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What Has Happened to the Hartford Whalers?

Steve ThompsonAnalyst IIIMay 18, 2010

13 Feb 1997:  Goaltender Jason Muzzatti of the Hartford Whalers blocks a shot during a game against the New Jersey Devils at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  The Devils won the game, 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Al Bello  /Allspor
Al Bello/Getty Images

On the NHL expansion/relocation front, most of the news during the past year has been coming from Winnipeg and Quebec.

Winnipeg's strategy has been to play up how bad the condition of certain American franchises are (most noticeably Phoenix) and hope that its two main investors, Mark Chipman and Dave Thomson, will be able to purchase a team in default of anyone else.

That's led to wild speculation and self-delusion in Winnipeg, including a period where it was claimed that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was actually in Winnipeg, ready to make the big announcement.

Actually, Bettman did make a tour of the three cities whose franchises he moved in the 1990s and gave them unofficial terms on which their cities might get back in the NHL.

Unlike Winnipeg, Quebec has taken several practical steps in this direction, and a practical business plan, including construction of a new NHL-size arena, may be unveiled in June.

But what has happened to the third city on Bettman's tour, Hartford?

In the spring of last year, Bettman met with Hartford's mayor, Eddie Perez, who was interested in bringing back the Hartford Whalers as part of a downtown revival project and who promised civic support for any steps in that direction, including a new NHL-size arena.

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Unfortunately, the mayor was later arrested on bribery charges, and with Perez still awaiting trial, the idea has been allowed to languish.

Enter an old owner, Howard Baldwin, who recently moved back to Hartford and again wants to take up the cause of getting the Whalers back in Hartford.

Last month, Baldwin appeared on a local television program and gave vague outlines about bringing back the Whalers.

Like the mayor, he believes that a returned Hartford team will bring people back to the downtown core, and he believes that conditions are more conducive for success in Hartford than they were when the team left in 1998.

Baldwin blames Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos for being tempted by the sunny south and says that the team should never have left Hartford.

Baldwin refuted the idea that Bettman is anti-Hartford and that Hartford's closest NHL neighbours, Boston, the Rangers, and the Islanders, would object to a returned Whalers.

But his plans for a returned team seem very vague. His idea is to boost the attendance for the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack to convince the NHL that Hartford is an eager hockey market once more.

He points to Winnipeg's AHL team (though in actual fact, attendance in Winnipeg is far from being a consistent sellout) as the reason that the NHL is considering Winnipeg again. He failed to mention Quebec and the practical steps it is taking.

Like Quebec, and unlike Winnipeg, Baldwin does believe that an NHL-size arena is needed for long-term success. That is certainly one of Bettman's conditions, and probably the main one why Winnipeg's current efforts to get an NHL team again have failed.

Also, like Quebec, he believes that the current Hartford arena would be approved by the NHL as a temporary home until a permanent larger facility is built.

The other key element that Baldwin did not mention is investors, though he did say he would be interested in working with anyone who was interested in bringing back the Whalers, including the owners of the Wolf Pack.

Baldwin promises that the first phase of his plans will be announced soon. It will be interesting to see how his plans to boost minor league attendance get transformed into a new arena and investors.

The best thing he has going is that he strongly believes in Hartford and the Whalers.

But for now, the whale sleeps beneath the waves. Will Baldwin's plans cause it to surface again?

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