There has always been speculation that the NHL will return in Hartford. It has been there ever since the Whalers departure. The last three years though the discussion has been backed up by some support. Support in numbers will trump any petitions or letter to the editor.
In March of 1997 the Hartford Whalers announced they were leaving Hartford. Estimates at the time from WFSB state that Hartford would lose about 73 million dollars to the downtown area and also lose nearly 900 jobs. Almost 18 years later can you imagine the amount of money that an NHL team would capture for the city and state. Today it would be an economic driver especially to surrounding projects within the city.
There are plenty of dates to point to where the Whaler brand can produce large crowds of fans whom are also our market's consumers.
Saturday, August 14 2010 was the date of the Whalerfest at Rentschler Field. Putting it simply, a "remember when" event draws dozens of former NHL players and nearly 5,000 people. A crowd that is larger than about 70% of AHL games in Hartford. The walk up crowd for this event began a line that stretched around the stadium. It has to be one of the only times I have seen people in Connecticut rush to get into a long line, they didn't turn away, they got in that line. The players stayed longer just to make sure that everyone got to see them too, players remember Hartford and the Whalers, just like the fans do. This is not a one memory town. The concourse at Rentschler Field was packed and vendors were busy. The only surprise is that there hasn't been any word of a plan for another Whalerfest. Certainly another event like that would do well and possibly even better.
November 27 2010 the Wolf Pack was officially rebranded on ice to the Connecticut Whale. The mid-season rebrand drew 13,089 which was nearly twice the amount of people that attended opening night that season. The team is the same, the parent club is the same, but the identity is closer to what fans remember about hockey in Hartford. There also was hope that the rebrand would help in getting the NHL back. The team has since rebranded back to the Wolf Pack. They are currently 21st in league attendance with about a 3,500 average per game, about 700 less than the last season under the Wolf Pack in 2009.
December 29 2010 was a good night for an AHL game. People were home for the holidays and the AHL was the only game in town. That night Hartford's "John Wayne on skates" was coaching the visiting Portland Pirates. The atrium in the XL Center became jammed with one of the largest walk up crowds in the Wolf Pack/Whale's history. Several thousand walk up tickets were sold. The lines in the Atrium of the XL Center looked like the same ones at Space Mountain in Disney World. The word had spread about the team rebrand and having one of the most remembered Whalers of all time in the building helped boost the attendance further. The crowd offered a cheer when Dineen's highlight reel on the jumbotron was played, it was a strictly Hartford hockey moment. A moment and also evidence that the NHL really did leave a dedicated NHL market even though it hasn't supported the AHL well in a while.
February 19 2011 is still a Hartford hockey record holding date today. The Whale Bowl's attendance was announced at 21,567 and it is still the largest AHL crowd in Hartford hockey history. It ranks 4th on the AHL official record for out door attendance records. It will always also be the coldest hockey game in Hartford hockey history. The 30 mph wind gusts and below freezing temperatures, especially for a night game, still didn't keep away the 15,000 plus people in the stands at Rentschler Field.
May of 2011 Hartford finishes fourth in the Stanley Cup television ratings for Game 1. The NHL is just like any other major league sport, television is very important to the bottom line. It certainly doesn't hurt Hartford at all to finish high in ratings and throughout the last few years in the playoff ratings they have. I highly doubt that the NHL hasn't been paying attention to that.
In November of 2011 talk of what to do with the XL Center began. Does anyone remember that Howard Baldwin Sr. started the conversation on the arena situation in Hartford? At the time proposing a 105 million dollar plan to reinvigorate the XL Center and the surrounding area. The plan wasn't met with much action from the state. Now the XL Center is getting 35 million instead to keep it running for the next decade after then it will be decision time on an arena in Hartford.
January of 2013 the New York Post puts out a story that there are interested groups in bringing the NHL to Hartford. Governor Malloy says that every year he receives interest in Connecticut from a group looking to move a major league team. He calls the chances of Hartford getting one "remote".
November of 2013 the Connecticut Lottery releases a Hartford Whaler scratch game. Second prize is 1,979.00, sounds like someone did their homework as 1979 is the year the Whalers joined the NHL. The NHL logo is on the ticket, their must have been some discussion between the state and the NHL on creating the game. At this point, I think most fans would like that money earned from the scratch tickets to go towards an NHL ready arena with UConn along as a second tenant. That is a pipe dream.
December 13 2013 the Governor announces that he has been approached by two groups interested in Hartford as a location site for an NHL team. The Governor says that Connecticut is interested but does not want the to have a team and a new arena at their sole expense. The door opened
While there are still so many Connecticut fans that want the NHL the responses from public officials hasn't all been like a bucket of water on the NHL embers in Hartford. Michael Friemuth said on Face the State with Dennis House that the NHL probably wishes that they didn't leave Hartford.
It is not hard to see why the bottom five teams in attendance in the NHL right now are very close to the turn-style numbers of the Whaler crowds in the mid to late 80's. The grass is not always greener and nothing is greener than Whaler Nation.
Hartford remains the largest media market in the country without a professional sports team. In fact there are 30 NHL teams and the Hartford/Springfield media market is 30th largest in the country. The math works.
Hartford won't be a market that has 15 thousand season ticket holders. It may be the Green Bay of Hockey but thats more of a population comparison. Small Markets get a bad name in sports but they do work and the NHLPA and the NHL have small markets that work now. Hartford worked once in the NHL as a smaller market, once something has been done once it can be done again.