15,000-seat downtown arena where the Whalers previously played, has been sparsely updated since its 1975 opening and needs a proposed $250 million in publicly financed renovations to be suitable for a NHL team. For a state in the middle of an ongoing budget crisis, that's a politically problematic ask.
The question facing Hartford, then, is the same one that has faced dozens of major league cities, from Milwaukee (which is spending $250 million to help build a new $524 million NBA arena) to San Diego (which is losing the NFL's Chargers after refusing to spend even more): Just how much is having a professional sports franchise actually worth?
"How do you say, 'I'd like to give the Islanders many millions of dollars,' while we're cutting hospital funding or other social services funding?" asks Kevin Rennie, a lawyer and former Republican state legislator who also writes op-eds for the Hartford Courant. "We're asking people to basically do the reverse Robin Hood in taking from the poor and giving to the very, very rich."
Two decades after the NHL skipped town, Anderson, now 42, is membership chairperson of the Hartford Whalers Booster Club. The group meets monthly, he says, and has two goals: keep the Whalers' memory alive, and one day bring them back.
Vestiges of the franchise still dot the Hartford area. Whalers merchandise has become something of a retro craze around the country—Snoop Dogg wore a team sweater on Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2014—but is especially noticeable in Connecticut, with the club's logo adorning hats and jerseys and decorating bars and restaurants. You can buy team gear at the airport and at numerous sports merchandise stores. The local classic rock station is called 102.9 The Whale.
The Whalers' lasting appeal goes beyond hockey. After all, the team was never particularly good; in 18 NHL seasons, the franchise had a winning record only three times. No, what made the Whalers special was how the franchise made Hartford feel special, too.
With the club, Hartford could call itself as a major-league city. Without it, it's more like just another place. No one understands this sentiment better than Howard Baldwin, who founded the Whalers in 1972 and moved them from Boston to Hartford two years later.
"People would say to me they don't know about this market because they almost have a chip on their shoulder because they're right between Boston and New York, and there's almost a psychological inferiority [complex]," he says about the decision to relocate the team. "And I said, We'll have to see. And it worked great in the 70s and 80s." The Whalers were sold to local owners in 1988.
Former Whalers fans speak wistfully of a time when Hartford stood next to America's major cities, if only in the agate type of the sports page or on ESPN's bottom line.
"You could go on to ESPN, and they have the ticker at the bottom of the screen, and you would see 'Hartford – 4, Rangers – 3' or 'Hartford – 2, Bruins – 7,' whatever it was," Anderson says. "They were there. Hartford was there. You could pick up any newspaper in the country and go into the sports section and look at the NHL standings, and Hartford was there."
Al Victor agrees. A lifelong Hartford–area resident, Victor joined the Hartford Whalers Booster Club in 1980 and later got a security job at the XL Center, where he delighted in being paid to watch Whalers games. Shortly after the team's departure, he rose to HWBC president, leading the group's crusade to bring back the team.
When the Whalers left, Victor says, he felt like a kid watching his parents get divorced. Even today, the pain hasn't fully faded. Now 71 years old, Victor is retired and living in Las Vegas. Still, he speaks pridefully of the days when Hartford had "an identity."
"Throughout the nation, when someone mentioned the Whalers, they'd know that's Hartford," he says. "When you have a professional sports franchise playing in your city, regardless of the size—look at Buffalo, look at Edmonton, as small as they are—it does give you identity. There's no two ways about it. It puts you on the map with cities like Los Angeles and Chicago and New York."
Two weeks after Governor Malloy and Mayor Bronin wrote their invitation letter to the Islanders, Malloy said that a potential ownership group had asked about bringing a team to Hartford, but he also called luring the team a "long shot."
The city's XL Center still hosts a full schedule of events—UConn basketball and hockey, the American Athletic Conference men's basketball tournament, various concerts, and assorted other affairs—but it's on the wrong side of the aging curve. Michael Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority, which oversees the building, estimates that the arena, if untended, won't last more than another five years. With periodic expenditures to fix problems as they occur, he says, it could "muddle along" a little longer.
"There's not a day that goes by when an elevator doesn't stop working or an escalator stops," Freimuth says. "We had one day when the ice equipment quit. It's kind of hard to have an event when your ice floor melts down to water."
