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.)

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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

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“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

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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.

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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.)

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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

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

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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

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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

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[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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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)

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