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.
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.
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.
CONNECTICUT HOCKEYVIOLENCE: First and foremost, I’m sure you’re aware of the NHL expansion rumors. Would you be willing to venture a prediction on how that’s going to pan out?
HOWARD SR: Well, I mean for expansion I think Las Vegas has got a hell of shot. And I think because of the dollar’s drop, Quebec is probably not going to happen.
CTHV: Yeah, that’s pretty much the rumor we’re hearing. And while we’re kind of sour on Sunbelt hockey in Hartford these days, but I know that in your career you’ve championed both traditonal markets like Quebec and markets like Vegas. What are you thoughts on Vegas as a market?
H: Listen, it’s a seductive market, Las Vegas. (laughs) I think they’ve done their homework well. They seem to have a very good owner, or potential owner, there. You know, the west coast is a little different than the Sunbelt, Phoenix notwithstanding. Anaheim and L.A. have done well. Dallas has done well. I’m not sure if you’d consider them the Sunbelt, but you know what I mean. So I think you can make an argument that Las Vegas will work, but it’s definitely a different kind of a market.
CTHV: Now with Quebec City, and I agree that it’s looking like they’re not going to get in with the Canadian dollar being what it is, how does that affect Hartford in your opinion?
H: Well, Quebec City… (pause) People in Hartford… (pause) You want me to be candid, I assume?
H: Okay. Quebec City has shown great leadership. They’ve got behind Quebecor, the huge entertainment-television conglomerate. They’ve built a brand new arena, and they’re all dressed-up and ready to go. So there’s no sense kidding each other there, they’re ahead of Hartford. And they’re ahead of Hartford for a reason. Now it’s unfortunate, because frankly our hearts are in Hartford. But I also love Quebec and I love the initiative they’ve shown.
CTHV: Now given that the issue is the Canadian dollar, do you think that being denied expansion makes them more likely to get a relocation franchise, or does that not really factor in as long as the dollar is low?
H: Oh no, I think your point is a good one.
You know when we first came back there, we always said you’re either going to get expansion or relocation. And everything we said has proven to be true, from the time we came back and stated our intentions…first they did a relocation, and now they’re going to expand.
CTHV: Ok, to switch gears a little bit; I read a statement you wrote, about two years ago, in which you talked about UConn as having a lot of value. I was wondering if you could expand a bit on exactly what you meant by that.
H: UConn Hockey you mean?
CTHV: The time you when were speaking, I think, predated the rise of the hockey program by a bit. That’s kind of why I wanted to touch on it again. I think you were speaking specifically about the basketball programs.
H: Ok, but basketball or hockey, having a strong UConn putting out the kind of product they put out is a good thing if you’re going to build a new arena and you need to fill dates. And certainly the basketball speaks for itself…I’m actually not too sure, I think hockey’s done pretty well, hasn’t it?
CTHV: Yeah, we’re leading Hockey East in attendance, going back and forth between the number one and two spot. And you know, the play on the ice hasn’t been great, we had an eight-game losing streak this year. So that’s good.
H: But see there, that just bears out the kind of things we’ve been saying. Hartford is really a good hockey market. (laughs) I think it’s great that Hockey East does well there with UConn. Again, UConn hockey fills dates.
CTHV: Now have you seen Governor Malloy’s arena plan, which is kind of centred around UConn’s hockey program?
H: I haven’t seen his plan. My understanding is that it’s fundamentally taking the arena which is already there and refurbishing it? Help me out a little bit.
CTHV: The basic proposal – there were a few options but there’s one that they’re looking at seriously – would cost $250 million. You’d be essentially gutting the arena and keeping, as you’ve said, the “concrete bones” of the facility and you’d end up with an 18,000 seat arena, two concourses. Essentially every part of it would be new, and the only place it would really show it’s age is the load-in area, which would have slightly lesser capacity than a modern NHL arena.