Malloy, a Democrat, has asked the state legislature for $250 million over several years to renovate the XL Center, with plans to modernize the building's infrastructure and add a second concourse, but the timing could not be worse. Connecticut's economy is sluggish, and the state is desperate to lower its unwieldy deficit.
Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy. Photo courtesy Wikipedia
Malloy recently proposed a bare-bones budget that slashes tax credits and asks towns to help pay for teacher pensions. In that context, the governor's desire to splurge on an arena for a hockey team run by billionaires rubs some people the wrong way. It also bucks a national trend of municipalities refusing to spend tax dollars on sports venues. In San Diego, Oakland, Phoenix, Atlanta, and elsewhere, politicians and residents fed up with paying for stadiums and never reaping their financial rewards have balked at committing massive amounts of public money to keep or lure teams.
In Hartford, however, no organized opposition has coalesced. The city may have a poverty rate near 40 percent, but the state is proposing to spend cash on the XL Center. The basic economic argument for the outlay goes like this: Whether or not an NHL team returns to Hartford, the city is well served by a functional arena. The XL Center closing would cost Hartford its partnership with UConn and its ability to host other events that drive consumers into the downtown area.
In addition, while the city can draw people to downtown restaurants and bars on weekends, weeknight entertainment benefits local businesses and makes Hartford a more appealing place to live.
"[Arenas] provide a certain quality-of-life vitality to a community," Freimuth says. "We put those kinds of things in a city for a reason. They give life to a city."
That said, simply upgrading the XL Center won't guarantee a Whalers return. Freimuth says that the $250 million investment would make the building inhabitable for an NHL franchise, but that appeasing a big-time tenant would cost millions more in inducements.
"The $250 [million] gets us to where we need to be to produce the revenue streams and get the building on an operational expense profile that will be appealing and useful to an NHL team," Freimuth says. "We think it needs another $15 million or so, based on our latest construction estimates, to add locker rooms, training facilities, and other things an NHL team would want that we're not planning on building today because we don't need them today. It'd be a relatively easy lift at that point."
When the corporate branding is on point, but the construction is not. Photo from @GoYardGoats
Even if the Islanders were to pack their bags for Hartford, the last two decades of professional sports in the city hardly inspire confidence that a Whalers 2.0 could thrive in Connecticut's capital.
To the contrary, the post-Whalers era has seen one failure after another. The New England Patriots nearly relocated south in 1999—lured by what was reportedly the most generous stadium offer in NFL history—but bailed at the last minute when Hartford balked at their timetable. The New England Sea Wolves of the Arena Football League played two seasons at the XL Center, then decamped for Toronto. The Hartford Colonials of the United Football League lasted two seasons across the Connecticut River in East Hartford before being suspended amid unpaid debts.
The Hartford Wolf Pack, an AHL affiliate of the New York Rangers, arrived in the wake of the Whalers' departure and enjoyed strong attendance for several years, as ex-Whalers fans sought their hockey fix. But as "Brass Bonanza" faded into memory, interest in the Wolf Pack waned.
Baldwin returned to Hartford in 2010 to try to lure back an NHL team, an initiative that failed, by his assessment, due to lack of cooperation from state and city leadership. He assumed control of the Wolf Pack's business operations and renamed the team the Connecticut Whale in an attempt to stir up Whalers nostalgia and perhaps prove Hartford's viability as an NHL market. But after a brief attendance surge, the novelty wore off and the Wolf Pack name returned in 2013. The Connecticut Whale re-emerged in 2015 as a women's hockey team in the NWHL.
Then there are the Hartford Yard Goats, the Double-A baseball team that moved from New Britain, Connecticut, in 2016 and was supposed to make its home at the brand-new Dunkin' Donuts Park. Alas, construction on the park ran into major roadblocks, and the Yard Goats wound up playing the entire season on the road. The FBI is reportedly investigating the construction process. Hailed by city leaders as a beacon of economic development, the building now serves as a cautionary fable about the dangers of believing in, and spending major money on, pro sports.
"We're often told that Hartford is a city full of unmet needs, yet they've spent tens of millions of dollars on a minor-league baseball stadium," Rennie says.
