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NHL Franchise Is A Dream, But Need To Invest In XL Center Is Here And Now

We Should Be Less Worried About NHL, More Worried About Specter Of New Haven Coliseum


November 16, 2011

I'm willing to dream with Howard Baldwin about returning the NHL to the XL Center in Hartford because another New Haven Coliseum fiasco is a nightmare that could happen.

That colossal white elephant was demolished five years ago after it became an outdated and little-used waste of public money. Imagine a big, empty hole in the middle of Hartford. It could happen.

We're a long way from that Katy Perry packed the arena Tuesday night but unless steps are taken to update the nearly 40-year-old XL Center, it will continue to lose business to the casinos and other venues. The Basketball Hall of Fame's Tip Off Tournament for college basketball teams, in case you missed it, will be at Mohegan Sun next week.

I listened Tuesday morning as Baldwin, the current owner of the minor league Connecticut Whale, onetime owner of the NHL Whalers and designated Hartford dreamer, pulled open the curtains and declared the future must be about the big leagues.

"You deserve that team back,'' Baldwin told a crowded breakfast meeting of the MetroHartford Alliance at the Bushnell, not without a little nostalgia for the days of Chuck's Steakhouse and Whalers-over-Bruins mania. "The NHL is on everybody's wish list. That's what we want."

So give Baldwin, a Hollywood moviemaker who left and now has returned home, credit for once again forcing discussion of the issue. In a city where knocking down an ugly empty building along I-84 is considered something special, Baldwin wants to silence the Hartford naysayers and actually do something that matters.

"I want you to think about pride," he said. "You need a heartbeat in this city."

Baldwin's right about that. I want to dream about the NHL in what local blogger Sad City Hartford calls "the ultimate underdog city." But we also need real hope when we wake up from Baldwin's Brass Bonanza reverie. There is nothing more tiresome and depressing than the biennial bring-back-the-NHL refrain that leads only to more studies, fact finding trips to NHL comeback cities, and then nothing.

Right now, there's no sign of the $105 million that Baldwin says it will take to renovate the XL Center (though what sports fan or Hartford booster wouldn't swap the $500 million busway for getting the NHL in Hartford?). I'm wondering where the corporate support for a new NHL team would be since even when the Whalers played here it was a complicated struggle to get the business community to pony up the big money required to support pro sports. And as for fan support for NHL hockey, consider this: The cheapest ticket to be found online Tuesday to a Pittsburgh Penguins home game was $59.

The question is, can we keep Baldwin's dream alive and accept the reality of what Hartford and the state can do?

Hartford needs a lively arena that will continue to attract concerts, NCAA sports, minor league hockey and other events. The folks behind the innovative iQuilt project, which aims to stitch all of the city's many arts and entertainment attractions together, know that a healthy XL Center is a vital part of the city's economic future.

"The fear is, does the XL Center become the New Haven Coliseum? This is an important facility in the city of Hartford that needs appropriate care," said Oz Griebel, CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance. "The XL Center has to be dealt with.''

Robert Mead, a senior vice president with Aetna which paid for an economic study of Baldwin's project by UConn told Tuesday's gathering this is about more than sports. Businesses struggle to recruit young people to come work in Hartford. "When there's not something going on in the XL Center, there's not much going on in downtown Hartford,'' he said .

But Roy Occhiogrosso, a spokesman for Gov. Dannel Malloy, told me that it's "not realistic" to think there would be support for investing $100 million in a sports arena. A block of empty new storefronts at the nearby state-financed Adriaen's Landing development stand as a pointed reminder of this.

"We are in a different time. The governor's economic development focus is on job creation in growth industries,'' Occhiogrosso said. "The notion of bringing NHL hockey back to Hartford is a nice one. He would like to see a lot more detail from Howard."

It shouldn't just come from Baldwin, who has restarted an old Hartford conversation but who doesn't even own the building he wants renovated. The end result doesn't have to be the NHL in Hartford. But the governor, other political leaders and business leaders must come together to figure out a plan for a future of the XL Center that includes investment from both the private and public sectors.

Because what we really should worry about is not when the NHL comes back to town, but whether the next New Haven Coliseum is right here in Hartford.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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