The Hartford Whalers haven't played a game in the capital city in two decades — but a visitor to the region could be forgiven for thinking the team was still around. The Hartford Whaler Booster Club still exists. Whaler gear with its artful whale-tail logo still sells well. There's a Hartford cable access television show — "The Whaler Guys" — dedicated to the team.
Earlier this month the General Assembly heard testimony in favor of creating a Whalers license plate.
"It's a miracle," said Suzanne Hopgood, chairman of the Capital Region Development Authority, which oversees the XL Center, nee Hartford Civic Center, the region's major arena.
Part of the reason for this resilience has been to keep hope alive that a National Hockey League team would someday return to Hartford. When it didn't happen right away, and other mid-market cities lost their teams, many dismissed the idea that major league hockey would ever come back; and that hoping so was pointless, a lost cause, akin to saving Confederate money in the hope the South would rise again.
Yet there was always chatter over the years, including periodic inquiries from prospective owners or investors to the governor, about bringing the NHL back to the state.
The chatter ramped up considerably on Feb. 3 when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin sent a letter to the New York Islanders, who reportedly will be looking for a new home after next season, inviting the team to come to Hartford on a temporary or permanent basis.
Is it possible the city will again host the Bruins, Rangers, Les Canadiens and the rest?
The short answer is that no one knows. The one certainty is that it won't happen — at least on a permanent basis — in the current arena, which is all but worn out, according to several sources, and does not have the premium seats, sports bars and other revenue-generating amenities of newer arenas.
"There is no way this building can accommodate a (National Hockey League) franchise," said Frank E. Russo Jr., executive vice president of Spectra, which manages the arena for CRDA.
CRDA invested about $35 million in the building to extend its useful life by eight to 10 years. The work was finished in 2014 and Michael Freimuth, CRDA's executive director, estimates the structure has five to six years left. As the work was being completed, CRDA hired a team of consultants to plan a new arena.
The consultant's report, aired at public meetings in November, considered several options and concluded the best was a transformation and expansion of the existing building to create a structure that will "look and feel like an entirely new building." The construction cost was estimated at $250 million.
Whether the plan moves ahead will be up to the General Assembly. The Malloy administration supports the project and hopes to bond the $250 million in two increments, $125 million in each of the next two biennial budget periods, said Office of Policy and Management Secretary Ben Barnes.
There will be opposition. A new arena "would be nice to have if we could afford it, but we cannot, not when human services are being cut," said Republican State Sen. Joseph Markley, a Republican member of the Appropriations Committee and outspoken budget hawk. "That people would even consider it shows they don't realize the seriousness of the (state's fiscal) situation."
Markley expects other Republicans and possibly some Democrats to question the project, which could trigger a debate on the role of a central arena in the capital region, and its connection to the University of Connecticut.
The XL Center opened as the Hartford Civic Center in 1975 with a multi-use coliseum and an exhibition hall. Three years later the roof collapsed under a massive load of snow and ice. The coliseum was rebuilt and reopened in 1980 (naming rights were sold to XL Insurance in 2007) and so it has been in use for nearly four decades.
Today it hosts the Hartford Wolfpack of the American Hockey League, about 20 UConn men's and women's basketball games and 10 UConn hockey games each year, as well as a variety of concerts and other shows (Monster Trucks!) and a few civic gatherings. Its capacity is about 14,750 for hockey, 15,600 for basketball and 16,500 for center-stage concerts.
CRDA, which directs state investment in the capital area, took oversight responsibility for the city-owned building five years ago and began thinking about its future. It's intended lifespan of 20-25 years had tolled, and it was showing its age, said Freimuth.
The $35 million investment bought some time, with improvements to public spaces, locker rooms and some mechanical systems. Nonetheless, said Freimuth, the building's plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems are old and regularly break down, sometimes when replacement parts are hard to find. CRDA doesn't beat this drum too loudly, because it is still trying to attract business, but as Russo put it, "You can hear Taps playing for the building."
The consultant team, headed by SCI Architects, which has designed the reconstructions of Madison Square Garden, the Los Angeles Forum and other arenas, considered three options:
Upgrading the existing building. This was dismissed because the current footprint is too small to create a state-of-the-art arena.
Building an entirely new building on an expansion of the current site, or possibly some other site, though none was put forward. This was dismissed as being too expensive – at $450 to $500 million for construction plus land acquisition costs – and too disruptive, involving a massive amount of demolition in the heart of downtown. It also would require closing the building for three or four years.
A middle option, a "transformed" arena using parts of the existing structure on an expansion of the present site. It's less expensive, at $250 million plus land, preserves much of the recent renovation work and can be done in less time — 26 to 32 months — without closing the building during the basketball/hockey season.
Consultants opted for the middle option, which they say can get nearly everything a Hartford arena might need. It will provide 17,000 seas for hockey, 18,000 for basketball and up to 19,000 for center-stage concerts.
The building will have enough seats to qualify for an NHL franchise, and almost enough amenities. If there's an NHL team seriously interested, it will take another $15 million to expand locker rooms and create more premium seats and loge boxes.
