POWER RANKING EVERY CONNECTICUT HOCKEY JERSEY EVER

Before we get down to the task at hand, a few ground rules:

  • We’ve included every professional team on record with the exception of a few that only played for single seasons in the 1950s. There just weren’t any good pictures to judge by, and it’s a safe bet that no one will care about the New Haven Nutmegs.
  • Division I NCAA hockey teams are included, as was one notable Division III team.
  • Farm teams that make no effort to differentiate their jerseys from that of the parent team get judged by their crappy third jerseys, harshly.
  • Teams that actually try get the benefit of the doubt and are judged by their best jersey, as arbitrarily decided by myself.
  • Boring is bad.
  • Classic is good.
  • “Edgy” is the worst.
  • My opinions are objectively correct. The science is settled. If you disagree, tell us why you’re wrong in the comments.

 

21. Danbury Titans

Federal Hockey Leaguetitans01

As I was trying to determine criteria for which teams to include, I struggled with the FHL. I don’t consider it a legitimate professional league so much as ponzi scheme. Ultimately, I decided to include the league’s Connecticut teams out of respect for Danbury, an old-time minor league hockey town which deserves better than the glorified men’s league which has set up shop there.

The Titans are the quiet, boring death rattle of a tradition of Danbury hockey which peaked with the Trashers and died dramatically with the sudden exit of the Danbury Whalers. This ugly mess of a jersey exemplifies that slow decline into mediocrity perfectly. It straddles a fine line between boring and garish, and includes a color that has no place on any jersey in any sport anywhere: neon lime green.

The easiest picks on this list were the best and the worst. Hats off to Danbury for making this one so easy on me.

20. New Haven Senators

American Hockey Leaguesenators01

Technically a rebrand of the beloved New Haven Nighthawks, the Senators were so unloved and so unremarkable in appearance that I was unable to find a single clear photo of their jersey.

I’m not sure if there’s ever been a more egregious example of a farm team phoning it in. Their uniform and logo were identical to the parent team, and the affiliation lasted only for one season, which happened to be Ottawa’s historically bad 70-loss inaugural season. The New Haven Senators were a little better, but not much. The missed the play-offs with only 22 wins and disappeared forever.

19. Danbury Mad Hatters

Eastern Professional Hockey Leaguemadhatters01

Like the Senators, the Mad Hatters of Danbury were another example of diminished returns in a follow-up to a beloved brand. Unlike the Senators, the Mad Hatters at least tried to acknowledge the beloved Trashers which preceded them.

They just didn’t do a very good job. The logo is a clear rip-off (or homage, if you choose to see it that way) to the Trasher’s anthropomorphic garbage can, but the Mad Hatters had none of the Trasher’s greasy mafia charm to help the cartoon cheese go down. It doesn’t help that the uninspired name was clearly the result of a conversation that went something like this:

Person 1: “I really wish we could just name this team Trashers.”

Person 2: “Yeah there’s that whole federal indictment of the trash pick-up company which owned the team though.”

Person 1: “Oh yeah. What else is Danbury known for besides corrupt garbagemen?”

Person 2: “Uh, making hats?”

Not surprisingly, they were another one-season wonder as the EPHL succumbed to the decline of low-level minor-league pro hockey.

18. Hartford Wolf Pack

American Hockey Leaguewolfpack01

If you know me, you know I showed great restraint in not placing this jersey dead last. Every jersey they put on ice has been, at best, a half-assed knock-off of various Rangers jerseys. But the tenth anniversary jersey was, far and away ,the most hideous thing they wore on a regular basis.

The jersey itself looks identical to a blank Rangers jersey, which would be fine if hating the Rangers wasn’t the only thing that Central/Eastern Connecticut’s mix of Whalers and Bruins fans agreed on. The already garish, oversized and lopsided Wolf Pack logo was made even more cluttered and unwieldy by superimposing it over a giant Roman numeral 10.

Of all of the teams in this list, the theme of unloved successors to beloved teams is probably best expressed in the Wolf Pack. They were the least popular of three options presented to Hartford’s fans while still mourning the loss of the Whalers, inexplicably chosen by the state. Promises from the Rangers that the team “would be its own thing” were broken as soon as they were made, and the Wolf Pack was barely tolerated by a city that had woven the green and blue of the Whaler into its cultural DNA.

This abomination of a jersey came at a nadir of the Wolf Pack’s popularity, and was spectacularly tone deaf. The team’s marketing was downright celebratory as the city mourned a decade of decline and loss. It speaks volumes that less than three years later, the Civic Center damn near sold out to celebrate the death of the Wolf Pack brand.

17. Bridgeport Sound Tigers

American Hockey Leaguesoundtigers01

Like their parent team, The Islanders, I don’t hate the Sound Tigers. The team and its uniforms generally fill me with a deep sense of indifference. Most of the jerseys they’ve worn look like Islanders jerseys with the best part, their classic logo crest, replaced with the cartoon face of a Sound Tiger, whatever that is.

That said, according to the rules set out for this list, teams which fail on grounds of originality will be judged by their bad third jerseys. And like most modern AHL teams, those bad jerseys are really bad.

I don’t hate the Sound Tigers, but I sure do hate everything about this jersey, from the color scheme to the “edgy” triangular striping to the MasterCard logo on the chest. It’s not quite as bad as the Danbury Titans, but unlike the Titans who are funded by a car dealership and playing for crowds of less than a thousand in a glorified rec rink, the Sound Tigers are a top-level affiliate of a major-league team.

They have no excuse to look this bad.

16. New Haven Knights

United Hockey Leagueknights01

There’s not much to say about the Knights. It’s a decent jersey and logo, neither terrible nor great. They played two seasons of rough, low-skill hockey in the short-lived UHL, a league that scavenged the least-desirable remnants of the IHL, and independent AAA league that dared to steal talent from the NHL and died a swift death as a result.

They are probably remembered most for being the final team to occupy the storied New Haven Coliseum before it closed its doors and was eventually demolished. It was the last stand of the Jungle, AKA Section 14, a  rowdy enclave of drunken hecklers who had defined New Haven Hockey since the old New Haven Arena days, where they were known as “The Zoo” and chain smoked cigarettes behind chicken wire at Blades games. Something like it was resurrected in Danbury by the Trashers and lived on through the Danbury Whaler days, but it was a tradition spanning decades and died with the Knights, for better or for worse.

These jerseys aren’t as interesting as that tradition. But they’re okay.

15. Sacred Heart Pioneers

Atlantic Hockeyshupioneers01.jpg

Meh. They didn’t try with these jerseys, so why should I?

Sacred Heart is the one Division I school that everyone keeps forgetting exists, and they have uniforms to match.

 

14. Yale Bulldogs

Eastern College Athletic Conferenceyale01.jpg

There isn’t much to say about this one. It’s clean and simple almost to be the point of being boring, but it’s hard to fault an Ivy League team that has been putting a team on the ice since 1893 for leaning so heavily on tradition.

They play inside a giant wooden whale and sell out every game, so they’ve got that going for them.

13. Danbury Whalers

Federal Hockey Leaguedwhalers01

This is a weird one. There is nothing original about this jersey, and replacing the timeless Whalers logo with a big asymmetrical “D” that lacks of the cool factor of the hidden negative-space “H” from the original logo sure doesn’t make it better. Nor does the Buffalo Wild Wings patch on the shoulder.

There’s a weird charm to this jersey in spite of the total lack of originality. The FHL is and always has been a ponzi scheme, a small core of 2-3 teams anchoring a league that has no working business model, while an endless series of new teams joins the league each season and infusing it with cash via expansion fees. Those teams typically last a single season before the poor sap paying the bills pulls the plug.

Herm Sorcher was a sincere Hartford Whalers fan, and the homage of these jerseys came from the heart. It was a kind of madness to beat the odds and bring back the Whalers in some small way through this mess of a hockey league, but I can’t fault him for wanting to do so. His partner, Alan Friedman, was the less charming of the two. Many folks, this writer included, had the pleasure of receiving unprovoked messages full of expletives and threats for criticizing the team’s questionable business practices publicly. After one such exchange with Alan, Herm found me in a crowd at a UConn game despite never having met or spoken directly, just to say hi and shake my hand. I’m still not sure if the gesture was meant to be friendly, threatening, or some combination of the two.

Something about that ambiguously ominous encounter neatly sums up Danbury hockey to me.

12. Danbury Trashers

United Hockey Leaguetrashers01

Sometimes it’s impossible, for better or for worse, to separate the jersey from context. In the case of the Trashers, it works strongly in their favor.

Everything about this jersey suggests that I should hate it. Above all else, I consider attempts at edginess to be the cardinal sin of hockey branding. Hockey is the uncool fourth (possibly fifth) wheel of major league sports, the traditional past time of dorky rural Francophones from the middle of Bumfuck, Canada and various  New England mill towns. The first thing that comes to mind when hockey teams try to be cool is Poochie from the Simpsons. Tradition works. Double down and you can’t go wrong.

The_Itchy_&_Scratchy_&_Poochie_Show_64

Somehow, the Trashers still make me smile. That might be because unlike the many trying-too-hard dorks before him, James Galante really was kind of a bad ass. He used no-show mob trash jobs to circumvent the salary cap and stack the Trashers with talent that had no business in low-level minor league hockey, including Wayne Gretzky’s brother Brent. Galante once punched a linesman, got charged, and made the case mysteriously disappear when the linesman suddenly got forgetful. The team dissolved after its second season as a result of a federal indictment, but it’s the rare Danbury fan who doesn’t remember those days fondly and speak of Galante in reverent tones typically reserved for priests and saints.

So yeah, the cartoon trash can is kind of dumb. But I can’t look at it and not think about the insane story behind it.

11. University of Connecticut Huskies

Hockey East1350633285040445355

Full disclosure: I’m a UConn season ticket holder and unapologetic fanboy. This team is second in my heart only to the might Whalers of yore, and I won’t even pretend to be unbiased.

That said, their current uniforms kind of suck.

I’m not a fan of the new husky logo, famously dubbed “Rape Husky” by overzealous women’s studies majors upon its debut. I really hate the addition of red to the color scheme. I’m sure some marketing genius did dozens of studies proving that this will help merchandise sales, and he’s probably right, but I’m not a fan. The uniforms they wear now are supremely generic, a case study in being unmemorable.

