When the Arizona Coyotes’ arena referendum put the NHL team’s future in peril, many municipalities stepped up and expressed interest in bringing the team to their city.
One of the most surprising cities to shoot its proverbial shot was Hartford, Connecticut. Yet, it makes one of the most intriguing options for either the relocated Coyotes or an NHL expansion team down the road, due to governor Ned Lamont’s highly publicized recruitment of the Coyotes.
Those of a certain age remember the NHL’s Hartford Whalers, who existed in the Connecticut capital for 18 seasons. Many more broadly will remember the team playing adjacent to a shopping mall, at the Hartford Civic Center, and its unique logo and color scheme, and kitschy theme song “Brass Bonanza.”
“This is a city and a state with a great hockey tradition, and I think an NHL team would thrive in Hartford,” Hartford mayor Luke Bronin told The Game Day Hockey. “I reached out to the governor immediately after I saw the news of the referendum down in Arizona. The governor has taken this opportunity very seriously.”
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The Whalers left Hartford and rebranded as the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997. Despite the fact they haven’t existed in more than 25 years, the Whalers brand is among the best-selling in the NHL, and Carolina has sought to capitalize on that by donning the old-school uniforms on the ice once per year.
The Whalers give nostalgic fans a return to simpler times, but Hartford has largely been an afterthought as a pro sports market since the team left. Connecticut governor Ned Lamont is working hard to change that perception.
Springing to Action
The Whalers’ departure left a hole in the city. Howard Baldwin, who helped found the team then served as managing general partner until 1988, said Hartford “lost its self-esteem” when it lost the Whalers.
“The loss of the Whalers is still a deep wound,” Bronin said.
So when the Coyotes’ potential arena bid in Tempe failed in May, Bronin and Lamont sprang to action. The first-term governor secured a meeting with the NHL in May and reportedly has a group interested in purchasing the Coyotes and relocating them to Hartford after the 2023-24 season.
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“This is a great hockey state and a great hockey town. It’s evidenced by the passion we have for the Whalers going back years,” Lamont told CT Insider in May. “I think we can guarantee [the NHL] a very strong market right here and a government that’s ready to come and be their partner.”
Despite Lamont’s heavy lift, there are significant obstacles in place of the NHL returning to Hartford, mainly the city’s nearly 50-year-old arena. The XL Center, the same structure that hosted the Whalers from 1975-97 and was outdated when they left more than 25 years ago, still needs significant upgrades to attract a major league team.
“The XL Center is an older facility that needs upgrades and modernization,” Bronin said. “It’s going to get some significant upgrades in the near future, regardless of what happens with the Coyotes or some other NHL team.”
Both state and local officials prefer renovating the existing arena rather than considering a new building, which would likely cost about $1 billion. Lamont’s budget promises $100 million in public funds to upgrade the arena, which some estimates indicate needs $300 million to become on par with other venues league-wide.
“That building is not unusable,” Connecticut speaker of the house Matt Ritter told The Game Day Hockey. “It’s not impossible to rehabilitate that arena to where you want to go… It’d be expensive, but it’s not out of the possibility.”
Aside from the arena, the NHL likely will need assurances the region is ready to support a team. It forced Las Vegas and Seattle to each hold season-ticket drives, where prospective fans would place refundable deposits for season tickets, before each was awarded an expansion team.
This would be especially important in Hartford since fan apathy was a significant factor in the Whalers leaving. The region has not put its best foot forward to support the American Hockey League’s Wolfpack, whose average attendance has not surpassed 5,000 since 2010-11.
“If the people are serious about it, it’s going to require both a huge governmental investment and then probably some booster club going around and convincing people to buy tickets for 10 years,” Ritter said. “You need the NHL to show interest. You need someone to show interest in buying the team, and you need corporate Connecticut to buy tickets and to buy suites.”
“If you’re the NHL, and you see that commitment, it goes a long way.”
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Connecticut may be one of the wealthiest states in the U.S., but it also has a surplus of major pro teams to support already. Hartford sits 115 miles northeast of New York and 100 miles southwest of Boston, and each city hosts an Original Six club.
Plus, the NHL already has 32 teams, including 16 Eastern Conference teams in the Eastern time zone. Subtracting Arizona, which plays almost the entire NHL season in Mountain Standard Time, to add Hartford as the 17th East team would throw off the balance, at least temporarily.
“The Coyotes are a problem because they throw off the balance between East and West,” Ritter said. “That’s not gonna probably happen.”
Cause for Optimism
Hartford-New Haven is the No. 34 television market in the United States, larger than Cincinnati (36), Milwaukee (38), Las Vegas (40), Jacksonville (41), and Oklahoma City (46).
If you include Springfield, Massachusetts, which shares an airport with Hartford and sits just 24 miles north, the market balloons to roughly 1.6 million people. Hartford-New Haven-Springfield is a top-20 U.S. TV market, on par with Miami-Fort Lauderdale and Denver, with substantially more disposable income.
“The Hartford-New Haven media market is the largest market in the country without a pro team,” Bronin said.
The state has proven it can rally around teams in Hartford, mainly UConn men’s and women’s basketball, but also the Double-A Yard Goats. Fans fill the XL Center when it hosts its 15-or-so men’s and women’s games each year, and the Yard Goats, an affiliate of the Colorado Rockies who play downtown at Dunkin’ Park, have led the Eastern League in attendance three times.
The city is undergoing a renaissance as young adults move there as part of urban revitalization. There is a commuter train line that connects Springfield and New Haven, and fans can be in Hartford from either city in less than an hour.
“There’s been a palpable momentum and energy in Hartford that we’ve worked hard to cultivate and grow,” Bronin said. “Whether that’s the thousands of residential units that are filling up as fast as we can build them or the train line and new transit options, or the tremendously successful minor-league teams that have brought people in in huge numbers.”
“The Hartford Yard Goats have some of the best attendance [numbers] in the league and on more than a few occasions outdraw MLB teams.”
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Perhaps the most exciting development for Hartford is that its dream for major league sports may not be dead even if the Coyotes stay in Arizona, or relocate somewhere else.
Despite the fact it has 32 teams, the NHL has reportedly been floating multiple U.S. markets for expansion, including Salt Lake City, Houston, and Atlanta. If the NHL chooses to expand again, Hartford could be poised for consideration if it has a major league arena and a rabid fan base.
And if all that lined up, Ritter, whose father Tom was the Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives when the Whalers left, says the state would show up in droves to support the new team.
“I think in the 90s, Hartford was a much more different city than it is today,” Ritter said. “I think people look back and say ‘I really miss [the Whalers].’ Sometimes you have to have something leave to realize how valuable they were.”