Ron Francis donned Whalers green for 10 years. Many hockey fans would love to see other NHL players wear it again in the future. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
If the NHL can return a franchise to Winnipeg – and be poised to bring one back to les gens merveilleux of Quebec City – is a return to another former World Hockey Association city possible?
In the cases of Cincinnati, Cleveland, Houston, Indianapolis, Baltimore, San Diego, Birmingham and San Francisco, probably not. But I wouldn’t be so sure about Hartford not having a shot. In fact, I think at some point in the near future, and maybe sooner than some people imagine, we may yet witness a new NHL era for those Kermit The Frog-green uniforms and the capital of Connecticut.
In fact, if you look at what’s happening in Hartford, you can’t help but notice how similar it all seems to what went on in Manitoba before the Atlanta Thrashers ownership group disintegrated and the franchise became the Jets, Part Deux. Although Winnipeg lost its NHL team to Phoenix in 1996, what remained was a relentless hockey supporter in businessman Mark Chipman, who was prepared to take the long view and bide his time until conditions were perfect to make a move.
Rather than employing the Jim Balsillie storm-the-castle approach to landing an NHL team, Chipman demonstrated to commissioner Gary Bettman and the hockey world his ownership group was not going to sulk or swing and instead could run a team (the American League’s Manitoba Moose, which replaced the Jets in town from 1996-2011) well no matter what league it was in. Consequently, when the NHL lost control over the direction of the Thrashers (in a way it hadn’t when encountering ownership problems in Phoenix or Nashville), the ties Chipman had established with Bettman paid the best of dividends: Winnipeg had a team again.
These days, the Mark Chipman of Hartford is Howard Baldwin, chief businessman for the AHL’s Connecticut Whale, former WHA president and founding owner of the WHA’s New England Whalers, and former part owner of both the Minnesota North Stars and Pittsburgh Penguins. He’s nearly 70 years old, but Baldwin hasn’t yet given up hope Hartford again can be big-league town; on Tuesday, he revealed his vision for a revitalized arena (the 36-year-old XL Center) that would help revitalize a decrepit downtown core, cost approximately $105 million and would meet all NHL regulations with the goal of landing an NHL team by 2017.
If you think Baldwin will have an uphill battle convincing Hartford politicians to fork over tax dollars in the present economic climate, you’re likely right. However, remember that the City of Glendale has been more than willing to throw tens of millions of civic dollars to justify arena-related jobs and revenue. Indeed, Baldwin’s proposal – which should be regarded with a healthy sense of skepticism, of course – included an independent economic study that shows a refurbished arena area would create up to 1,500 jobs and pump between $48 and $61 million per year into the local economy. You know there are politicians who’d be more than happy to be the ones responsible for bringing those positives to the community.
In addition to public funding, there are still considerable obstacles to the NHL returning to Hartford. Corporate support, which never was plentiful in the Whalers’ best days, isn’t on the upswing in any professional sports league. But that was a problem in Winnipeg at one time as well. Sometimes, leagues have to make the best of a bad situation. The NHL has plenty of those.
The fact is, the NHL has been propping up the teams in Phoenix and Dallas for too long. Columbus is devouring money like a Kardashian sister let loose inside the Federal Reserve, and the Islanders are far from profitable. The Coyotes situation will be remedied in one way or another in the next couple years – and in related news, Quebec City is believed to be a shoo-in for a franchise within five years. As we’ve seen with the Coyotes and Thrashers, there is only so much even Bettman and the owners can do to keep a team in or out of any specific market. If any other franchise melts down, there is not going to be a huge lineup of cities jostling to acquire it.
And save your breath attempting to convince me Kansas City and Las Vegas are more appealing options. If there was the requisite ownership interest in either of those towns, they would have gotten the relocated Thrashers and Winnipeg still would be an AHL city.
Hartford’s population was measured in 2010 at 1,212,381 – nearly half a million more people than are in Columbus (787,033), nearly double the population of Nashville (635,710) and triple the population of Raleigh, N.C. (403,892). Hartford is a cold-weather climate with a genuine hockey history and a small-but-passionate generation of devoted Whalers fans. And most importantly, Baldwin has maintained ties with the NHL and is pursuing the league with honey and not vinegar.
As it was with Winnipeg, people focus so much on the downside of the city, they forget the reasons the league was situated there in the first place. That’s why some were so shocked by the Thrashers move – but if you paid attention to the foundation Chipman quietly was building, you wouldn’t have been blindsided.
Baldwin isn’t quite at that stage just yet. But he’s not as far off as pessimists would argue, either. If the NHL can reappear again in Winnipeg, you’d better believe it can do the same thing in Hartford. Stranger things have and continue to happen.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.