Prior to this unfortunate direction they had a series of great uniforms with the classic navy blue, white and silver color scheme, and so according to the arbitrary rules I’ve laid out, that’s how they will be judged here. Pass the jalapeño mac and cheese.

10. Connecticut Whale (AHL)

American Hockey Leagueahlwhale02

This is another one that leans heavily on context. Howard Baldwin’s original plan called for a far more traditional look and brand, but forced to execute the rebrand mid-season, he opted not to dispute ownership of the Whalers name and logo with the NHL. Instead of the Connecticut Whalers, we got the Whale. Instead of a modified Whalers logo, we got a cartoon whale that was decidedly not Pucky and weird waves in place of the classic striping.

However, it’s impossible to separate the introduction of this jersey from the optimism of its debut in 2010. After 13 bad years under Madison Square Garden, we finally had management that was dedicated to Hartford in old friend Howard Baldwin. The uniforms weren’t perfect, but they got the colors right. The Rangers patch on the shoulder isn’t my favorite, but for a brief moment it was a symbol of hope that everyone might be able to get along after all.

That spirit lasted exactly one season, but it was a good year. I think of that year when I look at this jersey.

ahlwhale01

A prototype for the much cooler logo that never got used.

9. Quinnipiac Bobcats

Eastern College Atheletic Conferencebobcats01

Quinnipiac isn’t the sexiest hockey program in the state by a long shot; it’s kind of a fluke that they’re even remotely notable. QU is a tiny college isolated on top of a hill in a boring patch of central Connecticut a bit north of New Haven. Before their hockey team started going on 20-game winning streaks and making it to the national finals, the school was best known for it’s electoral polls. (Again, not sexy.)

Their uniforms are a lot like the team which wears them: a flawless, efficient machine. I can’t say anything bad about a team that wins so much they get bored of winning, and goes on a 200-minute shut out streak to spice things up a bit. The logo is a classic college animal logo, with a clever allusion to the letter “Q”. The underused blue and yellow color scheme stands out, and all of the design elements from the crest lettering to the striping are classic and understated. They’re not my team and never will be, but they’re impossible not to admire.

8. Beast of New Haven

American Hockey Leaguebeast01

Everything about the Beast, from the Yodaesque syntax of the name to the crudely hand-drawn logo, is off-kilter. Fittingly so, as the circumstances surrounding the team’s brief run were themselves rather odd.

Longevity has born out the Wolf Pack as the de facto successor to the Whalers, but they were only one of two AHL teams to enter the Hartford market in 1997. And for two years, amidst the gaping psychic wound of the departed Whalers and a tangled web of allegiances and old wounds, the Beast and the Wolf Pack waged civil war.

The Wolf Pack was, for better or worse, Hartford’s team. They called the Civic Center home and courted the same fans, though many were simply unable to adopt a former hated rival as their new parent team. Meanwhile, New Haven had hockey again for the first time since the disastrous experiment of the Senators killed the Nighthawks. For the many people who lived somewhere between the two cities, there was suddenly choice. And it was further complicated by the origin of the Beast.

In 1996-97, the Beast had been known as the Carolina Monarchs of Greensboro, North Carolina. The sudden departure of the Whalers to North Carolina displaced the Monarchs, who ironically found themselves occupying a vacancy in Connecticut. While then as now, many Whaler fans were reluctant to support the Hurricanes, back then the connection was much closer and wounds still raw. The Hurricanes weren’t the Whalers any more, but they were a lot closer then than they are now. Kevin Dineen, the heart and soul of Hartford, was still captain. It was hard not to see the Beast as a direct connection to what we’d just lost, and for many people that connection was the lesser evil when compared to rooting for a hated rival whose fans had been gloating about the Whalers relocation just a year earlier.

The Beast is largely forgotten today, and that’s too bad. It was weird and cool and the kind of thing that isn’t allowed to exist in pro hockey anymore.

7. Connecticut Whale (NWHL)

National Women’s Hockey Leaguenwhl01

A last-minute uniform change bumped the NWHL Whale up quite a few spots. Like the AHL Whale, the Lady Whalers struggled with trademark issues for several months before finally settling on their current logo. The original logo was very similar to the one which the AHL Whale was forced to scrap. They then adopted the logo of the AHL team with the blessings of the Baldwins, but ran into additional trademark issues and had to reboot yet again. They settled on something I like a little bit more than the AHL version, but a lot less than the classic NHL version.

The uniforms from the inaugural season left a lot to be desired. The primary color was a bright royal blue, and the strange wavy striping which I never liked in the AHL design was emphasized.

If they’d stuck with that design, I’d probably be dialing the Whale in around #13 or so, but a few weeks ago they rolled out a new jersey contest in which this sweet, classic look was one of two options. The other option was not quite as nice, but my guess is nostalgia will win the day on this one.

2-chicago-whales

Logo of the Chicago Whales, a forerunner of the MLB Cubs and probable inspiration for the NWHL Whale logo.

6. New Haven Blades

Eastern Hockey Leagueblades02

The Blades have become something of a footnote to the Nighthawks, who replaced them when the New Haven Arena was replaced by the Coliseum and the EHL splintered into several leagues, one of which was the NAHL upon which the film Slap Shot was based. They played tough, old-time hockey with a timeless uniform to match. It’s a shame that it’s been relegated to the deepest recesses of our hockey history, but that speaks to the depth of that history.

Little-known fact: When the AHL came to New Haven, the Blades moved to Springfield where they became the New England Blades, minor-league affiliate of the New England Whalers, then based in Boston. Springfield had also just completed work on a brand new AHL arena however, and the Blades were unable to compete with the Indians. They folded before their first season was over.

5. Trinity Bantams

New England Small College Athletic Associationbantams01

Hartford has a national championship winning hockey team, and you’ve probably never heard of them. Even if you live in Hartford.

Trinity is a tiny liberal arts college in the middle of Hartford. Before the men’s hockey team won the Division III title, most of us knew them only by the sign on I-84 boasting about their 254-game Squash winning streak, a record for any and all intercollegiate sport.

The logo is a chicken drawn by a student in 1873. The colors evoke the iconic Colt building. I don’t think anyone besides myself ever has ever ranked them so highly on any list of this sort, if at all. But the Bantams hit my sweet spot of weird, obscure and classic so here they are.

4. New Haven Eagles

Canadian-American Hockey Leagueeagles.jpg

The Eagles were the first pro team in New Haven, forming in 1926 and running until World War 2 forced them to disband. They had the distinction of being a founding member of both the CAHL and the modern AHL.

There isn’t a ton of information about them on the internet for obvious reasons, and they’re even less remembered than the Blades that followed them. All I know is that their sweaters had a great pre-original six look to them, and they are unique in Connecticut hockey history.

Looking at these beautiful old sweaters makes it physically painful to scroll back and look at some of these garish, modern abominations.  There’s no comparison.

 

3. New England Whalers

World Hockey Associationnewhalers01

Yup, I’m cheating. I don’t care. The New England Whalers and Hartford Whalers may have been the same team, but they had two (three if your count the nineties) very distinct periods, and other than Pucky and the color green there isn’t a lot of similarity between the WHA and NHL jerseys.

The brilliance of Peter Good’s Hartford Whalers logo and its use of negative space give that incarnation of the Whaler identity a slight edge in my eyes, but there is something almost regal about this jersey. It might be that Gordie Howe had a few damn good years in it, or the gold accents that disappear in the NHL years. It’s not the first thing people think of when you mention the Whalers, but for me it invokes a great era in Hartford history.

2. New Haven Nighthawks

American Hockey Leaguenighthawks01.jpeg

Just like their northern counterparts, the Springfield Indians, the Nighthawks were iconic stalwarts of the AHL in an era when affiliates were still secondary to a team’s identity. It’s fitting and somewhat ironic that the Hawks were killed by a parent team’s foolish inclination to define the identity of their farm team from afar.

Probably because of my age, I have always associated the Nighthawks with the black and silver of the LA Kings, but they went through several affiliates and color schemes over their lifespan. It never really mattered. While the Nighthawks are easily the best known of New Haven’s many teams, their logo is still criminally underrated. It’s better than many current NHL logos, including that of the team which killed them, the Ottawa Senators.

It took exactly one season of the rebrand as a clone of the historically awful Ottawa Senators to kill the Nighthawks. In hindsight, having lived through and written about the circumstances of the Whalers relocation, you have to wonder if this was intentional.

As cool as this logo is, it’s only the second best logo in Connecticut hockey history. We’re kind of spoiled that way.

1. Hartford Whalers

National Hockey Leaguehwhalers01

Did you really expect anything else?

There were a few different incarnations of this jersey. The Pucky patches were axed from 1985 into the nineties, and a dramatic redesign in 1992 changed the primary color from kelly green to navy blue, which was then darkened further until almost black in an attempt to ape the successful LA Kings rebrand.

There’s some disagreement about this even among Whaler fans, but for me the original classic jersey will always be the best. They got it right the first time, and the fact that it’s still one of the best-selling NHL jerseys a full 30 years after being retired backs up my point quite nicely.

We never won a damn thing in this jersey. I’m not sure if we even made it to the first round of the play-offs before the amended Puckyless version went into circulation. But it was good enough for Gordie Fucking Howe and it was good enough for Bobby Hull and Dave Keon and Ron Francis. This logo and jersey are so damn good that they transcend not just hockey, but sports. People who never saw the Whalers play hum the brass bonanza and wear this logo.

It was, by all accounts, a happy accident. They set out to have a modestly successful hockey team in a small market and created an enduring cultural icon instead.  It’s a great fucking sweater and that’s all there is to say about it.


Exile on Trumbull Street and Connecticut Hockeyviolence (https://www.facebook.com/cthockeyviolence/) are labors of love. Hosting fees and social media advertising are paid out of pocket, and we spend a lot of both time and money preserving CT Hockey history and raising awareness to Make Hockey Great Again. Any and all donations are a huge help.

CLICK HERE TO SUPPORT EXILE ON TRUMBULL STREET:

[paypal_button hosted_button_id=”BTBZQA8BS76NG” img_src=”https://www.paypalobjects.com/en_US/i/btn/btn_donateCC_LG.gif” img_alt=”PayPal – The safer, easier way to pay online!”]

Or, while supplies last, we’re selling these awesome shirts to benefit the site:

whaler_flag_profile

CLICK HERE TO BUY “MAKE HOCKEY GREAT AGAIN” t-shirt

Advertisements

Gordie Howe’s #9 needs to be retired. League-wide. Now.