"It's easy to Monday-morning quarterback," Freimuth says. "[Dunkin' Donuts Park] certainly doesn't help us in our sales pitch because it's so fresh in the public mind what could go wrong, frankly."
When the Whalers left Hartford, the franchise claimed it was to make more money elsewhere. In their letter to the Islanders, Malloy and Bronin argue that economic times have changed, touting "a ready market anxious for an NHL team, eager to fill seats, buy merchandise and support your team."
There is some evidence for those claims. According to the Nielsen Company, Hartford-New Haven is the 30th biggest media market in the country and the largest without a big-four sports team. Research by FiveThirtyEight.com's Nate Silver in 2013 concluded there are 175,000 avid hockey fans in the area, more than in NHL markets like Columbus, Miami, Nashville, and—ahem—Raleigh-Durham. Malloy and Bronin point out that the Hartford area has more Fortune 500 companies than several NHL markets, and a large population of people with disposable income.
On the other hand, Hartford is only 100 miles from Boston and 120 miles from New York City, leaving residents with plenty of teams to choose from. Fans in Southern Connecticut are already pledged to New York sports teams, and fans in Northern Connecticut are loyal Boston. This is part of the reason Hartford sports teams have always seemed to fail, dating way back to the Hartford Dark Blues, a proto-baseball team that moved to Brooklyn in 1877 and folded a year later. Over 140 years of history, there's little evidence Hartford can host a successful sports team and lots of evidence that it can't.
Even Baldwin, the man who brought the Whalers to town in the first place, has his doubts. Baldwin says he'd love to see an NHL team return to Hartford, but that in order for that to happen, the area's corporate and political leaders have to buy in more than they have previously.
"When you're sitting in [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman's office and you're looking on your radar for moving cities, and you see they couldn't even get a minor-league baseball stadium built, you're going to say, 'How in the hell are they going to spend $275 million to refurbish an arena?'" says Baldwin, who now lives in Los Angeles.
"I would never be one to say it's never going to go anywhere, but it's going to take more than bullshit."
A Hartford Wolfpack game at the city's XL Center. Photo by Alex Putterman
On February 19, the Wolf Pack played the Springfield Thunderbirds at the XL Center. The crowd was what you'd expect at a minor-league hockey game: somewhat sleepy, a bit sparse, full of children and families. The Whalers still haunt the arena. The AHL teams played beneath banners celebrating the Whalers' six retired numbers and two division championships (one in the WHA, another in the NHL), and from high in the stands, it was easy to spot green Whalers jerseys speckling the crowd.
One of those jerseys belonged to Adam Kovalski, a former Whalers fan who sat with his young son (who was wearing a Rangers jersey) midway up the lower bowl, across from the Wolf Pack bench. Kovalski said he grew up attending Whalers games and yearned for the team's return, even if that would require tearing down the XL Center and starting from scratch.
"Hartford doesn't really have much of a calling card," he said. "It'd be nice to have that back."
Also at the Wolf Pack game that day was George Bouthet, a 54-year-old IT manager who once held Whalers season tickets and still lives in the area. "Hartford needs a brand. They have no image whatsoever," he said. "A lot of my friends, and myself, were excited about the Yard Goats coming in because now we were going to have something that says 'Hartford.'"
Mark Anderson thinks about the Whalers all the time. He thinks about his first-ever game at the XL Center, on November 26, 1983, when Hartford beat the Rangers with eight seconds left in overtime and he became hooked on hockey. About the clinching game of the Whalers' 1986 first round series against the Nordiques, when the Civic Center was rocking and crowds gathered on Trumbull Street to celebrate the victory. And about the night in the spring of 1997 when he found out Karmanos would hold a press conference the following day to announce that the Whalers were moving. The news left him with an emptiness that he compares with a straight face to being "punched in the nuts."
Anderson has heard all the arguments against bringing back the Whalers. He knows that Hartford has struggled to support teams in the past, that the Wolf Pack don't draw too well, that public financing for sports venues often leads to trouble, and that the money pledged to the XL Center could be spent many other ways.
But when he's at a UConn hockey game at the XL Center and the home team scores and the horn sounds and "Brass Bonanza" plays over the sound system in tribute to the Whalers, he's not thinking of any of that. As he stands and smiles and claps along to the song that defined his childhood, he has only one thought.
He just wants his team back.
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