It’s been over 25 years since the Hartford Whalers played their final game at the Hartford Civic Center, but could they soon be about to resurface?
That’s the wild ambition of Hartford Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, who’s currently ‘working’ on trying to revive the organisation.
With the Coyotes’ future in question, Lamont sees an opportunity, but is it feasible to bring a team to the Northeast?
On the Radar
In a recent interview with ‘This Week in Connecticut’, Lamont spoke about a future Whalers return and his anticipation about speaking with the NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
He explained that given the uncertain future of the Arizona Coyotes, Connecticut was one of those possible locations to transfer them to.
‘Right now the Coyotes don’t have a place to play on a permanent basis, so they’re looking around trying to find options. Connecticut is definitely on the radar screen,’ he said.
While on supposedly on the radar, Connecticut would need to compete with the likes of Salt Lake City, Houston, Kansas City and Atlanta. These are locations which have already been rumoured for expansions in the past.
Could it actually happen?
There are a few key things that are needed for a successful bid and sustainable future for an Ice Hockey team in your city, whether it’s NHL, AHL, OHL or otherwise.
Those things are investment, infrastructure and audience.
Talking only of NHL teams there are numerous examples of failed NHL organisations which haemorrhaged money and had to bailed out, bought out and relocated.
At the same time, does Hartford have an audience and a draw for a ‘paying’ audience that could compare with the likes of other teams in the neighbouring cities?
New York, Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia all have teams (some more than one) that draw in a large audience.
The Hartford Whalers
The Hartford Whalers (1979 – 1997) of the NHL franchise were originally the New England Whalers (1972 – 1979) of the World Hockey Association (WHA).
The Whalers were originally based in Boston before relocating to Hartford Connecticut in 1974. They would also be one of the four teams in the NHL – WHA merger.
Whalers would play 18 seasons in the NHL between 1980 and 1997. As part of the WHA, they would make the Conference Championships twice, Divisional Championships three times and won the AVCO World Trophy.
Their success prior to dissolving in 1997 was far less impressive, making the Divisional Championships only once in the 1986/87 season.
Among their alumni include Ice Hockey Hall of Famers included Bobby Hull (1980) and Gordie Howe (1977 – 1980).
After 1997, the team would move to North Carolina where it would become the Carolina Hurricanes.
While the moniker of Whalers is no longer used, the logo and popularity of the team continue to this day.
A Hockey Centre
Lamont believes that with the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers next door, there’s plenty of interest in hockey to go round and enough to spare for a future team in the state.
‘It’s a hockey center here. We love hockey. We have the national champions here. And the fact that the Rangers and the Bruins are nearby a good thing, because it means we have a lot of hockey interest.
But, the other side of the coin is having the investment, a massive hurdle Lamont recognises.
‘We’re going to have to step up. We’re going to have to show that we can sell the luxury suites. We’re going to have to show that we’ve got a buyer group if they want to make a change.
‘We’ve got to show that we’re ready to upgrade the XL Center to make sure it’s NHL ready. I think we can do all of those things.’
Not for the faint of heart
Not to pour too much cold water on Lamont’s ambitions but former Whalers owner Richard Gordon offered some stern advice to the governor.
Again, the biggest issue is money and the recognition that he needs ‘real’ investors who are prepared to lose money per year. If they make any, that’s a bonus.
Reflecting on his own time owning the team, he recognised that it was possible before to lose a few million each year, now a future investor has be prepared for a possible loss of between $15 and 20M a year.
He advised Lamont to go after ‘real investors’, to seek out the ‘real audience’ of people who would be prepared to pay for season tickets and then determine how many they could sell.
At the same time, he expressed that bringing a team to the city can lead to more investment and opportunities for the city and that’s coupled with the fact that the team is still popular 25+ years after it dissolved.
But, it’s one thing to want the team and another for it to be feasible financially, he stressed.
Gordon also raised a key point about the XL Center arena. He explained that while the arena is currently around 15,000 seating capacity, it needs to be at least 18,000 along with at least 100 boxes.
And, to bring it back to the money element, the team would need at least 15,000 season ticket holders to sustain it.
It will also require the NHL Commissioner to determine if a future team in Hartford will be practical. ‘The question will be if Gary Bettman thinks that Hartford can support a hockey team?’
Bring back Whalers and the money will come
Lamont believes that if they can revive the Whalers, it’ll also go a long way to speeding up retrofitting the XL Center, formerly the Hartford Civic Center and home of the Whalers.
The arena has recently received around $80M in state investment to renovate the suites.
Some are certainly sceptical that that figure is even enough though.
Another former owner Howard Baldwin, argues that given how far on we are from when the building was constructed and the demands of modern NHL audience sizes, $80M is too little.
‘When I hear ‘we can upgrade the arena for $80 million,’ it’s not possible,’ he told CT Insider.
Who’s funding the return?
Lamont explains that there is an amalgamation of interested people and groups out there who could put the money together, many of whom see an opportunity for further development in the greater Hartford area too.
Lamont couldn’t name any interested parties but did confirm to Boston.com that they have the money to bring the Coyotes to Hartford. ‘That is correct,’ he said.
When could it happen?
For now, if they intention is to bring the Coyotes to Hartford, the investors, Lamont and anyone excited to see a Whalers return, will have to wait until after next season.
The Coyotes will still be based at the Mullett Arena but going into 2024/25, that’s up for debate.
While the journey towards a Whalers return is a long one, Lamont was positive it would happen some day and he’s determined.
‘I’m going to make this a priority. It’s a climb. We’ve got to keep climbing, but we’ve got a chance to get there,’ he said.