 

[Click Here to Sign the Petition to Retire Gordie’s Number]

 


74dfe70b646ee5685ba553335d46e3a1.jpgWhen you talk about Gordie’s legacy, and many people have since he passed on Friday, most of what people say is overwhelmingly positive, often to the point of unintentional beatification. People talk about his numbers, which stood for many years, and his longevity, which is yet to be matched. Folks who had the pleasure of meeting him have shared hundreds of anecdotes, all uniformly funny and touching.

 

(I won’t share mine here, since I already wrote about it some time ago)

The experience seemed uncommonly universal amongst hockey fans, who are typically incredibly tribal. Gordie was around just shy of forever, coming into the league as World War 2 ended and retiring as the Reagan years began. By sheer force of will, he transcended the normal limitations of time and geography. He hung in and played so long that he went everywhere, met everyone and did everything. He was too big for one city or one decade.

I cringe whenever younger players take on nicknames like “Johnny Hockey” that invite the comparison to Gordie, because he was truly Mr. Hockey. He was sincerely beloved, even by fans of Detroit and Hartford’s rivals. Who else could earn a standing ovation in Montreal for scoring on the home team?

Unfortunately, if there’s one thing that writing about the idea of being earnest and hopeful has taught me, something about these human experiences draw out people with a pathological need to rain on parades. They see the absence of cynicism as a void which needs to be filled with their edgy and unique contrarian opinions.

The idea of retiring #9 league-wide came up almost immediately that day. There isn’t a lot of precedent; only Gretzky has number retired. #99, itself a tribute to Howe, never sat well with some of us. Not that Gretzky didn’t earn it. His numbers don’t lie. It just felt odd that the generational talent of the eighties was honored before honoring the generational talent that inspired him. If there was any doubt that Gretzky himself shared this discomfort, it was dispelled this week when the Great One came out and called for #9 to be retired permanently.

As so it began. While the majority of public sentiment remained rational, something about this idea drew out the cranks. When I shared the petition linked above on the blog’s Facebook page, I started receiving a series of bizarrely angry comments. They complained about the other greats to wear the number (a valid point, but not for keeping the number in circulation), that it was a slippery slope, that we would “run out of numbers”, and most offensive to me, that Howe was overrated or undeserving.

Most of those concerns are simply silly and beneath any lengthy rebuttal. In 99 years of existence, the NHL has retired exactly one number league-wide. There is no slippery slope and no shortage of numbers. No one playing the game now has had the kind of impact Howe or Gretzky did, and it seems unlikely that the modern NHL will ever produce another such player.

The argument that really irks me is the last one.

Perhaps, as universally beloved as he may be, Gordie enjoys a somewhat elevated status in Hartford, as he does in Detroit. It is a rare day for the Hartford Courant to publish anything that makes you feel proud to have been born here; more than a dozen such pieces were written the day Gordie died. His tenure here, described by wife Colleen as their “crescendo”, was the turning point for the city. Hartford’s growth was recent and the idea of being major league or having an identity distinct from Boston or New York was new. Folks were skeptical. Gordie’s choice to snub the NHL for Hartford granted us immediate legitimacy.

It should be noted that he only played here for three years, retiring about 35 years ago. I, as were most of my friends with whom I mourned his passing, were infants when he retired. As much as his stats and longevity are celebrated, they only tell part of the story. While Gordie played his last professional hockey game early in 1980, for us the eighties were a decade when he had the most impact. It’s something the facile analysis of Gretzky fan boys who distill the argument down to who has the most points totally misses.

The thing is, Gordie didn’t actually stop playing hockey. NHL retirement didn’t stop him the first time, and it didn’t take the second time either. Gordie spent that decade leading a Whalers alumni team that played a nearly constant schedule against amateur charity teams and youth hockey teams. I don’t think I know anyone who played youth hockey in Connecticut back then who hasn’t met him and skated on the same ice. It’s hard to imagine any NHL star today spending his time this way, never mind one of Gordie’s stature. It was like Babe Ruth hanging out at Little League games constantly .

This is not to suggest he was a saint; he was a thoroughly decent man, but a man. A kind of role model that doesn’t exist today. He cherished his wife, who played such a central role in managing his career that her name was eventually raised to the rafters beside Gordie’s in Hartford. He focused the last decade of his career around playing with his sons. He would spend hours signing autographs in hotels on the night before appearances so he would have time to talk to fans without looking down the whole time.

Conversely, he was such a terror on the ice that he only pulled off the famed “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” a few times before no one was willing to fight him at all. He was notorious for paying back hits with elbows, a tradition which continued well into his alumni team years. One of my favorite anecdotes involved a kid who thought he had a free pass to trip Gordie and paid dearly. He teased, busted balls, and elbowed anyone who didn’t keep their head up. Some folks may blush to hear this, but he was also know to drink and swear like a sailor.

VNq4BJa.jpg

Not a saint, but profoundly decent.

He was a role model that boys of my age, growing up in age where what it meant to be a man was becoming increasingly unclear, badly needed. He was loyal and tough and decent and funny. He was humble without being a doormat, a hero and a normal human being. He loved living here and taught us how to be proud of Hartford.

I won’t even pretend to speak for the people of Detroit and the many years he spent there, but I can only imagine the impact he had there if he did so much in his short time in Hartford.

The role he played in growing the game reverberates throughout the league, to every city and every team. Even Las Vegas, as much as it turns my stomach to mention that new NHL venture in the same breath as Gordie, owes their existence to a league Gordie Howe helped build.

There is no arena where is name is not hallowed; retiring his number is simply a formality. A matter of decency.

There is no statistic that will ever quantify his value, but if there were he would be the #1 of all time and no one (not even Wayne Gretzky) would ever break his record.

He is the Greatest One that ever was or ever will be.

Retire Number Nine.


[Click Here to Sign the Petition to Retire Gordie’s Number]

truck

 

 

 

LIES, DAMNED LIES, AND NEIL DEMAUSE: How “Field of Schemes” Gets Small Market Sports Wrong

indexweweQuestioning the conventional wisdom put forth by the Church of Neil DeMause, author of “Field of Schemes”, can seem daunting. Having established himself as the leading voice regarding public spending and sports, his work is ubiquitous. Any time a stadium or arena is built or upgraded, his work is mentioned. Without fail, someone who doesn’t like sports will smugly provide a link to DeMause’s smug website, chiding the foolish supporters who dare suggest that a sports-related development could possibly benefit the host city.

Actually, the research is well-established that there is no measurable economic benefit from professional sports.

THE DEMAUSEIAN MEDIA “EMPIRE”

DeMause’s website, smug as it may be, is impressive. Having written a book that became a touchstone of sorts, he has not rested on his laurels. He posts almost daily about various stadium and arena “debacles”, “fiascos” and other synonyms for “train wreck”. There is a fairly extensive list of studies and research on which his basic thesis is built upon.

The bulk of the content is the aforementioned semi-daily news items, which tend to be brief, light and snarky in tone. There is a slight sense that DeMause is reaching for content, as some of his potshots are at privately-funded arenas, or adopt a reflexively cynical tone regardless of the merits or risk of the particular project. There is no professional sports expenditure  DeMause can’t find fault in, and apparently no expenditure too small to warrant scrutiny. I get it. Content producers gotta produce content. I’m guilty myself.

If you live in a major media market such as New York, Boston, or L.A., DeMause’s work is probably irrelevant to you. There is no amount of ink that could be spilled, no public policy change dramatic enough, to prevent the construction of stadiums in those markets. The existing economic activity and population density makes professional sports and the attendant venue construction an inevitability.

In all fairness, he’s not all wrong. His arguments, while haphazardly applied, are substantial. He does his homework, or at least he did at one point. There are many markets where the ownership of a sports team has convinced municipalities to enter into arrangements which don’t pay off. I’ll focus on hockey since it’s my area of expertise, but as the most niche of the major leagues, a sport still growing outside of its traditional hotbeds, it demonstrates the limitations of pro sports as an economic driver well. There is little argument that money invested by Raleigh, NC and Glendale, AZ has failed to yield a return which justifies the expense. There are a variety of reasons, but largely a combination of unfavorable leases which require a very high bar of success (as measured through gate attendance combined with television revenue) and the inability of professional hockey to draw interest away from other sports and forms of entertainment have conspired to make these ventures perennial money losers.

Even in these cases, where I agree fully that these ventures were better off never being entered into in the first place, there’s a flaw in DeMause’s theory of the crime. While the owners certainly do whatever they can to shift the burden of financial loss to their host city, no one makes money in these situations. Glendale, the Coyotes, and the NHL alike have all lost many millions of dollars trying to make major league hockey happen in the desert. It doesn’t exactly fit the narrative of greedy corporate robber barons bleeding cities dry and getting rich while incurring no financial risk. Everybody is losing.

SMALL PEG IN AN AGGREGRATE HOLE

Ultimately, my focus comes back to Hartford, as it always does. Our city, in particular the baseball stadium, is a favorite and a frequent subject of DeMause. He has this to say about the situation:

“Connecticut is like a lot of other states in that it has a lot of cities that are struggling economically, and I think when you have that, you get a lot of people throwing out, ‘OK, what’s the big idea, what can we do to try and turn the city around in a hurry?’” deMause says. “The idea is this will put our city on the map. This will turn us around. Unfortunately, the evidence is overwhelming that it doesn’t work.”

That sounds reasonable, and in a very general sense it isn’t factually incorrect. The studies which DeMause relies upon do suggest his conclusion. However, they do so by aggregating three very different types of markets, which I will refer to from here on out as Coyote, Ranger, and Whaler Markets.

The Coyote Market is an unmitigated disaster that was doomed to fail. The Ranger market is unprofitable by design. It’s an amenity, a loss leader of sorts. DeMause occasionally grouses about the lucrative leases granted to teams in these markets, but seems to acknowledge the inevitability of professional sports as a permanent feature of the landscape in major media markets. The Whaler market is a different beast, neither inevitable or doomed, and DeMause’s boilterplate blurb betrays his failure to understand it.

The elephant in the room, as my nickname may have suggested, is Hartford’s historical relationship with professional hockey. Nothing in his narrative jibes with our experience.

