“Making A Relocation” is an ongoing series exploring the inconsistencies between the facts and the public narrative surrounding the demise of the Hartford Whalers. If you’re new to the series, we recommend that you start at the beginning:
- PART ONE: Who Killed the Whale?
- PART TWO: The Things That We Lost
- PART THREE: Four Years in the Wilderness
- PART FOUR: The Smoking Harpoon
Now I know that I just spent the last four instalments making a really good case against Richard Gordon, and that I could probably just end it right here with everything wrapped up neatly; case closed, crazy rich guy bought the Whalers and immediately destroyed them in response to a crazy paranoid vision of the future, the NHL player’s association running roughshod over the league as salaries sky-rocketed and smaller markets were destroyed.
But here’s the thing: Richard Gordon wasn’t totally crazy.
As I’ve said over and over again throughout this series, context matters. Before we can talk about what’s “crazy”, lets remember exactly how strange the early nineties were. A prime example (and something that will soon become central to the telling of this tale) is the fact that Hartford spent from 1988 through 1998 in some constant state of negotiation with the NFL. We entered into serious talks and came close enough to landing major league football that stadium plans were drawn up not once, not twice, but on three occasions. At one point in 1993 a bidding war broke out between four different partners, including former Whalers owner Howard Baldwin, for the chance to move an NFL team to Hartford and accept a standing offer by Governor Weicker to build a $175 million stadium just north of Downtown. Having just written thousands of words detailing the horrific decline of Hartford’s only professional franchise, what could be crazier than the fact that the failing of the existing NHL franchise was almost exactly concurrent with the negotiations to build the NFL in Hartford from scratch?
Two years, hell, even two weeks ago, I would have said it makes no damn sense. As of two days ago I think it might a hell of a lot of sense.
As a matter of fact, it fits perfectly. Like a missing puzzle piece.
Richard Gordon may have been wrong about the futility of operating a team in Hartford – as it turns out the league eventually instituted a salary cap and revenue sharing policy that made rising salaries manageable for smaller markets – but when he first met Bob Goodenow of the NHLPA in 1990, his fears seemed much more reasonable.
When Gary Bettman became commissioner of the National Hockey League in 1994, it was a mess. Out of 20+ teams, only a handful were turning a profit. Player salaries were, as Gordon predicted, sky-rocketing under the leadership of Bob Goodenow. Bettman, who answered first and foremost to the owners, had to find a way forward that didn’t accept losing money as a matter of course. The salary cap and revenue sharing were still years of negotiation away. A substantial national television deal, which would have proved a real boon to Hartford, which is currently the largest television market in the nation without a team, was non-existent. Not only were tickets hard to come by and expensive, but it was hard to watch the team on television. Hockey was a fourth tier sport in America and there was clear plan to rectify that.
Gary Bettman saw one common thread in the teams that were thriving: they owned their own modern arenas and all of the attendant revenue. They were built to make money through parking and concessions. It’s no coincidence that with Bettman’s tenure commenced a wave of arena overhauls and rebuilds. Cities who failed to comply with this new order were relocated. The conspiracy theory that Bettman “hated” Hartford and Quebec and Winnipeg and had a romantic obsession with the sunbelt isn’t TOTALLY off-base, but it makes what was essentially a business decision seem far more emotional than the evidence suggests it was.
Bettman’s interest in sunbelt expansion/relocation probably came down to three things:
- Demographics – Remember, this all happened before revenue sharing and television deals. More population and higher income was a crude but logical indicator of success if you were comparing the New York Rangers and the Quebec Nordiques.
- Growing the Game – This was a gamble which, in hindsight, largely failed to pay off. But it wasn’t totally unreasonable. Hockey was suffering financially for being a fourth tier sport. The other sports didn’t limit themselves to cultural/geographic niches, so it made some kind of sense to try to elevate hockey to the same level. What didn’t – and still doesn’t – make sense was to keep trying to force that to happen years after it became clear that demographics alone couldn’t make hockey work in a market that didn’t want it. But that’s an article of its own.
- What the Owners Wanted – Ultimately, as I’ve said already, Bettman answers to the owners. If the owners want expansion teams in the south that’s where they go. If someone buys a team with the intention of relocation, how much could he or should he have fought against that? When the ownership wanted to stay, he certainly didn’t force them to go south, to his credit. Thus Edmonton remains and Hartford does not.
THE UNINDICTED CO-CONSPIRATOR
I will never be able to say with 100% certainty how it came to be that Lowell Weicker went from being a good friend of Howard Baldwin, a legislator who dropped pucks before Whaler games all the way back to the WHA, whose own son tried out for the team as a goalie, to becoming the crooked politician who accepted a job with Peter Karmanos as a quid-pro-quo for sending the Whalers south. But I have a theory.
