But Organizer Howard Baldwin Upbeat About The Day's Hockey Events
February 20, 2011
As "Brass Bonanza" played and the retired Whalers took the ice for an alumni game Saturday afternoon, a line of cars inched from Silver Lane to the parking lot at Rentschler Field.
The crowd in the stadium for the Whale Bowl outdoor hockey event was sparse, but organizers of Whalers Hockey Fest 2011 were hoping the seats would fill up as the day wore on. Instead, the wind chill intensified and many of the seats stayed empty.
By the time Hartford's celebration of hockey was over, 15,234 thermal-wearing fans had their tickets scanned. Organizers said 28,600 tickets were distributed — including 21,600 paid — but the weather apparently kept people away.
So was Howard Baldwin disappointed in the reaction to his vision of an outdoor hockey Mardi Gras at the old airport?
"Bottom line, if you're trying to dial into whether we're disappointed … I can look every one of you in the eye and say, 'Hell, no,' " Baldwin told reporters during the primetime AHL game between the Connecticut Whale and Providence Bruins.
For those who braved the cold and wind, it was very much a hockey celebration. Fans in Whalers shirts began tailgating in the parking lot Saturday morning, while a high school game was being played between Farmington and the Newington/Berlin co-op program.
By mid-afternoon, fans were filing into the stadium and many lingered near the back of the concourse in the sun. A stream of hockey jerseys and hats moved through the concourse, from the standard Whalers shirts of various eras to a large number of Bruins jerseys.
There were Wolf Pack shirts, there was a fan wearing a USA Olympic hockey jersey and another wearing a Boston University hockey jersey. There was a Montreal Canadiens hat among the sea of stocking caps in the stands.
Outside, the Connecticut hockey-themed band The Zambonis performed.
"I'm thrilled with it," Baldwin said. "How could you not be?"
Yet his son, Whalers Sports and Entertainment President Howard Baldwin Jr., admitted he was disappointed by the turnout. The weather forecast called for afternoon temperatures to reach the high 30s or perhaps 40 degrees.
But there was a strong wind and that made it feel a lot colder. About 10,000 were in the stadium for the alumni game and many were seen retreating to their cars during the game.
"Would it have been great today if it was 40 degrees and no wind?" Baldwin said. "Of course."
The old-timers who skated in the afternoon game hardly noticed the empty seats. The former Whalers and Bruins skated to a 4-4 tie and fans reacted when the popular Pat Verbeek scored and they never seemed tired of "Brass Bonanza."
But as much as it was a celebration of Whalers history, the event was also about Connecticut hockey. The 13-day festival included youth, high school, prep school, college and adult games.
And Saturday's signature event was a homecoming for Brian Leetch, who is among the best athletes ever produced by Connecticut. Leetch, arguably the best American player in NHL history, skated for the Bruins and received a standing ovation when he was introduced before the game.
The Cheshire native and Avon Old Farms graduate hasn't lived in the state in 25 years. He has lived in Boston since retiring and makes few public appearances in his home state.
Leetch, though, noticed the reception.
"It was great," Leetch said. "I was coming back … with the Connecticut connection for the outdoor game. To get an acknowledgement like that is awesome."
While Leetch distinguished himself with a Hall of Fame NHL career, he will always be linked to Enfield native Craig Janney. They were both selected in the first round of the 1986 NHL draft and were teammates at Boston College before playing together on the 1988 U.S. Olympic team.
And for the first time since the '88 Games, they were teammates Saturday. Janney, who lives in Arizona, also returned and scored a goal for the Bruins.
Janney had his No. 15 retired before the Enfield High game at Rentschler Field Friday night. He said Saturday that he rarely returns to his home state, but was excited to play for the Bruins alumni.
"I think it's great for the hockey and youth hockey," Janney said. "Just what the Baldwins did, allowing youth hockey to play on it, high school teams, college teams. It just made it a jamboree of hockey. It can only be a real positive, positive thing. Especially for the grass roots of hockey."
And how did Janney feel while skating for just the third time in two years?
"Old and slow," Janney said. "Just like the rest of the guys."
The old-timers were slow, but the crowd was entertained by the Hanson brothers from the cult hockey movie "Slap Shot." Still, many fans were leaving as the Hanson brothers were roughing up opponents near the end of the game.
As the Whale and Bruins played their AHL game under the lights, cars were leaving. The announced attendance was 21,673, which surpassed the previous AHL attendance record of 21,508.
But there were clearly far fewer in the stadium. Baldwin, who returned with the promise of rebuilding the hockey market, has pointed to the "Whale Bowl" as an opportunity to send a message to the NHL.
As it became apparent that cold weather seemed to stifle the turnout, Baldwin wasn't talking about sending a message. He insists his group will build from the event and increase attendance for Whale games at the XL Center.
Will there be another outdoor event? The Baldwins aren't saying, but the father didn't stop smiling.
"You've got a lot of people who braved this weather," Baldwin Sr. said. "So I don't have any complaints about anything."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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