H: Well, again, as long as you can generate revenue from what’s he talking about, that works for 2016, then I applaud the plan because that’s a good price! The biggest difference between the NHL today and when we were there 10-15 years ago is the dramatic increase in revenues that come out of an arena. The ribbon advertising, the scoreboard, the arena presentation of the product, state-of-the-art things like that…you need to have all of that.
CTHV: I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions, and it’s still very alive here locally, is how central the arena was to our losing the team. It’s kind of become this myth that it was all about the attendance, when it was very much about the times and that arenas were changing.
H: When you look at what makes a team work today, and I haven’t run teams for twenty years so I’m dated – but I do stay in touch with and know an awful lot of people in the business and I see numbers. The revenue you have to pump out of a building and a franchise, I mean, you better be able to get revenues of $115 to $120 million dollars or you’re not gonna make it. That’s a lot of money for a small market.
Now that’s what happens, particularly in hockey because we don’t get the national revenues like the other three leagues do, That means there’s more burden on your local market. And if you’ve got a smaller local market, that means you’ve got to broaden the local market, you follow? In order to keep up you’ve got to raise prices. And say Howard Baldwin can’t afford two full season tickets then, to give you a hypothetical, and so what does he do? He finds somebody to share with. So it means you need more people. (laughs) To get those prices up. So there’s more of a burden on a smaller market than a bigger market. But having said that, in all of New England there’s one hockey team, and that’s Boston. And I’ve always felt there certainly should be another one in New England.
CTHV: That’s a very good point, and something that I find mind-boggling, that the area gets pegged as being too dense. There’s essentially three teams in New York, in that metro area, and then like you said, one in all of New England. So it seems very strange that would be perceived as being too dense.
H: Yeah, I mean, it’s just not true. There’s definitely room for another one. But in order to get that other one, you have to have everything positioned right. You’ve got to be able to get your cable money, your local television money, and your arena money. Those are your three big sources of revenues. As well, the merchandise has become more and more important. The arena revenue is the box, club, and regular seating and then, of course your sponsorship dollars.
[Ed: The province of Quebec has a population of approximately 8.2 million and a GDP of $370 billion, compared to New England’s population of 14.7 million and $900 billion GDP]
CTHV: On a related note, I know when you were here running the AHL team you had pitched a plan, and it’s turned out to be very predictive of what’s happening now. It was essentially a very deep renovation, using just the bones of the XL Center. You even had the Hard Rock Hotel there in your renderings [Ed: The Hard Rock Hotel committed to building in downtown Hartford last year] and I was just wondering if you could elaborate a bit on what was the difficulty in getting it off the ground, and how do you feel seeing it play out in a similar form a couple of years later after you’ve departed?
H: Well.. [laughs] I love the question, because the difficulty in getting off the ground is, for whatever reason, be it the ego of the political leaders or what, they just felt that this plan we put forward wasn’t their idea so they weren’t going to embrace it. And then as they say in the movie business, you cut to the present day and they’re taking the plan and not only replicating it but taking some of the things within the plan, like the Hard Rock Cafe and putting it into their plan. So they weren’t even subtle about it. (laughs) You know? Plagiarism is a great thing if you can get away with it. They do say that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. We’re out here now, we’re busy as hell, we’re doing great, but it still frustrates me. If people had listened maybe a little bit more, and were more open to the things we’re talking about, you might have been positioned for a relocation, or for an expansion team. Expansion doesn’t happen by itself. It certainly didn’t happen by itself in the seventies. Believe me, I say the following to a lot of people: In the 70’s the NHL Board of Governors were not sitting around scratching their – pardon me – their asses saying “How do we go to Hartford, CT for an expansion team?”. We spent years beating the Hartford drum and making NHL leadership aware of how great Hartford was and the terrific ownership we had put together.
You may not know this, we put together the NHL team in San Jose. Same thing! You had to have somebody who cares, who has passion to get the job done for that market. Just like Foley’s doing in Las Vegas. The guy, and I don’t even know him, believe me, but it’s terrific what he’s done. The tenacity, and the wherewithal, and the fortitude to get it done. And hopefully he’ll get it done.