The NFL is key. There are a lot of reason why Weicker, a guy with ties more in Fairfield country than Hartford, might not have been too hot on the Whalers in the nineties. In addition to all the aforementioned issues with the sport in general at time, we’ve established at length that the team was trapped in a weak ownership who had essentially given up any hope of saving the team as early as 1990. He’d also complicated any sale of the team by entering ownership with a partner, Donald Conrad, who he immediately and inexplicably forced out, which led to him owning the team along with a bankrupt real estate company and consortium of local corporations. The bankruptcy of and eventual criminal proceedings against Colonial Realty further complicated matters by tainting any effort to sell the team locally.
Furthermore, as hockey was a niche sport, the popularity of the Whalers was tied as much to Hartford the city as it was to anything else. Before the recession and the exodus of business and residents, they’d never needed to rely much on fans outside of the immediate area. When things changed, it was difficult to expand their appeal without the reach of a good television deal, and without an owner who was willing to invest any money in changing the status quo nor saw any point in trying. The arena was owned by the city, not the state, and so was the revenue it generated. In this lame duck condition, the state stood nothing to gain but debts that were currently a municipal problem.
Weicker’s lack of loyalty to Hartford, of course, wasn’t exclusive to this issue. In 1991 he championed the institution of a state income tax. It was purported on its face to be largely beneficial to the middle class by reducing the sales tax from 8% to 6%. In practice, it was a clever bit of misdirection. I won’t attempt to debate the merits of the policy here, but it’s safe to say it was poorly received in Hartford in the midst of a recession and with the downtown business community still reeling from unabashedly anti-business reign of Carrie Saxon Perry. Weicker’s constituency in Fairfield county, however, ultimately benefited. For a large number of folks who resided in Connecticut but worked in New York, the income tax had no effect at all. The bill also included a reduction of the taxes paid on investments, again, a benefit reaped disproportionately by the wealthy residents of Fairfield County.
All of that aside, I still think Weicker, and even Rowland after him, would have backed the Whalers if they were the only game in town. Unfortunately, in 1988 that stopped being the case when Bridgeport razor tycoon Fran Murray purchased a minority stake in the New England Patriots and spent the next six years aggressively negotiating their move to Hartford.
When Fran Murray came knocking, it gave Weicker a way out. On one hand he had a laughingstock of a team in a niche sport, owned by an unstable millionaire who was desperate to sell with a real estate ponzi scheme as his main partner. The NFL came knocking with Walter Peyton and a cavalcade of celebrities partners including Tom Clancy, Tom Selleck and Paul Newman. The issues with municipal arena ownership, the lack of support outside Hartford, the limited appeal of hockey, non-existent television coverage…all of these problems were solved by swapping in the NFL.
So while the Whalers were dying on the vine and the imminent arena issue was ignored, the NFL was offered sweetheart deal after sweetheart deal. Years were spent negotiating a a relocation of the Patriots under Murray, offering them a stadium in the same area where the Hartford Yard Goats eventually settled, at a cost that exceeded what the Whalers would need for a new arena by tens of millions of dollars. There was no haggling over concessions and parking. Weicker and the Connecticut Development Authority handed the Patriots everything they wanted on a silver platter and the deal came so close to being completed that it took intervention by the NFL itself, unwilling to sacrifice the Boston-area market except as a last resort, 86’ed the deal. The standing offer to build a $175 million stadium immediately attracted interest from the Los Angeles Rams, who were actively seeking a new home. Hartford came close again, but lost their advocate in Murray, whose pending legal dispute from the previous Patriots deal. The Rams instead went to St. Louis. The Patriots were purchased by Robert Kraft and the relocation issue went quiet, for a few years at least.
Like a pathetic lecher working through a mid-life crisis, Hartford pathetically and doggedly chased women that were out of its league, neglecting a good wife of many years back at home.
Spurned for the time being by the NFL, Weicker reluctantly crawled back to the Whalers offering a paltry $30 million, a fraction of what he’d indiscriminately offered any football team desperate enough to bed the state, and the right to use the Civic Center rent-free. In exchange, the state retained all revenues from luxury seating and a promise from the team to remain in Hartford for at least 20 years. Gordon and Weicker began openly soliciting buyers for the team. Within a year’s time, the 20 year promise was null and void and a new owner had been chosen.
The Hartford Whalers were in the deadly hands of Peter Karmanos.