2017: The Year of the Whalers?

Earlier this week, the Hartford Courant published an article that could give Hartford Whalers fans hope for the franchise’s return to Connecticut’s capital city but after almost 15 seasons away from pro hockey, can Hartford get a professional hockey team back?

The idea of bringing the Whalers back to Connecticut all stems back from one man – Howard Baldwin.  Baldwin is an American entrepreneur who founded the New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association (WHA) in 1971.  After continued success in the league, Baldwin moved the Boston based team to Hartford and helped the Whalers become part of the historic merger between the WHA and the NHL.  He has done more for professional hockey in the state of Connecticut than any one single man and he doesn’t seem finished with his legacy.

Baldwin announced on Tuesday that he is trying to move forward with a renovation plan to the XL Center – the former home of the Whalers and current home of the Connecticut Whale of the AHL – with the goal of bringing back an NHL franchise by the year 2017.  The XL Center was the only place the Whalers called home during their NHL duration which lasted from 1979 until the team’s relocation to Carolina in 1997, due to poor attendance and little corporate support.

But already Baldwin has sparked support from two big local businesses.  The University of Connecticut has shown interest in refurbishing the arena in the hopes of becoming a major venue for college basketball and hockey, while Aetna insurance already plans to help with the funding of the potential renovation.  Much of the funding must come from the public’s pocket however and as the New York Islanders have proven recently, that is not always an easy goal to accomplish.  The project would need $105 million in public money, in addition to what local taxpayers will shell out for other various city projects.  The XL Center is currently controlled by Larry Gottesdiener – who is not in favor of the idea – but it will revert back to city control in 2013, which means the renovations would begin almost a year after the city takes control.

Dannel P. Malloy, the governor of Connecticut, has not made clear where he stands with the issue and has stated that he needs to see more of the project which is still in its earliest stage.  Malloy’s support could prove to be huge in the hopes of the team making a return but will Hartford have the fan’s support the second time around to house a franchise for the long term?

The minor league Whale don’t exactly pack the house – averaging 4,724 fans a game which is 16th among AHL teams.  The XL Center currently seats about 16,500 fans for hockey but with the renovation it could be closer to 18,000 and it can be difficult for a small market team to attract 18,000 spectators each and every night.  The location of Hartford has always been a challenge for drawing fans, simply based on the fact that it is smack dab in between two of the largest franchises in the NHL – the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins.

There is hope however, as this summer proved.  The NHL finally jumped ship in Atlanta and relocated the Thrashers to Winnipeg, bringing back the Jets.  Winnipeg is – in terms of population density – the second smallest city in the league and if a team can come back to such a small area that at one time had a beloved team, why can’t it work for the Whalers?

This is not the first time Hartford has contemplated the idea of getting the Whalers back due to the remorse it has for letting the franchise go in the first place but with each year it has seemed to drift further from reality.  There are only two former Whalers left in the league – Chris Pronger of the Philadelphia Flyers and Jean-Sebastian Giguere of the Colorado Avalanche – and if this plan doesn’t take flight the Whale will no longer be endangered, but rather extinct.

This could be Hartford’s last chance to save the Whale.