Excepting a few bitter malcontents and nay-sayers, there is a nearly universal consensus that the Whalers had an overwhelmingly positive on Connecticut, the greater Hartford area in particular. At least today. In 1996, state and city officials (who we now know were secretly negotiating the exit of the Whalers in order to pursue the Patriots of the NFL) were flirting with rhetoric that could be described as proto-DeMauseian. This article by Mike Swift of the Courant from that year cites a sweeping study of relocated franchises from 1958 to 1987 and suggests that the loss of the Whalers would hardly be noticeable. A year later, Swift wrote this Pollyanna-esque piece suggesting that Hartford had made the painful but correct choice in refusing to give the Whalers a new arena. Things would not just be okay, they’d be better.

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry as a laundry list of business owners, every single one of them gone just a few years later, are quoted saying things like “I think it will make more of a difference to me than the Hartford Whalers” and “I’m really ecstatic”.

The mall was demolished. Retail is non-existent, restaurants are smaller and less numerous and the city has become known once again, as it was before the Whalers came, for being dead after 5:00pm. Only in recent years, as makeshift arena upgrades have made it temporarily feasible for UConn athletics to come Downtown, has the arena been able to turn a profit. Downtown residence is increasing, restaurants are staying open later, retail is beginning to exist. The area around the ballpark, be it a fiasco or not, has attracted ancillary development in the immediate area. The Yard Goats brand itself, something DeMause and his ilk never talk about, has done something twenty years of slogans and Metro-Hartford Alliances and millions of dollars in attendant funding have failed to do: get people talking about Hartford for something other than insurance or its high murder rate.

The Goats, seizing on the intangible sense of identity that the Whalers gave Hartford and once drew the entire metro region into the Downtown area in droves, have quietly built a Hartford marketing empire while DeMause has gloated about the chaos around the stadium. They have successfully quantified the benefit that Swift failed to put a number on back in 1996: in merchandise sales. Number one in minor league baseball sales, merchandise sold in all fifty states and several foreign countries. Last week a Yard Goats-focused blog I write for part-time, Bleating Hartford, was ranked #14 out of all baseball blogs on the host site. Out of hundreds, at all levels of the game.

EVERYONE’S A CRITIC, BUT NO ONE HAS A SOLUTION

I raised this point earlier today in a discussion which set the ball rolling for this piece, and the response I received to this description of how professional sports did indeed benefit Hartford was that Hartford subsequent economic decline was not a great argument for bringing the NHL back. I don’t totally disagree with that point, nor do I totally agree with it, but on its face it strikes me as evasive. The original argument I was responding to was the DeMauseian assertion that there is no benefit to cities in investing in professional sports. I made the above point about Coyote, Ranger and Whaler markets (thought with much more brevity though, as we were on Twitter) to illustrate exceptions to that assumption. Shifting the concern from the economic benefit of cities to “what’s in it for the league and team ownership?” feel like moving the goal posts.

That said, it’s not a totally unfair point. As I illustrated earlier with the lose-lose-lose situation of the Arizona Coyotes, it is in everyone’s best interest for any given team to be financially viable for all parties. A professional sports franchise that benefits the host city while the owner loses money is a ripe for relocation as the inverse.

In this case, professional hockey remains an outlier. As salaries sky-rocketed in the nineties, the NHL tried to respond as other leagues had, by expanding their footprint into the south and the west, and pulling out of smaller markets. Hockey, even after having grown in popularity, remains a niche sport compared to the other major leagues. Unable to convert larger markets in the warmer climates into the basis for a national television deal, the NHL has shown an openness to the stability of smaller traditional markets. Winnipeg, back in the league, and Quebec City, currently being considered for expansion, would never be considered for a second in any other league. In the NHL they offer a much-needed stability that only a passionate one-horse town can. Hartford, not being saddled with the Canadian dollar or French-language media, has no rational basis other than the lack of arena to consider ourselves less viable than these two cities.

Perhaps the biggest red flag for me in Hartford’s growing affection for the ideas of DeMause is in who is embracing them. Carrie Saxon-Perry, the now-infamous Hartford mayor who was ousted after suggesting it would be better if the Whalers left because “only white people like hockey” and alienating the CEO of Aetna to the point where he bluntly informed the city that “either she goes or we go”, was a big proponent of redistributing public funds away from pro sports and into addressing the plight of poverty. Years later, local nutjob Ken Krayeske, famous for being publicly dressed down by Jim Calhoun at a press conference and assaulting Governor Jodi Rell on a bicycle, had this to say in response to DeMause’s words regarding the Hartford stadium:

“People in one of the poorest cities in the country should not be bonding money or paying for a stadium so that billionaire owners of baseball teams can field development teams,” says Krayeske, who launched several lawsuits against the city in an attempt to block the stadium’s development.

The irony of Krayeske, who has made a career out of frivolously litigating against the city and state, decrying wasteful public spending, is rich. As of this writing, we are still waiting for his endless series of lawsuits against the city and individual police who apprehended him for charging at the Governor to conclude so a final cost to the taxpayers and can be assessed.

There is a larger point illustrated here. DeMause adopts a practically libertarian tone when talking about “building stadiums on the taxpayer dime”, as do many of his supporters, but what I’ve never seen addressed in any substantial way, is how the money could be better spent. Make no mistake, psuedo-libertarian rhetoric aside, Krayeske and his ilk are not suggesting that anyone be allowed to keep their tax dollars. They represent a hard left which borders on openly socialist and has no reservations about public spending for their pet causes.

The interesting thing about having this discussion in Hartford is that it’s not speculative. Ultimately, the state resisted both the reasonable arena request of the Whalers (studies suggest that a modern arena would have indeed provided enough revenue to make the team viable), and the less reasonable requests of the Patriots. We’ve had moderate-to-liberal leadership at the state level, and it’s been decades since a Republican was politically viable in Hartford. No amount of wealth redistribution has put a dent in poverty, but the loss of regional pride and lack of attractions Downtown have compounded the economic decline in the city and region.

If the economic benefits of stadiums are negligible, and the public funds expended on them so harmful, Hartford should have been a model of success in the post-Whalers era. Money was invested in schools, social services, and “other ways of marketing the city” as is so often vaguely suggested.  Until very recently, Hartford has been religiously DeMauseian in its refusal to spend a dime maintaining or building arenas and stadiums. Having followed his playbook to a tee, the state today faces a deficit of over $900 million.

It strikes me as opportunistic and disingenuous to suddenly lay the blame for the city’s decline at the feet of a AA baseball stadium.

SNARKY ANSWERS TO COMPLICATED SYSTEMS

A final irregularity to consider, which speaks to the ideological underpinning of the movement DeMause has birthed, is that all of these figures regarding economic benefits not only exclude certain ancillary economic benefits in way which strikes me as somewhat arbitrary (I can find absolutely no accounting for the very real benefit of publicity, which is something Hartford currently and unsuccessfully spends millions of dollars on), but have been offset to account for tax breaks, gifted land etc.

This is not to say that there is no value to even a blighted lot, such as the one the Hartford stadium now occupies, but allowing a team to occupy an empty space that had no prospective tenants, even at no or reduced cost, is not the same as giving money outright to a team. It’s simply intellectually dishonest to suggest they are equivalent. And to conflate the situation of the Ranger Market and the value of the land where Madison Square Garden sits, with the Whaler Market and the useless vacant lot which became a ballpark, is another example of where the simplistic analysis of DeMause fails to truly explain a complex system.

Furthermore, the narrative of greedy owners swindling naive cities over and over may be true in some cases, but when stretched out to the point of becoming a sweeping generalization, it becomes mighty thin. Even Peter Karmanos, as arrogant and selfish as he might be, can not be honestly said to have entered the Raleigh market with any intention of failure. He simply miscalculated the market and his ability to succeed there. And while all owners are certainly profit-driven, the suggestion that owner greed is driving the ever-escalating race towards bigger and better arenas is simply flat-out wrong, the most simplistic analysis possible. Arenas are a response. The real driving factor is rising player salaries.

Prior to Bob Goodenow’s 15-year reign as head of the NHL Player’s Association, Hartford, despite having one of the smallest arenas and lower-than-average attendance, was one of the most profitable teams in the league. Creative merchandising and an affluent fanbase which was willing to pay premium prices for tickets made the market’s size a non-issue. This changed in the early nineties. Under Goodenow, player salaries started rising rapidly. Teams which could afford new arenas which provided additional revenue streams did so and survived until 2005, when the salary cap and revenue sharing were mercifully implemented. Teams that could not or would not moved.

The particulars of this are widely misunderstood (to the extent that they’re known at all) by fans, which is why Hartford’s loss of the Whalers seemed like a sudden, confusing and most of all undeserved betrayal by the league and our owner. The arena had been full every night for a year and we had successfully grown one of the largest season ticket bases in the league. The team still left.

It didn’t matter, and no one understand the real reason why: The arena and it’s attendant streams of revenue were the only thing which could have saved us.

DeMause’s response to this phenomenon is glib, dismissive, and oft-repeated: “Of course they really need a new stadium, LOL”. In his world, sports is less a business than a hunting ground full of amoral wolves and misguided sheep. The fact that the escalation of expenses is driven in part by, of all things, a labor union, is not a point of view  many anti-stadium activists are willing or able to process. So greedy owners it is.

In the real world, where human behavior is notoriously responsive to both profit and multi-million dollar losses, things are more complicated. The swindle theory is debunked by a very obvious fact which (yet again) DeMause’s anaylsis fails to address with an substance: cities keep walking into these stadium deals, over and over again, with clear eyes.

Why would somebody do something, over and over again, if there was such overwhelming evidence that there is no benefit to doing so?

The simple explanation: They wouldn’t, and they don’t.

I recently invited to participate in panel on public spending and sports by Colin McEnroe of WNPR, serving in the role (of course) of a Whalers historian of sorts. The panel included the owner of the Yard Goats, a well-paid public official who heads up an agency that exists for the sole purpose of promoting the state nationally, and Victor Matheson, an economist from Holy Cross who DeMause cites in his work. We discussed many of the things I’ve written about here, and at a certain point Matheson was pressed to explain, as an economist, why cities kept building these stadiums if they were such bad deals.

He made the point as eloquently as I could have, albeit reluctantly and with several qualifications.

If you have a good lease, and have done due diligence on the market, and have a stable tenant, and the ancillary development happens as planned…yes, he admitted,  it can be a sound investment. The words seemed to be dragged from his mouth against their will, and you could hear audible groans from members of the crowd who were counting on Matheson to make DeMause’s case on their behalf, but there it was. At the end of the day, we weren’t disagreeing on the facts. It was more a matter of worldview.

