In a box with other old, cherished stuff from the past, I keep my sheet of eight Hartford Whalers playoff tickets, from 1997 as I recall — the year isn't marked.
That's $400 worth of chits to games that never happened because the team didn't make the postseason. The Whalers paid us fans back and packed up for North Carolina, leaving us with some nice memories and mementoes.
Now, 13 years later, the Savior has returned to right Hartford's hockey wrongs. Howard Baldwin, owner of the team in the Capital City's '80s heyday, has gained control of the business operations for the minor-league Hartford Wolf Pack.
He has a plan and a dream. The plan is great. The dream, not so great for a city that needs to accept itself for what it is.
Here's the plan: Baldwin is changing the name to the Whale. He's talking about upgrading the tired XL Center and making Hartford the best American Hockey League city in North America.
Baldwin, who co-owned the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins after his Whalers stint, knows hockey, he knows marketing and he knows how to build excitement. Hartford deserves a first-rate AHL team and we can and will rally behind one.
Baldwin also has a dream that he can return big-league NHL hockey to downtown Hartford. This is a nice dream — we would all love to see it — and Baldwin is saying exactly the right thing: AHL now, NHL later, maybe. We'll see.
Unfortunately for Hartford, the NHL Whalers dream is sucking in a lot of folks who think it will happen and won't be happy with anything less. That threatens to take the city's eye off the puck when it comes to things we can and should be doing instead — developing arts, technology, advanced manufacturing, insurance and, yes, minor league sports.
Baldwin suggests the NHL could return to a refurbished XL Center, which doesn't seems likely. Regardless, we're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars for an arena, new or rebuilt. Most likely that would be taxpayer financed, not to mention whatever sweeteners We the People would have to kick in for the ownership itself.
The payback for all this public booty is questionable, to say the least.
If we're talking about putting feet on the street and pride in our hearts, there are more efficient ways than buying a big-league sports dream.
Without all that spending, Baldwin can get 6,000 fannies a night into downtown, easy. An NHL team would haul in maybe 13,000 of us suburbanites. So all the hullabaloo is over 7,000 people a night times 41 nights. Nice, but not $400 million worth of nice.
What we can't buy for any price is the passion of a true NHL city. Ever been to Philadelphia for a Flyers-Penguins game in April? We're seeing a lot of ardent pining for the Brass Bonanza and the green-and-blue this week, but that's from the hardcores. Season after season, it takes more than a couple of thousand face-painting fanatics to make it work.
Some Whalers dreamers say Hartford is the largest metro area without a big-league sports team. Maybe that's true if we throw in New Haven, but as for central Connecticut, we are right between Louisville and Richmond. Do the Mud Hens play in one of those places?
If anyone can bring back the NHL, Baldwin is the guy. "We all just have to start believing in ourselves again," he said Thursday in an online chat with my colleague, Jeff Jacobs.
The trick is to believe in ourselves without buying into a quixotic dream. Greater Hartford is a fabulous third-tier metro area and it ought to embrace that. It's a half-day's drive from everything the Western World has to offer, the 12th-wealthiest region in the nation even without Fairfield County and a cradle of U.S. history. This month, two friends of mine who spark events here — Joan Walden and Daniel Salazar Jr. — talked about why they've stayed so many years: Hartford is small enough that you can make a difference.
Salazar packed Mortensen Riverfront Plaza with his annual Guitar Under the Stars concert on Sept. 11, a perfect example of the kind of event that adds up fast to make people believe.
Oz Griebel, erstwhile candidate for governor and CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance, thinks NHL hockey could conceivably happen here, but sees the quest for what it is.
"It's a hypothetical discussion that doesn't make any sense in this environment," Griebel said. "Let's show that we can support hockey. That's what this is about."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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