Hockey fans in greater Hartford have always been a bit sensitive since the Whalers and the National Hockey League left town in 1997 for North Carolina. The pain is never too far from the surface. On Wednesday, the New York Rangers ripped open an old wound.
But now, the Rangers want to change the name back to Wolfpack and the red, white and blue colors that are part of the Rangers organization. Ouch! It’s a poor decision.
Let’s be honest. The NHL isn’t coming back to Hartford, especially with a dated Civic Center with its narrow concourse and lack of luxury seating to generate revenue. With the Whale in green, white and blue, it was as close as we’re going to get to the Whalers playing in Hartford and what was the harm?
Awash in Whaler nostalgia, the team’s attendance rose significantly in the first year that the team was run by former Whaler owner Howard Baldwin from an average of 4,188 fans a game in 2009-10 to 5,695 fans a game in 2010-11.
And even when Baldwin ran out of money and couldn’t market the team, the average attendance in 2011-12 was still 4,573 fans a game. This season, the Whale averaged 4,540 fans and there wasn’t exactly a media blitz in town promoting the team.
Minor league sports better be entertaining and affordable. Just check out the New Britain Rock Cats of the Eastern League. Half of the crowd probably doesn’t even know the score. They’re there for fun, the atmosphere and their kids.
And that’s OK. The Civic Center is old with small corridors. It’s a challenge to get people to the game. The Whale and the green, white and blue uniforms made it more fun to attend the game — to hear the Brass Bonanza. It’s not the NHL and it’s not supposed to be. Marketing as the Wolfpack will just make the team’s job harder.
In the minor leagues, people root for the sweater. Most players aren’t here long enough to form attachments. Latching onto the Whaler legacy and helped put folks in the seats. And isn’t that the bottom line? People in the seats, eating hot dogs, drinking beer and buying t-shirts?
The team can do two things. Leave the team as the Connecticut Whale, appeal to the nostalgia and try to make the game an event for people of all ages.
Or if they have to change the name, change it to Rangers. If you want to dress the team in your colors, fine. Call them the Rangers. Many folks think that Wolfpack is a veiled reference to the North Carolina State, who share their facility with the former Whalers team to this day. It’s a subtle dig at Whalers fans.
What is driving this change? Can the team make more money playing under the Wolfpack name? Hard to say, attendance had dropped for five straight years before Baldwin took over in the fall of 2010 and changed the name of the team.
Is it egos? Why does Ranger management have to tear down, erase or minimize the Whaler legacy? They have their NHL team. Hartford doesn’t.
And that is OK. It’s reality. The Rangers have supplied Hartford with talented players who have earned playoff berths in 14 of 16 seasons. They won a Calder Cup here in 2000.
So, I propose this to the Ranger organization:
Dress your minor league players here in green, blue and white. Develop them and continue making them into NHL-caliber players that will help New York win a Stanley Cup. They’ll be our players for a year or two and they’ll be off to the bright lights of Broadway.
Play the Brass Bonanza. Embrace the Whaler legacy. It’s a established brand. The fans will come, have a good time, buy some overpriced souvenirs and hand over their hard-earned money to you. What does it matter to you what color jerseys they play in as long as they get better and you earn some additional cash to improve your organization.
Everyone can win here. Bleed green.
Gerry deSimas, Jr., is the editor and founder of the Collinsville Press.com