Professional hockey will remain in downtown Hartford, at least for the next three years.
After weeks of high-level negotiations between Madison Square Garden Co. and Comcast Spectacor, a deal was reached Tuesday to keep the New York Rangers' American Hockey League affiliate at the XL Center. The lease extension runs through 2016, with a provision for two one-year extensions.
The team's name, a source of much consternation among fans, is expected to remain the same. The franchise has been known as the Connecticut Whale since early in the 2010-11 season, after 13 seasons as the Hartford Wolf Pack.
The team's lease at the XL Center expires after this season, and MSG, owner of the Rangers and the Whale, was unable to negotiate an extension because the Capital Region Development Authority was in the process of choosing a building operator. Earlier this month, the agency picked Global Spectrum, a subsidiary of Philadelphia-based Comcast Spectacor, over current operator AEG Management CT and a group led by Bushnell Management Services.
Although the Rangers own the team and cover expenses for salary, travel and uniforms, Global Spectrum will handle ticket sales, operation of premium suites, merchandise and marketing.
Michael Freimuth, executive director of CRDA, said that Global will pay MSG $1.4 million annually as an affiliation fee, which will come from ticket sales and other sources of revenue. The average AHL affiliation fee is about $1 million a year, a league source said.
Before Global Spectrum was awarded the contract, MSG investigated alternative markets for its AHL franchise. The Rangers looked into Glens Falls, N.Y., and had interest in Bridgeport's Webster Bank Arena, although the New York Islanders' AHL affiliate has a long-term lease with that building.
When Global Spectrum was chosen by the CRDA to run the XL Center and Rentschler Field, retaining an AHL team in the arena was cited as a priority. Global's business development chief, Glastonbury-based Frank E. Russo Jr., immediately vowed to secure a deal with MSG.
And in the past few weeks, executives in New York and Philadelphia hammered out an agreement to keep hockey in Hartford.
"The ability to secure a professional hockey team for Hartford was a major consideration in selecting Global Spectrum as the management team for the XL Center," Freimuth said in a statement. "The Whale is a great team and having Global at the helm means marketing opportunities that will bring more commerce and economic growth to Hartford. I thank MSG and Global for working so diligently to get this done."
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was equally pleased.
"Hartford is a city of tremendous potential — deals like this one will bring more people downtown, help spur additional economic activity and reinvigorate our capital city," Malloy said in a statement. "Three more years — and maybe more — of Whale hockey is great news for Connecticut fans, this one included."
The challenge for Global Spectrum will be boosting attendance, which has steadily declined. The franchise was third in attendance in the AHL in 1997-98 and 1998-99, and the team averaged more than 5,000 a game in each of its first nine seasons.
But with the exception of 2010-11 — when attendance was boosted by the rebranding — the franchise has drawn fewer fans in recent years. This season, the Whale (4,359 a game) are 23rd in the 30-team AHL in attendance.
Still, city and state officials have cited the AHL as a critical component to downtown Hartford. According to the CRDA, the Whale attract an estimated 140,000 people to the city in the course of their season.
Professional hockey first came to Hartford in 1975 when the New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association moved from Boston to the newly constructed Hartford Civic Center. The team played in Springfield after the Civic Center's roof collapsed in January 1978, returning to Hartford as an NHL franchise with a renovated, larger home in 1980.
The NHL Whalers remained at the Civic Center until 1997, when owner Peter Karmanos moved the franchise to North Carolina. The Rangers subsequently moved their AHL affiliate from Binghamton, N.Y., to Hartford. The team was known as the Hartford Wolf Pack and was managed by MSG, which also operated the Civic Center.
Management of the arena shifted to Northland AEG in 2007, and the team's local operation was managed by that company until 2010, when a company led by Whalers' founder Howard Baldwin took over the business and marketing operation.
Whalers Sports & Entertainment rebranded the Wolf Pack as the Connecticut Whale, changing the logo while embracing Hartford's hockey history. Attendance rose as Whalers Sports & Entertainment brought former Whalers back for special events, but the company ran into financial problems after staging an outdoor hockey event at Rentschler Field.
Last summer, MSG took the day-to-day operation of the team away from Baldwin's company and AEG took control of the team.
Russo ran the Civic Center in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Baldwin ran the Whalers. Given their history, there was speculation throughout the AHL that Baldwin's company could re-emerge in partnership with Global Spectrum.
But an AHL source said that both MSG and the state were reluctant to do business with Baldwin's company. MSG, the source said, contemplated a name change because the company wanted to distance itself from Baldwin's rebranding.
"The Whale appreciates the local community and its fans, and has valued the past 16 seasons in Hartford," said Jim Schoenfeld, general manager of the Whale and assistant GM of the Rangers. "Many Rangers players over the years were developed in Hartford and all enjoyed their time in the area. The experience that our players gain while with the Whale is invaluable, and we look forward to having the Whale call the XL Center home for the next three seasons."
In conjunction with UConn men's and women's basketball, the Whale fills crucial dates at the building. And starting in 2014, the UConn hockey team will play games at the XL Center when the program joins the prestigious Hockey East conference.
"I have said many times that preserving AHL hockey in the capital city is critical to maintaining the momentum and increased vibrancy that we've generated over the last two years," Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra said. "The overall economic impact of professional hockey on the city and the region is significant and cannot be undervalued and I'm thrilled that MSG has committed to remain in Hartford for at least the next three years."
Courant staff writer Kenneth R. Gosselin contributed to this story.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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