The building is not the only challenge to bringing an NHL team back to the Insurance City. There needs to be a deep-pocketed owner, commitment from the civic and corporate communities, approval by the league and an available team, either by relocation or expansion (the 30-team league is expanding to Las Vegas next year).
The consultant's report emphasizes in capital letters that, even if all of those criteria are met, THERE IS NO GUARANTEE THAT HARTFORD WILL SECURE AN NHL TEAM.
Whalers jerseys hang from the rafters of the XL Center (Photo Credit: Wasted Time R at Creative Commons)
Even though it is a long shot, a couple of things argue for the possibility. When the Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes after the 1997 season, the league was expanding its national footprint to enhance its television potential. But several Sun Belt teams have struggled, including the Hurricanes in recent years.
After a good initial run in the basketball-crazy Tar Heel State, the Hurricanes haven't made the playoffs in seven years and, according to Forbes Magazine's annual valuation of National Hockey League franchises, is the least valuable NHL franchise, with an estimated value of $230 million.
After Forbes published the numbers in November, Hartford city council member John Q. Gale floated the idea that the 38 towns in the Capital Region Council of Governments could pool $230 million and buy the team, creating a community ownership model similar to that of pro football's Green Bay Packers. It is an interesting idea but a daunting political challenge, it being difficult to get all the towns to agree to much of anything, especially things involving money.
While some Sun Belt teams — Tampa Bay, Los Angeles — have done well, the climate is a disadvantage. Kids don't grow up playing hockey on frozen ponds, as in much of Canada and the northern U.S., and there isn't the long-standing tradition of hockey as a sport that there is in the North. For example, nearly all of the NCAA Division I college hockey programs are north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Vacationing Canadian tourists go to hockey games in Arizona or Florida, "but they don't buy season tickets," said Carl S. Hirsh of Stafford Sports, a well-regarded sports marketing consultant who was part of the XL Center consulting team.
Conversely, a cluster of teams reduces travel costs, and more importantly inspires rivalries, which are a tonic for the gate in hockey and other sports. Hartford has the population density, corporate presence and household income of other metropolitan regions — Raleigh, Salt Lake, Buffalo and some others — that have major arenas, the report finds. By 2019 there will be an estimated 1.23 million souls within a 30-minute drive of the XL Center and 3.1 million within a 60-minute drive.
So it is theoretically possible that an NHL team could return to Hartford. It did happen in Winnipeg, which lost its NHL team the year before Hartford lost the Whalers, but got a team back, from Atlanta, after the 2011 season.
But since they might not come if we build it, it would be irresponsible to make a $250 million bet on an NHL team returning to the capital city. That is not what is being proposed. The plan proposes that the prime tenant in the building be the bird in the hand, the state's top sports brand, the University of Connecticut.
The consultants propose that UConn join in the sales and marketing effort in the newly transformed arena, play more marquee opponents there and, importantly, share in the new revenue streams. This kind of partnership has been financially beneficial to the University of Louisville, which works in partnership with the Louisville Arena Authority to promote its presence in the city's KFC Yum! Center, the report says. UConn officials have expressed interest in the idea.
But nothing (much) happens unless the legislature approves the bonding money for the building.
Sen. Markley said he doesn't believe the project is worth doing, that it is throwing good money after bad. He noted — correctly — that the arena is losing concerts to the casinos. UConn, he said, can play on campus. The building is quiet for most of the day, he added.
He said the direct beneficiaries are bars and restaurants, and said if the renovation improves the eateries in the building, it will come at the expense of those outside of it. "I don't think the secondary effect is all that great," he said. There is research that indicates that sports arenas aren't great generators of economic development.
Supporters of the project take the view that an arena adds vitality and entertainment options. "When there's an XL Center event downtown is transformed; there are people on the streets and in the restaurants, spending money, on which there is sales tax," said Russo.
CRDA is helping develop downtown housing, for which UConn games in walking distance is a selling point. Getting the Hartford and UConn names on national television has public relations value, and more people can travel more easily to Hartford than to Storrs. Most regions this size not only have central arenas, they are expanding them, Russo said.
The events do help bars and restaurants — big nights help them get past slow nights and stay open all year, the report observes — but other businesses as well. Hopgood said more than three dozen downtown business owners — not just restaurants — signed a letter presented at the November public hearing supporting the XL Center as critical to their businesses.
The report concedes Markley's point that the building is quiet during the day, but the renovation plans include public spaces that can be used for various daytime activities. A central arena is obviously helpful for extraordinary gatherings such as Presidential candidate Barack Obama's appearance in 2008.
The renovation of the building will make it more competitive and less expensive to run, so that instead of losing about $3 million a year, it should finish in the black, the report says. Also, it will put the building in play for NCAA tournament games, which the city hasn't seen in years.
And finally, there is the hard-core corps of fans who won't give up and have made the Whalers perhaps the most popular former team since the Brooklyn Dodgers. When they needed 400 signatures to petition for a vanity license plate, they got 827, said Jerry Erwin, who with Pete Hindle has put on more than 300 "Whaler Guys" television shows.
Should the city ever get another NHL team, the Whaler Guys and the Boosters should be honored in a pre-game ceremony.