CTHV: And it looks like he’s had some support locally, which may be the difference here.
H: Absolutely. The local community’s been great. This is a guy who wants to come in and do something positive and they’ve embraced him. When we went back there, it shocked me, because I always felt like we did a pretty good job in the seventies and eighties, but instead they said “Great, here’s a guy that’s back, trying to do what he did before…let’s see how difficult we can make it for him”. [laughs]
CTHV: Given how that played out, is it fair to say that’s your analysis of what really went wrong, the lack of support from the public sector and the media?
H: Well, I’m not saying we did everything right, but we had some bad luck. For example, the outdoor festival of hockey was a huge success – ask any high school, college or prep school team that participated. It was a terrific event for Connecticut hockey. Our big day to generate revenues for our company was the Saturday when the Providence Bruins were to play the Connecticut Whale at night. It just so happened that this was one of the coldest nights in history. As it was, we had 21,000 people. What did the media want to talk about after the game? Not that we had just put on a great two week event and that 21,000 people showed up in 15 degree below zero weather—-but that they wanted to talk about the empty seats. That is just absurd. The reality, though, was that our biggest problem was that we had the highest lease in the league by far and away. It was at least 50% higher than the next highest lease. However, we signed it, with our eyes wide open. We had hoped that the “powers to be that ran the arena” would recognize we were doing a good job in increasing attendance and would extend the lease at a reasonable rate. Two more things – we received NO concessions and NO parking. When I look back on it, it makes me sad that we couldn’t get it done. And it also make me angry. But at the same time, it doesn’t mean we’re sitting here hoping that good things won’t happen for the future of hockey in Hartford. Nothing would make us happier than to see the NHL back in Hartford. But – this will never happen without leadership. It happened in 1974 because you had the perfect confluence of the city, the state and the business community coming together to create an environment for the Whalers to move to Hartford. It was very hard then —it’s a lot harder now.
CTHV: Now, if expansion does happen, there are going to be new AHL farm teams presumably. There also a long-standing rumor here that’s resurfaced again lately about the Wolf Pack shifting down to Bridgeport or Long Island now that Nassau is vacant. If there was another chance for you to give it a go in Hartford, would you be interested?
H: My wife Karen and I are extremely happy back in Los Angeles. Now I thought the Rangers were staying there, so I didn’t know anything about them leaving. But, if, you know…that isn’t out of the question. By the way, and I have to say this, but you always have the right to hang up on me [laughs] How sad is it that some business people who were partnered with me in Connecticut, trying to do something good, and we leave and now all of a sudden the governor is willing to pay the affiliation fees to one of the richest companies in America. [laughs] You know? Somehow that doesn’t sound right to me. But that’s what happened!
CTHV: It’s a sore spot here too.
H: But yeah, anything that happens in Connecticut hockey, we’re always interested in. Let’s just leave it at that.
CTHV: I recently wrote a long-form piece about the history of the Whalers, basically starting at the time you left Hartford until the time when the team relocated. In the process I did a lot of Hartford Courant archive research, and one of the things I found was that pretty much continuously from 1989 until the Patriots débâcle there was a consistent interest in Hartford by the NFL, whether it was the Patriots or Rams, but it was ongoing. Now, the point I’m getting to, and I took kind of a roundabout way to get to it, but I wanted to ask you having been privy to at least some part of that process…it’s very difficult for people who live in Connecticut now, especially if they’re too young to remember the Whalers, to see Hartford as a major league city. And this was a time when we not only had a major league team, but a second one trying to come in. I was hoping you had some insight on what they were seeing in Hartford that they believed two major league teams could live here.