The problem, he went on to explain, lies with the intangibles. A normal business model wouldn’t consider breaking even a success because other area business benefited from its presence. Sports, as a whole, exist not because they are profitable, but because they mean something to people. Even when they are economically beneficial, they are irrational in a way that makes people uncomfortable. People who don’t like sports or don’t care to see them as positive seem simply unable and unwilling to consider the more nebulous benefits of pride and positive regional identity.

For people who find the idea of corporate welfare odious (even when it comes in the form of not taxing revenue that wouldn’t exist in the first place) and the idea of professional sports brutish and trivial, it’s understandably difficult for them to wrap their heads around the fact that so many people are willing to expend so much time and money propping up this massive industry. They can’t understand why that money isn’t invested in education or the arts or theatre, anything loftier than this dumb, ugly American monolith of professional sports. But again, it’s intellectually dishonest to pretend this is some kind of swindle perpetrated on an unknowing public. Athletes and owners make as much money as they do because we want them to. We voted on it, with dollars. They won. Over and over again.

The trouble with democracy is that even dumb ugly Americans, yes, even those of us who are passionate about men in green whale uniforms punching each other on ice, are allowed to decide what benefits them most.

And that’s exactly what we’ve done.

 

THE NUMBERS

$100 Million: the economic activity generated annually by the Hartford Whalers (Per Mike Swift of the Courant this figure includes ticket sales, parking, concessions, restaurants, hotels and sales taxes and is in 1995 dollars)

$59 Million: The average NHL payroll circa 2012, a significant portion of which is spent and taxed locally

556,000 Viewers: An average audience for regular season Whalers games against out-of-market opponents on weeknights when broadcast on ESPN. There is considerable debate about how to best quantify the value of national exposure cities receive from professional sports branding, but it is not factored into any of DeMause’s studies.

$147.5 Million: the proposed cost of the NHL arena the state refused to build for the Whalers

$374 Million: the cost of the stadium that the state offered to the Patriots, which was refused

16%: The percentage of visitors to the city of Hartford who came exclusively because of NHL hockey (does not include employees of businesses who were incidentally profitable because of the presence of the Whalers)

$14.6 Million: The latest available figure for annual charitable contributions by Aetna, a Hartford-based corporation which built and and subsidized the Hartford Civic Center and mall. In 2012, Aetna approached the state with a Downtown revitalization plan which included a renovated and modern arena. Their plan was rejected by Governor Malloy. Aetna is currently considering a move out of state. General Electric recently departed for Boston, citing not taxes but a lack of amenities. Both companies employ thousands.

$700,000: The annual revenue loss suffered by Chuck’s Steakhouse, one of the restaurants in the Civic Center mall, as a result of the Whalers departure. Every game played Downtown brought approximately 600 additional diners to Chuck’s, which quickly became unprofitable and closed.


 

bleedgreen_shirt.jpg

Click here to support the blog’s hosting fees and get this sweet shirt for your trouble. Order quickly, this is a limited run of shirts.

BONUS HILARIOUS VIDEO:

 

 

 

THE YEAR IN HOCKEYVIOLENCE: A Drunken Review of the 2015-16 Season (Pt. 3)


(This feature will be released every other day this week, ranking the top ten highlights of the season in descending order. Today’s instalment covers #1-3. Click here for #4-6. Click here for #7-10.)

stumptheruff2.png

I’m limping towards the finish line here. Drinking and writing for a week straight sounds a lot better on paper than it feels in real life, and being a fan of a team that hasn’t existed for 19 years is a severe handicap when writing about current events. Let’s get this over with.

#3: QUINNIPIAC WENT ALL THE WAY TO THE FINALS AND DESTROYED SOME TREES TO CELEBRATE

webriot

“The campus was unified for one night and this was tonight and we broke a tree” – QU Sophomore Chuck Driscoll

 

Full disclosure: I’m a UConn guy. Despite having an inarguably better record on the ice, Quinnipiac has kind of played a second fiddle to the big stage in Hartford. Other than their one contribution to UConn’s eight game losing streak, which kind of pissed me off, they were largely off of most people’s radar outside of the Hamden campus.

That said, it was hard not to root for them when this tiny little Connecticut college with a long-standing tradition of playing the Brass Bonanza during games and staging hockey riots came within one game of a national championship this year. North Dakota may have won in the end, but Quinnipiac came awfully close. And for some reason they destroyed trees.

#2: THE CONNECTICUT WHALE CAME BACK (WITH AN ASTERISK)

nwhl_logoNow I realize it sounds like of demeaning to say that Connecticut earning a top-level pro hockey team name the Whale is with an asterisk, so let me be clear that the downside of women’s pro hockey in the NWHL has nothing to do with the actual hockey. It’s good. Really good. I’ve watched a lot of good hockey in my life, and the I would put the inaugural NWHL Whale game versus in the top three games ever, as far as talent goes. And the rest of my top three includes names like Gordie Howe and Patrick Kane.

At any given time, the amount of Olympic talent on the ice was kind of staggering. I’d heard of a lot of talk about the women’s game being boring or slow or soft, but I didn’t see any of that. There was supposed to be no checking at all, but it’s more accurate to say the checking was restrained compared to the men’s game. Four roughing penalties in the first game. And there was this:

The asterisk has to do with the hockey than the business side of women’s hockey. I’m not going to pretend that the NWHL Whale, playing in front of less than 2000 people in a large rec rink, was on the same level as the NHL Whalers. Women’s hockey is still growing. It was a much scrappier, grassroots kind of league. But it was real and it was pro and it was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, the borderline business model caught up to us halfway through the season. The Whale absolutely dominated for the first half of the season without losing a single game.

Then it all fell apart. GMs and coaches came and went, players requested trades. At one point there is an ethically questionable secret meeting between the players and league commissioner. The distractions and coaching changes became too much and the unstoppable Whale got knocked out of the play-offs in the first round.

However the inaugural season ended, it was pretty awesome to have some form of the Whalers back, even if it was all the way down in Stamford. I got to be right on the glass for some serious hockey history. Most notably the first goal of the first professional women’s hockey game in American history. It came at 2:28 in the first period from captain Jessica Koizumi of the Whale. And goal song which played on that historic moment?

 

#1: THE TIP AT THE WHITT AKA UCONN’S 11TH HOUR COMEBACK

12768273_1709772005901025_4753262341295510506_o

In their second year in Hockey East, the UConn hockey team had it’s Tate George moment, the clutch last-minute goal that would become a historical turning point for the program. And nobody saw it.

The Huskies went into that final weekend series versus UNH with only the slimmest of hope for to earn a home play-off series. While UConn had a good run after recovering from the miserable eight-game losing streak, they were further hampered when goalie Rob Nichols was injured coming off a sweep of UMass-Lowell. We’d never been good against UNH in the past, especially away at the Whittemore Center with its Oylmpic-sized ice. Depending on what happened with other teams in the league, we might need a sweep. It wasn’t looking good.

To make matters worse, I came down with the flu the day of the first game and had to stay home. I listened to the game on the radio, curled up in a feverish vomiting ball on the couch.

Corey Ronan came back from an eight-game absences to due to injury with a vengeance,  scoring the first goal in what became an eventual 4-1 rout. The next day they played in New Hampshire. It was ugly. We went into the third period down 4-1, and if you know the Huskies, you had every reason to believe it was done at this point. UNH, Olympic-size ice, a three-goal deficit…it was a laundry list of obstacles that UConn had never overcome before.

And then we did. We tied it up in the third. With about a minute to go, they pulled Nichols. Another thing that never works, but did this time. Joey Ferris put one in the net off an assist from Joe Masonius and it went to overtime. Ronan made the difference again, scoring the winning goal in overtime. I called it “The Shot v2”, being old enough to have watched Tate George beat the buzzer and make UConn basketball relevant, but someone else on twitter called it “The Tip at the Whitt” and that works for me.

Despite a season that ranged from inconsistent to brutally frustrating, the team that never beats the odds somehow beat the odds. And nobody saw it. It was an away game, only on AM radio, and all but a few diehards had turned off sometime before the third period when UConn was down 4-1. I suffered through the entire game out of some bizarre sense of loyalty. The next morning everyone else woke up bewildered by the news that play-off tickets were on sale for UConn’s first home series. In true UConn fashion, they got swept by Vermont in front of crowds 2-3 times larger than anyone else in the league.

So there you have it. A college hockey game that didn’t even take place in Connecticut, which I listened to on AM radio while vomiting on the couch, is your #1 hockey moment of the 2015-16 season.  It was that good.

Let’s give our livers a rest and do this again next year. Cheers.

THE YEAR IN HOCKEYVIOLENCE: A Drunken Review of the 2015-16 Season (Pt. 2)

(This feature will be released every other day this week, ranking the top ten highlights of the season in descending order. Today’s instalment covers #4-6. Click here for #7-10.)

skull

In case you missed our last installment, when we left off I was about six shots into a bottle of Evan Williams and ranting about how much the AHL sucks. That’s as good a place as any to pick up with #6, the shitshow in Springfield:

#6: SPRINGFIELD BECAME THE LATEST VICTIM OF DESERT HOCKEY

indian_tearMake all the excuses you like about how Springfield’s attendance being low, or how it “just makes sense” for Arizona to move the team to Tucson (as if anything about the Coyotes makes sense), but I’m not buying it. Before you can convince me that 3500 people isn’t enough to support the team in Springfield, you need to show me 3500 residents of Tucson who give a shit about hockey. I have a feeling Springfield could enjoy another decade of hockey and celebrate their centennial before you found that 3500.

Springfield is a founding member of the AHL. They were just fine for many decades, and the fact that they suddenly aren’t isn’t because Springfield has changed or the media or whatever other nonsense excuses are being tossed around. The problem with the AHL in Springfield in the AHL. It’s no coincidence that traditional markets went to hell at the same time that the AHL became strictly developmental and started answering to the AHL instead of it’s fans. People in Springfield expect better because they can remember an AHL where the city that hosts the team matters more than the NHL team which owns it. The fact that an independently owned team in Springfield that has had myriad affiliations over decades, and a history tracing back decades before the Arizona Coyotes existed, should have their very existence be contingent upon what “makes sense” for Arizona is ludicrous.

 

Not only will the AHL let this happen, but I’d bet money that they orchestrated it. This is a league that cares more about saving their parent league a few bucks on call-ups more than a 90 year-old fan base. Have fun in Arizona. They’ve had great luck with one team; I’m sure two will be a rousing success. I’ll be watching cawlidge hawkey.

