Before November 27th of last year one would walk into the XL Center in Hartford and be greeted by a wall of pictures showcasing the sporting history of the XL Center. The wall included the Hartford Wolfpack, the Hartford Whalers and UConn basketball. The only other sign of the Whalers in the building were the few souls who donned Whalers gear for the game and the old Whalers banners that still hang from the rafters.
Now when one heads to the XL Center they’ll be greeted by hordes of fans who’ve either shelled out for new Whalers gear or dug old ones out of the closet. The team skating on the ice isn’t the Hartford Whalers, rather the Connecticut Whale. Having watched the changeover from afar and having written multiple pieces on Hartford hockey, I decided to attend some Whale games when I returned to Hartford over Christmas break. What was originally suppose to be two games ballooned into four (plus a Springfield Falcons game) and provided a good look at Hartford hockey and only deepened questions about its future.
When I first saw the Connecticut Whale’s green jersey (which was only worn until they got the new blue and white ones in) I couldn’t help but refer to the team as the knock-off Whalers. Not only does the jersey look like some cheap Chinese take on the Whalers, but the atmosphere in the XL Center only added to the feeling. The team introduction begins with a montage of Hartford hockey starting with the New England Whalers and continuing up through the Connecticut Whale. Then Brass Bonanza blares from the speakers and the Whale takes the ice. Fans decked out mostly in Whalers gear invariably ended up chanting, “Let’s Go Whalers!” over anything else. Pucky the Whale, the iconic mascot, skated around the rink during intermission with Sonar, the old Hartford Wolfpack mascot. I’m assuming Sonar will be retired following this season, but having him skating around in a Wolfpack jersey while Pucky skated around in his old Whalers jersey (the one with the picture of a whale and -rs tacked onto the end) only made understanding the team that much weirder.
If the first game was a confusing mix of nostalgia and knock-off, the second game against the Portland Pirates only increased the questions. The night started off with former Whaler and Ranger Nick Fotiu signing autographs and dropping the ceremonial puck before the game. The team also handed out singleers remembering the Whalers 1986-87 Adams Division winning team. Oncemore, during a timeout the jumbotron ran a commenrative piece on Whalers great Kevin Dineen, the coach of the Portland Pirates, the team the Whale were playing that night. The montage ended with Dineen being splashed on the video board and fans breaking out in applause for the opposing coach.
While the first two games raised questions of what the Whale hoped to do, the final two raised issues about how longtime Wolfpack fans felt about the new team. Fans who I can only assume are longtime season ticketholders labeled Baldwin an “idiot,” the green jerseys “monstrosities,” and chanted for the “Wolfwhale,” “Whalepack,” even the “Wolfpack.” It was pretty clear these fans held some resentment towards what they were seeing on the ice, and who can blame them? The Hartford Wolfpack had made the playoffs every year but one since joining the AHL and had one one Calder Cup. The team, while playing in a city that truly didn’t care about them, had built a legacy of its own. That legacy seemed to have been wiped away with the flick of a wrist, replaced instead with a team hoping to pull in fans based on nostalgia and unrealistic goals.
While there were some improvements, new blue/white jerseys are far better than the green ones, I still feel Baldwin is playing a dangerous game. While management is quick to herald the increased attendance numbers, I don’t know how much one can read into the numbers at this point. For one you traditionally draw more during this period, its winter and the kids are out on break. Furthermore it’s hard to figure out who the new fans are rooting for. They’re obviously not rooting for AHL hockey in Hartford, which even with a winning team was losing fans. It seems to me that most of the fans are rooting for the Whale to get the Whalers. In other words, support the Whale and show the NHL we can support hockey in Hartford. Yet since the rebranding the team has only managed to pull in 1500 more fans, undoubtedly mostly ex-Whaler fans, and still trails the Charlotte Checkers in total and average attendance (which I mention because Hartford now in essence competes with its former self). So what happens in five years when these fans realize the NHL is never coming back to Hartford? Do they continue supporting the Whale? Or do they return to not caring about hockey until the next person comes along promising a Whalers return? I fear Howard Baldwin isn’t re-creating a hockey culture in Hartford, rather he’s stringing along nostalgic fans with unattainable promises.