When the roster of the Hartford Wolf Pack takes the ice at the XL center tonight as the Connecticut Whale, it will be “one, small, ice-crunching skate glide for hockey players and one giant stride toward the NHL for Connecticut hockey” to mangle a famous quotation. The Connecticut Whale is the brain child of Howard Baldwin—successful team operator, movie producer and, well, just about everything he touches. And it’s the latest step in his attempt to bring big league hockey back to Hartford.
Baldwin’s been in a similar situation before. In 1975 he moved the WHA’s New England Whalers from Boston to Hartford. Four years later, the most successful WHA franchises—including the Whalers with Baldwin as managing general partner—were folded into the NHL (the Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques and Edmonton Oilers were the others). But years later, the Whalers were sold and Baldwin was out. We all know what happened from there. The much-hated-in-Hartford Peter Karmanos moved the team to North Carolina in 1997.
The Shad’s first interaction with Baldwin came in 2005. Baldwin was trying to gauge support in the Connecticut legislature for his efforts to bring the NHL back to the Capitol City. Did the General Assembly’s leadership share his interest and passion for the project? I was working as communications director for the Senate Democrats at the time. Then-Senate President Kevin Sullivan needed a point man for the meetings. He asked me to be the person. Actually, truth be told, as a life-long hockey player, I volunteered for the job that no one else on the caucus staff wanted. Sullivan was at least interested in any project that could potentially help Hartford and the state. My involvement continued under Sullivan’s successor, Don Williams, who had no interest at all. The only other interested party in the legislature was then-Speaker of the House Jim Amann.
It was in these meetings, facilitated by the very well-known, former TV anchorman (and volunteer in this capacity) Pat Sheehan, that I got the full Baldwin effect. He’s the kind of guy that fills up a room and instantly becomes the center of attention. He made his plan very clear: take over the operations of the Wolf Pack, market it properly, show that the market would support the AHL team to the point where the NHL would take notice. From there, either get an expansion NHL franchise or buy and move an existing one to Hartford. Sounds simple enough. In practice, not so much.
From the beginning, state development agency officials did nothing but put up obstacles. Not only did they bring nothing to the table, they were stealing the silverware from it. At one point, I asked for a copy of the lease agreement between the owners of the Wolf Pack (MSG) and the state for the operation of the Civic Center as it was then known. I got it weeks later complete with snotty memo stating they were “hereby complying with my request.”
It wasn’t as if Baldwin needed the aggravation. He had found success as a movie producer, releasing the hit “Sahara” at that time and was readying the release of the Ray Charles story, “Ray” which turned out to be a monster hit.
But in my meetings with Baldwin, it was clear the man had a passion and love for the city of Hartford and for hockey. He would proceed with his plan with or without the help of state officials (and we wonder why we have trouble attracting business to the state with that kind of “help” from state officials?).
And so the next step in the grand plan is tonight when The Whale takes the ice. The team colors are similar. There’s a new, cool, logo; former Whalers on hand; Pucky the Whale as the mascot; lots of giveaways and general fun and excitement in downtown Hartford. You’ll even hear Brass Bonanza. Hockey night is Hartford is back and with Howard Baldwin at the helm, the dream of bringing NHL hockey back to Hartford lives.