#5: THE BIGGEST CROWD EVER MARCHED TO BRING BACK THE WHALE ON ST. PADDY’S DAY

12841257_1714188655459360_7340308491809963920_o

The headline kind of says it all, so let’s talk about the Brass Bonanza Truck.

truck

Look at this beautiful goddamn truck. If you didn’t go to the parade, you missed this thing rolling up to the state capitol building loaded with whiskey, cheap whiskey and smoked meat. You missed watching it lead a massive herd of Whaler fans through downtown while Brass Bonanza blared out of four stadium-style speakers. You missed being able to hear the Whaler National Anthem clearly from a full two blocks away. You missed a day when drinking in public got you a high-five from the cops, a day when thousands packed the streets of Hartford and acted (for once) like they were proud to be there.

There’s not a lot of good spirit and civic pride in Hartford these days, but we give it our all on St. Paddy’s Day, and this year was special.

 #4: NINETEEN YEARS TOO LATE, WE FINALLY AGREED ON A NEW ARENA PLAN

hc-xl-center-renovations-20151113-005.jpegI won’t get into the specifics here, I’ve already written about it at length here. Let’s just bask for a moment in how close we’ve come to reversing the course of a fatal miscalculation made many years ago. Having established at length that the myth of attendance causing the Whalers to leave is complete horseshit, we now know that the real reason our Whalers are drawing flies in Raleigh as the Hurricanes is because Governor Rowland refused to spend a penny on a modern arena, instead betting everything on the fool’s gamble of the New England Patriots.

The arena is and always has been the only real barrier to the keeping or returning the NHL, but it’s a real one. A dozen southern hockey teams can fail and it won’t do us a lick of good if there isn’t a realistic place for them to move to in our city. The old Civic Center has great views and a lot of memories and looks halfway decent after the cosmetic renovations, but it’s about five years away from the ice plant blowing out for good and the concourse is taxed to its limit when the place is only half full. NHL pipe dreams aside, UConn and Hartford need to get together on this before it’s too late and they share a collective backslide instead of sharing an arena.

 

THE YEAR IN HOCKEYVIOLENCE: A Drunken Review of the 2015-16 Season

(This feature will be released every other day this week, ranking the top ten highlights of the season in descending order. Today’s installment covers #7-10.)

While the NHL post-season may still be grinding out in late April, the season is over for all intents and purposes here in Hartford. Which means it’s time to begin our new annual tradition here at Exile on Trumbull Street: drinking copious amounts of whiskey and taking a painful walk down memory lane.

In that spirit, let us begin on this fitting note:

#10: YET ANOTHER GODDAMN YEAR SINCE THE WHALERS LEFT

bottomsup

Bottoms up, folks. We’re just getting started.

2016 marks nineteen – yes, nineteen – years since the Whalers left town, a period marked by our slow descent from pathological underdogs into outright masochism. There have been bright spots for sure, occasional glimmers of hope and admirable displays of stubborn persistence. There will be a few of those on the list.

But any honest list about being a hockey fan in Hartford needs to first pay tribute to the elephant in the room: the gaping, open wound which everything else revolves around. Some of us get bitter. Some of us lose our minds and start frantically clinging to barest hint of a rumor.

Me? I’ve dabbled in both, but my favorite coping method is a carefully balanced mixture of hard liquor and black humor.

Fun drinking game for the folks at home: sit down to watch this video with a 750ml of Old Granddad. If you’re still conscious when Kevin Dineen scores the final goal, you win.

#9: UCONN HUMILIATES BU

hc-pictures-uconn-hockey-vs-bu-20151027-005

[brass bonanza intensifies]

Sure, a brutal eight-game losing streak followed immediately after, but for one brief and wonderful moment the latest of many painful seasons of hockey in Hartford started on a near-perfect note. Rookie Tage Thompson, an undrafted local boy of no particular renown, exploded that night. He scored his first career goal, then made it a hat trick. Brass Bonanza rang out, again and again…and then the fire went out.

Rookies Thompson and Max Letunov continuted to shine and soon earned spots on the top line, but nothing else clicked. It was a testament to how good that night had been that eight games later, as the team concluded their brutal skid with a 5-1 loss to Boston College, they were playing in front of 7,712 people on a Tuesday night.

Eventually, they made good on the promise seen that night. But that’s another spot on the list.

freepucky#8: THE AHL BECAME EVEN MORE IRRELEVANT AND BORING

 

Alright, between writing about how long the Whalers have been gone and that eight-game losing streak I’ve already had to knock a couple back, and I’m gonna be honest: I’m struggling to give enough of a shit about the AHL to even write this. There’s a reason that any hockey player would sell his left nut to get called up to a losing NHL team rather than win the Calder Cup: no one cares.

I could write a laundry list of things that sucked about going to Wolf Pack games this year, most notably the debacle in which Pucky the Whale was kicked out of opening night and the Wolf Pack made my kids cry, but who cares? We’re sick of pretending to care about New York’s prospects of tomorrow, and New York is tired of pretending to care about fans in Hartford. It’s a working hockey relationship that inspires all the passion of landlord-tenant agreement. The second game of the season pulled a record low reported attendance of 1,565. I was there and I’d say 500 is a lot more honest. As UConn shares the arena and leads Hockey East in attendance, the disconnect between the two fan bases is jarring.

Me? I’m a romantic. I’ll be holding out for the NHL to come back until my last breath. In the meantime cawlidge hawkey suits me just fine.

sanderson

That one night where they brought Geoff Sanderson back was pretty cool, TBH.

12079288_965359670202696_5767113443213823076_n#7: PUCKY THE WHALE CAME BACK WITH A VENGEANCE

Since we’re doing the drunken honesty thing here, let’s just cut to the chase: Sonar sucks. If there was a contest for the most forgettable minor league mascot he’d be tied for first with 300 other boring furry nerds in suits.

Thank God for Pucky. A Hartford icon since 1975, Pucky was axed by the Hartford Wolf Pack in 2013 when they decided to stop caring whether anyone showed up to games. He was largely dormant for a few years before suddenly showing up everywhere in 2015-16. He was ejected by bitter Rangers fans in the employ of the Wolf Pack from opening night after being being admitted by security, citing a lack of a needed waiver. After some significant backlash he was invited back against as a guest on several occasions. At no point was anyone asked to sign a waiver. You can’t stump Pucky.

In addition to that small controversy, Pucky worked overtime this year, dropping off checks and visiting patients at the children’s hospital, attending baseball games, hosting blood drives, leading parades…

Dismiss mascots as childish if you will, but there’s something about the sheer insanity and stubbornness of a fan base and ownership (The Baldwins retain ownership of Pucky and make his continued appearances possible) that refuses to surrender ever after 19 years. The NHL left town and the team hasn’t hit the ice in many years, but sometimes it’s hard to tell on the streets of downtown Hartford.

(Part two, #4-6, comes out on Wednesday.)

 

Last Exit to Springfield

indian_tear

R.I.P. 1926-2016

This will not be a eulogy for Springfield hockey and its long history; I am not the man for that task. It’s a long and storied history as interesting as that of any NHL market, and it deserves better than it’s ignoble death at the hands of the failed desert hockey experiment. It deserves better than the sudden and quiet mid-season departure. It certainly deserves better than the words of someone who was a distant spectator for most of its existence.

What I do know is Hartford, and that there would be no NHL history here without Springfield. Beyond that, there is a long, intertwined history of affiliation between the cities, more extensive than most people realize. We’ve lost a lot of history in Hartford, but as Springfield is stolen away, we will be losing even more of what little remained.

The least interesting thing about the historical relationship between Hartford and Springfield hockey is the supposed AHL Rivalry between the Springfield Falcons and the Hartford Wolf Pack. Even if you’re one of the few people who can still muster up some enthusiasm for the moribund Rangers farm team which has twice displaced the Whale, those of us who recall the history of the 91 Club that saved the Whalers can’t help but find the manufactured “I-91 Rivalry” to be a bit tone-deaf and forced. Springfield was a good neighbor, arguably the only reason the Whalers joined the NHL instead of folding in 1979. After years of having it’s own identity and a historic friendship with Springfield, we were suddenly expected to become invested in the baby Rangers and a war with a city 30 minutes to the north. A city that, one season earlier, had been firmly entrenched in Whaler Nation.

It never took. Springfield had always been part of the same market, our cousin to the north. The contrived effort to turn Hartford into a suburb of New York and divide the market failed to incite any lasting passion. As the AHL became more boring and developmental, and the Rangers further alienated Whaler fans, it just made it harder and harder to care. Some folks went from Hartford to Springfield on day one, a natural transition since the Falcons were the Whalers farm team when they left. Over the years more followed.

After a series of grievous insults from the Rangers during their AHL occupation, from pocketing millions in affiliation fees as they killed the Connecticut Whale brand, to the removal of the Whalers banners from the arena, and kicking Pucky the Whale out of this season’s opening night game, I find myself in a curious position: The news that Springfield is losing its AHL team is significantly more upsetting to me than the thought of losing my own city’s team.


thumbnail.php1972-73: The New England Blades

The interconnection between Hartford and Springfield actually began earlier than most folks, myself included prior to writing this, are aware. Back in 1972 as the then New England Whalers began their first and only season as a Boston-based member of the WHA, they signed an affiliation agreement with the newly-relocated New England Blades of the EHL.

The Blades only lasted 24 games of their inaugural season before folding. Indeed, it took a perfect storm for them to exist in Springfield at all. The venerable New Haven Blades of Connecticut had been displaced by AHL expansion granting New Haven the Nighthawks. The Big E Coliseum was suddenly vacant as the Springfield Indians found a new home at the Civic Center. The original plan was for the Blades to spend two years in Springfield before relocating to the planned Civic Center in Hartford, where they would share the space with a major league basketball team of now-defunct ABA. As we now know, instead of minor-league hockey and major-league basketball, Hartford ended up with major-league hockey; ironically a team that shared the team colors and partial ownership with the Boston Celtics.

The Blades, unable to average more than 1600 fans per game, faced budgetary difficulties than led first to players quitting and then to the Whalers terminating their affiliation agreement. The team folded shortly after.