H: Oh, yeah. People forget that through the seventies and eighties and early nineties you couldn’t move Downtown! It was about as vibrant a city and market as you could possibly ask for. Maybe you don’t even realize that, but when we left in 1988, we had the third highest gross gate in the National Hockey League. So you had an affluent area, that had great corporate support, and everything was going *good*. You know, small markets are good as long as everyone embraces the culture of supporting your team, and if your team doesn’t do well then you have the usual stuff that goes with that. But fundamentally, in the seventies and eighties it was a fabulous market.
When we moved the team there in the seventies, everybody said “Oh, when it turns five o’clock the city turns out it’s lights, you’ll never make it here”. That’s the kind of thinking which we changed, and then we left, for whatever reason, it came back!
CTHV: It really has.
H: It’s not a “can-do” attitude, it’s a “can’t do” attitude. If the settlers had said that, we’d still be somewhere around Plymouth, Mass. [laughs]
CTHV: Now, in a past statement I know you touched on the possibility of the minor league baseball stadium in Hartford, but it was early on. I think they’d just announced the plan and not a lot of details had come out yet. Have you followed that at all since?
H: I sure have, yeah.
CTHV: I’m just curious what your thoughts on it are now – whether the branding or the stadium débâcle. Whatever you care to comment on.
H: Well, I don’t know much about what went on with the delay with the stadium, but I can imagine, based on what I went through, but I think it’s a fabulous thing for Hartford. Minor league baseball is great fun, it comes at a time of year when people are on holiday, and I think it should do well. So I think it’s great.
CTHV: How do feel about the brand? There’s sort of an homage to the Whalers in it.
H: Well, I think it’s nice. There’s nothing else I can say about that. It’s smart of them to embrace that – I mean if you go to Pittsburgh, and I was there as you know, everyone seems to embrace the black and the gold. In Hartford, it’s the blue and the green. I don’t have any problem with that. I think it’s a good thing.
CTHV: The last thing I’ll ask you before I let you go: What concrete advice would you give to the fans on the ground in Hartford, and maybe something we can pass on to politicians; what can we be doing?
H: The fans on the ground put the politicians in their office. And you’re seeing it on the national scale now. Whether you like Trump, or you like Bernie, people are pissed off at Washington. And they’re there, the politicians, because of you the person who casts a vote. What I hate to see is politicians making up their mind that “oh, we can’t do this now”. Bullshit. People get behind something, they can get it done. They can get it done! But it isn’t going to happen by itself. Like this fellow who has the baseball team, the Yard Goats; get behind the guy! Make it work! Make people sit up and say “Look how great that’s doing”. Now maybe we can bring something else here. Just make it as good as you can for people who want to come in there and spend or invest their money. That’s the best thing I can say. And never give up.
CTHV: What do you say to people who hear all that and immediately respond by pointing at the deficit?
H: Well, maybe there wouldn’t be a deficit if you didn’t have a self-fulfilling prophecy of not bringing anything in there to stimulate business growth. Sometimes you’ve got to spend to earn, if you know what I mean.
I would just like to say that I hope people remember that for a period of time that hockey in Hartford was an extraordinary success. The brand today still exists. Did you know that the Whalers merchandise is STILL one of the best sellers in the NHL store? Did you know that the founder of ESPN was a former employee of the Whalers? Did you know that Hartford hosted an NHL All Star Game and a WHA All Star Game? Hartford also hosted the NHL draft. Does anyone remember that Guy Lafleur, Serge Savard, Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, and many other great Hall of Famers played in the Civic Center? Did you know that the great Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, and David Keon all played their last games together on Civic Center ice? How do we ever forget Ron Francis – a Hall of Famer, Joel Quenniville – the third winningest coach in the history of the NHL, Dave Tippet – becoming another of the winningest NHL coaches, and, of course, the heart and guts of Hartford hockey — Kevin Dineen?
So, Jeremiah, I ask you to ask the leadership in the city and the state how and what are they going to do to make certain that the Hartford Whaler legacy and tradition is never forgotten. I haven’t even mentioned the wonderful fans, some of the wonderful media and the front office people that had the city of Hartford alive and vibrant in the 70’s and 80’s.