SyracuseBlazersAtNewEnglandBladesJoeJunkinRaySchultzButchWilliams.jpg


91clubThe Whalers Years: 1973-1980

Despite their immediate success in Boston, the Whalers were never totally at home there. They played only one full season at the too-small Boston Arena before attempting to move to the Garden. Their status as a fourth wheel to the Bruins, Celtics and Braves of the AHL forced them to play some games at the Boston Arena and in Springfield. Howard Baldwin, seeing no way forward in Boston and having been spurned by crooked officials in Providence, made a deal to move to the new Hartford Civic Center and committed to Springfield full-time in the interim.

The real bond with Springfield was forged in early 1978 when a combination of heavy snowfall and shoddy construction caused the roof of the Civic Center to collapse overnight. The WHA was already deeply engaged in merger talks with the NHL, its teams folding left and right. The merger talks had been highly contentious and drawn-out and it had turned into a contest of endurance. Only the teams viable enough to survive the merger talks had a chance of outliving the WHA.

It should have been the end for Hartford. We were the only American market being seriously considered to join the NHL, and only then because of our role in founding and anchoring the WHA. The Civic Center sat slightly over 10,000 for hockey, less than the NHL minimum by a few thousand, and this poorly-timed disaster seemed to be the last nail in our coffin.

Instead, within two days of the roof collapsing we had a deal with Springfield that saved the team. From the Hartford Courant:

Praises Fans”No other team in sports could go through what we have just experience and still operate,” Baldwin said. “The reaction of the fans in Hartford and Springfield communities has been very supportive. Everyone has been pulling together and there is no question in my mind that we will have a very successful stay in Springfield until we are able to move back to our Hartford home.”

The Springfield Visitors and Convention Bureau, Police Department, and business community have announced plans to help fans coming from Connecticut find the arena and convenient parking areas.

Not only did this deal keep Hartford alive in the immediate future, but it bought us time to rebuild and renovate the arena. When the Civic Center finally reopened it sat about 15,000 and was home to the Hartford Whalers of the National Hockey League. In the meantime, Springfield hosted a memorable chunk of NHL history that included the tail end of Gordie Howe’s career.

413 civic center

Springfield welcomes the 91 Club following the Civic Center’s roof collapse.


ahl--springfield_indians_1979-80The Affiliation Years: 1978-1997

Hartford’s major league existence was notably marked by an on-again, off-again affiliation relationship with Springfield, and ironically, with the franchise with eventually became the Hartford Wolf Pack.

After the first year with the Blades, the WHA Whalers affiliated with the Providence Reds (the original form of the Wolf Pack) for 1976, their final year in Providence, then with resize.phpthe Springfield Indians for the 1977 and 1979 seasons.

In 1980, the Whalers entered in a ten-year relationship with the former Providence Reds/future Hartford Wolf Pack in Binghamton. The returned to Springfield in 1990, bringing with them the previous year’s AHL-worst team from Binghamton. Springfield, coming off of a Calder Cup season, was initially displeased to have the best team in the AHL replaced by the worst, but coach Jimmy Roberts beat the odds and led Springfield to back-to-back championships, after which he was named head coach of the Whalers.

Sprfal95The Indians moved to Worcester to become the Ice Cats and were replaced by the Falcons in 1994. They remained Hartford’s affiliate until the bitter end in 1997. Many fans, whether simply out of geographic convenience, or out of distaste for the New York Rangers, just stayed in Springfield.

 

 


I personally walked away from hockey for many years when the Whalers left. The manufactured rivalry with Springfield was irrelevant to me just like the Calder Cup and everything else. The first time I attended a hockey game again (and actually paid attention and enjoyed myself) was in early 2011 when the Connecticut Whale faced the Springfield Falcons. In addition to the obvious nod to the Whalers, I noticed another historic similarity:

WhaleIndians2

I wasn’t the only one to notice. If the contrived rivalry between Hartford and Springfield had seemed kind of thin before, it bordered on non-existent during the CT Whale era. There were plenty of Springfield fans showing up to the games and fan fests wearing green. It was a sense of identity bigger than an minor-league farm team, and totally divorced from the New York Rangers brand. In hindsight, it was probably too big for the vessel expect to carry it.

The heritage of the Indians and the Whalers are distinct but intertwined, icons of two cities caught in between Boston and New York and expected to assume the identity of one or the other as a matter of course.  It’s hard to feel anything but affinity.

It’s 2016. 19 years and counting since the Whalers left us, 22 years for the Indians. The Wolf Pack still lumbers on, half-dead and fully irrelevant, as does the tired desert team that dealt the killing blow to Springfield hockey.

Maybe Bruce Landon pulls off an 11th hour save and Springfield rises from the ashes. Maybe Hartford finally gets it act together and builds an arena to bring the Whalers home before it’s too late. Maybe not. Either way, no matter how much money they throw in the desert or into the Carolinas, they can’t replicate what we had here in Hartford and Springfield, collectively or respectively.

Cultural significance and passion are not commodities. They can not be bought or sold, and they sure as shit can’t be exported.

 

 

HOWARD BALDWIN WAS RIGHT

A Conversation with the Baldwins Regarding Hartford, the Whalers and the Future.

 

I’m not going to even pretend to be objective about this: Howard Baldwin was right.

1689368

Howard Baldwin Sr. in 1979 when Hartford joined the NHL

He was right to believe in Hartford in the first place, bringing a major league team to Hartford at a time when naysayers told him he was crazy for trying to build something in a city that died at five.

He was right when the Civic Center roof collapsed and he trusted the people of Hartford to stick by the Whalers.

He was right to trust in Emile Francis, who built one of the greatest hockey teams in history to never win the Cup.

He was right to come back thirteen years later, partnered with his son Howard Jr, to rekindle our pride.

He was right when he proposed that the XL Center’s foundation was strong enough to create a state-of-the-art arena and make Hartford the economic center of the region again, at a fraction of the usual cost, by building smarter instead of bigger.

He was right that he projected that in 2017 the NHL would be seriously considering expansion and relocation, and that cities who showed the initiative and leadership to position themselves correctly would be in line to earn teams.

He was even right that the Hard Rock Hotel would one day call Hartford home.

The problem with Baldwin’s second tenure in Hartford was not Baldwin, who came into town as he had before, abandoning greener pastures and an easier path for the promise he saw here. It was the culture shift that occurred in his absence. Baldwin presided over the Whalers in the days of Ella Grasso and Nick Carbone, leaders who spoke bluntly and went to the mats for the city. He returned to the aftermath of John Rowland’s incarceration and the cynical bureaucracy that had overrun the state and city governments like some kind of cancerous ivy. The media, dying of irrelevance in the age of social media, was no help either. They were more interested in scandals and scapegoats than the boring details of the truth; especially when the truth came at the cost of biting the hand that feeds.

In short, the problem was that they didn’t listen.


 

Four years ago, when a (possibly senile) Scott Gray penned his now-infamous screed that assassinated the character of Howard Baldwin and declared all hope lost for Hartford,  it might have been understandable if folks following the saga of the Connecticut Whale casually judged the Baldwins harshly. The dust had yet to settle and the claims of mounting debt and unpaid bills seemed damning.

Even Jeff Jacobs, who’s been around long enough to know better, was harsh in his final assessment.  By his tally, the Baldwins left town in 2012 owing various parties about $2.7 million dollars.

What he neglected to mention was that a significant portion to that was not owed to the state or any local business, but to the New York Rangers, who were gouging Baldwin and the Whale for record high of $1.4 million annually in affiliation fees. He also neglected to mention that after the Rangers successfully demanded to be made whole immediately, they turned around and demanded that the state of Connecticut assume this annual fee. And Governor Malloy, championed like John Rowland before him for running the Whale out of town, happily (if not desperately) agreed to pay it.

Jeff Jacobs, who once wrote so eloquently about the disgusting spectacle of John Rowland being applauded as the Whalers left, cheered on Malloy as he allowed it to happen again.

$2.7 million? That’s ugly, sure.

How about $4.2 million? That’s what we’ve paid the New York Rangers in the three years since the Whale left, in which time they’ve netted the dubious distinction of setting low attendance records for both individual games and an entire season.

Pucky the Whale has been booted from hockey games by security. “Whalers” is a four-letter word, the past erased except for one night a year, now vaguely referred to as “Heritage Night”. The Brass Bonanza is gone. The moribund Wolf Pack brand rose from the dead to piss all over Hartford’s heritage, and has been rewarded with indifference and empty seats.

$4.2 million.

Somebody may have fleeced this state and made a killing off of minor league hockey in Hartford, but it wasn’t Howard Baldwin.


Despite sharing both a name and an uncommon passion for a city once derided as “America’s filing cabinet”, the two Howards couldn’t be more different in demeanor. The elder Baldwin possesses a gentle but infectious enthusiasm. I was admittedly a bit starstruck to be speaking with him at first, considering myself more of a hobbyist than a real writer, but quickly grew comfortable. He’s easy to talk to, and Hartford is one of his favorite subjects.

Howard Baldwin Jr. has that much in common with his father; he is certainly passionate about the subject. Where Howard Sr. seems almost wistful about the outcome of his second run in Hartford and is hard-pressed to express any sentiment harsher than disappointment, Howard Jr. minces no words. He  has nothing kind to say about the Governor or city government that let them take the fall for losing at a rigged game. He’s no easier on himself; he blames himself for pushing his father into taking on the management of Hartford’s AHL team, which at the time was on the verge of folding due to lack of interest in a cheap, minor-league New York product. Their original plan was to build up support for the NHL’s return with fan fests independent of the AHL team. Ultimately, in Howard Jr’s view, saddling the NHL return movement with a struggling AHL team was a lot more beneficial to the AHL team than the NHL movement.

Both Howards take full responsibility for taking on a lease and affiliation fees which weren’t sustainable in the long-term, and expecting the state to be willing to renegotiate. The local government who had worked with them to keep the Whalers afloat while rebuilding the Civic Center is long gone.  In its place was a new order that had no reservations about charging the Baldwins $21,000 per game to rent the XL Center, even on a day when they were playing outside at Rentschler Field. It was a brave new world in Hartford, and the new bosses always got their cut. The long-term survival of minor league hockey was hardly relevant to a governor with designs on a job in Washington.

In retrospect, it’s hard not to wonder if the Baldwins were anything more to the state than a stop-gap solution, a couple of marks naive enough to infuse some capital into the Ranger’s dead farm team and keep it running for a few more years.

Another thing they have in common: their sense of humor. Both laugh at my suggestion that they abandoned successful careers elsewhere to get rich running minor league hockey teams in Hartford during a recession.

Over the course of our conversations, the Baldwins weigh in on a variety of subjects ranging from UConn Hockey (proof the of the market’s strength) to the Yard Goats (they both think it was a great thing, and are sympathetic and unsurprised by the complications the team has faced in dealing with the city).

Howard Jr, surprisingly, is more charitable than myself in his assessment of the media:

“I don’t blame them at all for our fall,” he says, responding to my suggestion that they were partially to blame. “I just wished that they’d bothered to dig and get the whole story before assuming the worst of us.”

Ultimately, the one subject it all keeps coming back to is the arena. If there’s one sore spot where the elder Baldwin shows any trace of bitterness, it is in having gone to the Governor with a $105 million plan to build an arena for the NHL and UConn, only to be laughed out of the office. Five years later, the governor is pitching a nearly identical plan, but a day late and dollar short with the NHL expansion process already well under way.  Despite that hint of bitterness, the Baldwins are unequivocal in their support for Malloy’s plan. In fact, the suggestion that the arena transformation might be postponed or abandoned due to budget concerns was the motivating factor in their taking the time to have these conversations.

The idea of the the XL Center dying, and with it any hope of Hartford resuming its role as the cultural and economic center of the region, clearly pains them deeply.  In the end, there were no exhortations to clear their names or stroke their egos; they just wanted to do something to help the cause.

It’s a rare thing these days for Hartford to find itself being boosted by anyone outside of the city. It’s depressing, but not altogether surprising, to see how little was done to support them in their efforts. Howard Baldwin Sr. may have beaten the odds in 1975 and turned our little town into a major league city. But in 2016, Hartford’s worst enemy might be itself.


(Full text of the interview with Howard Baldwin Sr. after the jump)

Continue reading

SAVE HARTFORD: Rebuild the Old Barn Now.

Flag_of_Free_France_(1940-1944).svg


 

It was inevitable that I had to write this piece. Indeed, when Senator Joe Markley of Southington opened up the orifice of his empty head and vomited out the nonsense contained within not one, but two, anti-Hartford editorials, people didn’t ask me if I was going to fire back. They didn’t even ask me when. They didn’t ask me anything at all, they just assumed (correctly) that I was typically enraged and on the case. More than one person said something along the lines of “I can’t wait to see what you write about that asshole” without my having mentioned his editorials at all.

I choose to take that as a compliment.

The only delay in my response came from deciding whether or not I wanted to dignify Markley’s ignorant, anti-Hartford pandering with a direct response, or if I even wanted to provide a link to what he wrote and give him any more attention than he deserves. Which is none at all.

The latter question is easy. I’m not going to give his editorial any further attention. Instead, I will refer folks to Mike DeMauro’s excellent piece from The Day in which he responded to Governor Malloy’s refusal to take a strong stand on the XL Center renovations while clueless critics like Markley scream treason from the top of the mountain. (“Can We Fix Our Own Mess First?”, Mike DiMauro, The Day.)

headshot_400x400

“Durrrrrrr” – Senator Joe Markley

His arguments aren’t worth rebutting. UConn can play all of their home games in Storrs? Even if it were true, which it’s not, the idea that it would be economically or morally beneficial to Hartford dwells somewhere south of the domain of absolute idiocy. The statement not only diminishes the 18 big dates the basketball programs play downtown, but betrays the fact that Markley is COMPLETELY UNAWARE that the hockey program, which has consistently been ranked either #1 or #2 in league attendance, and in the top ten nationally, has no suitable home rink other than the XL Center. Any long-term solution, whether in Hartford or elsewhere, involves an expensive state-funded arena being built.

Not only are his ideas wrong, not only are they stupid, but they’re entirely divorced from reality and the basic facts of the matter at hand.

I could continue to critique every stupid thing Markley said point-by-point (for instance, his description of a complete rebuild as “another facelift” that won’t be enough to “make the place work”), but I can save both of us a lot of time with this spoiler: all of his points lack any merit or factual basis. In the long history of terrible, poorly-researched anti-Hartford tripe that has spewed forth from the sewer of our local media, Senator Markley may have achieved peak lunacy. Never before has anyone cheered so passionately and cluelessly for their own demise.

The real problem with Senator Markley’s attempt to weigh in on this issue is Markley himself. He doesn’t represent Hartford, he represents Southington, to the extent that anyone with open designs on running for governor represent anyone other than themselves.

Yes, he is openly exploring a run for governor, which is really the crux of this very stupid campaign against a facility which is the cultural and economic driver of the capitol region. Markley  returned to the senate recently after a 24 year absence which was preceded by a single term served in the mid-eighties. He has no direct knowledge or experience with the XL Center, good or bad, to draw upon. He has no particular platform other than reflexively opposing Governor Malloy, and no particular concern for the merits of whatever issue may be at hand. I’m no fan of Malloy’s, particularly not the spineless defense of his own arena proposal, but Markley’s cynical pandering should be called for what is.

Delve into the comments section of any local news outlet’s page and you will see hordes of barely-literate, angry, terrified people screeching about Hartford. It’s dangerous, it’s an armpit, no one wants to go there, people are dying in the streets. For a significant group of people who live in the suburbs of Greater Hartford, there is zero comprehension that their own quality of life and economic well-being are in any way linked to their capital city. This is a dangerous and damaging mentality that has kept Connecticut spinning it’s wheels and slipping deeper into a pit of self-loathing for decades. This ugliness is conjured in a very calculated manner in both of Markley’s editorials.It’s absolutely disgusting that Markley has chosen not just to exploit, but to actively encourage Connecticut’s self-hatred for his own political gain.

Fortunately for us, at the end of the day, Markley doesn’t matter. Southington is only one of 169 petty fiefdoms in this state.

The hipster new urbanists who moved to Hartford less than a year ago to become a big fish in a small pond? Their sense of entitlement notwithstanding, they don’t dictate our identity either. I have seen them unironically blather on about demolishing the XL Center without any clear plan other than bike paths and greenways, dropping vapid buzzwords like “placemaking” and “soulless concrete bunkers”. The same goes for the crusty old leftist lifers who have gone crazy enough in their anti-ballpark frenzy to embrace the hipsters and their insanity. Interlopers and traitors the lot of them, callously disregarding the working class they pretend to champion.

You can gleefully cheer while deliberately expelling millions of visitors who spend a fair amount of money in downtown Hartford, or you can claim to care about the people whose livelihoods depend on those visitors. Choose one.

Money of course isn’t everything. The XL Center (or how I will always think of it, the Hartford Civic Center) is the heart of the region, the one thing which has always linked Hartford to the surrounding residents. At times it has been a tenuous connection, but even as public perception of Hartford plumbs the depths it continues to draw people into downtown. It belongs to us. It’s probably the only common space the Hartford region possesses which is truly seen as such. When Bruce Springsteen comes to town, or the Huskies ride in from Storrs, all 169 petty fiefdoms sit shoulder-to-shoulder in that old concrete barn, if only for a few hours.

91clubPerhaps what angered me the most was not Markley’s predictable nonsense, but that it was embraced by people who should know better. Historic Hartford, a Facebook page which should certainly know better, celebrated Markley as a great advocate for Hartford. Are the Whalers and the 91 Club not part of our history? The old barn, gifted to us by Aetna, saved by the Booster Club when the roof fell, and the place where a lot of us spent the most memorable days of our childhood, is suddenly devoid of meaning because it fails to fit into the hipster aesthetics of someone who hasn’t even lived here long enough to remember John Rowland?


 

This is the bottom line. Politically left, right, whatever, it doesn’t matter. What you think of Malloy is irrelevant. We live in a world where the largest economic driver and draw to the downtown region is this arena. That is a fact. There are many, many great things about Hartford and it is totally okay to find them more compelling than sports. But your personal preference for art museums or organic coffee shops or the theater doesn’t change the fact 15,000 people aren’t spending money downtown on a regular basis for any of those things, nor do they employ anywhere near the same amount of people.

The XL Center is a public asset. We are incredibly fortunate not only to have enjoyed the sort of good corporate citizenship that provided us with such an asset, but that the roots of the building were so well-built and large enough that they can provide the foundation of what is essentially a new facility for only $250 million.

Yes, $250 million is a lot of money. But it’s a lot less than the $500 million a new arena would cost under any other circumstances. There is no way out other than giving up. As just one of UConn’s basketball teams seeks its 11th national title, an arena stands between our world-class athletics programs and any real shot at a Power Five conference. NHL return? Not a chance without an arena. And if you choose to be a skeptic on the possibility of the NHL’s return, there’s still the matter of 50+ dates of AHL and college hockey that call Hartford home. The mechanical substructure which makes ice possible in Hartford is forty years old and barely working, five years is a generous estimate for it’s lifespan. That doesn’t give us a lot of time to get shovels in the ground.

Of course, giving up on Hartford is always an option. Let’s just not call it anything other than what it is.

The traitors among us have let their voices be heard. It’s time for the rest of us, and our leadership, to stand up for our city.


 

Mad as hell and want to do something about it? You’re in luck. There are two opportunities in the immediate future:

  • UConn Hockey made a miraculous 11th hour comeback in their final game of the regular season and won a home play-off series in Hartford as a result. Attendance has been consistently very good, but this weekends play series is a great opportunity to make some noise on behalf of Hartford: BUY TICKETS HERE
  • The Hartford Whalers Booster Club will be marching in downtown Hartford for the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 12th, setting off from the State Capitol at 11:00am. Click here for the Facebook event and more details.

MAKING A RELOCATION: The True, Untold Story of How Hartford Lost the Whalers

draft

“Making a Relocation” is an eight-part series covering the (mostly untold) true story of how the Hartford Whalers left Connecticut.

It started one day when I got sick of hearing people who don’t live here say the Whalers moved because they were never supported. I thought I could tell the story in a few paragraphs and started back in the glory days of the late eighties (known locallly as “Whalermania”), when the Whalers were one of the most profitable teams in the league and favorites to win the Stanley Cup and worked my way forward.

I quickly realized that there was a lot of stuff I’d forgotten, twice as much that I’d never known in the first place, and that it was going to take a lot more than a few paragraphs to tell it. Three weeks and eight chapters later, it was done. The song of my people. An acquittal of the fans of Hartford, an indictment of the traitors among us and thieves who carried away our regional pride.

Say what you will about us – our city, our team or the people who live here – but no longer will it remain unanswered. This is our story.