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Embracing the Whaler legacy can make Rangers more green in Hartford

Connecticut's Jesper Fast is thrilled after scoring his first AHL goal in Friday night's win over Springfield. (Photo courtesy Connecticut Whale)

Connecticut’s Jesper Fast. (Photo courtesy Connecticut Whale)

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.

Gerry headshot casual


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

Gerry deSimas, Jr., is the editor and founder of The Collinsville Press. He is an award-winning writer and has been covering sports in Connecticut and New England for more than 40 years. He was inducted into the New England High School Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2018.

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  1. Steve

    April 23, 2013 at 11:25 pm

    Perfectly stated. I can’t understand why this isn’t obvious to all parties involved.

  2. Mark Lopa

    April 23, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    Please send your article to the Rangers!

  3. Youresostupid

    April 24, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    You probably shouldn’t talk about Hartford wolfpack hockey since you clearly know nothing about it.

    But that’s why you write for a small town newspaper.

  4. Mr. Obvious

    April 24, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    The Rangers are a terrible organization.

  5. Peter HIndle

    April 24, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    Great to read someone who gets the injustice that is going on. I’ve never seen a Major League team go to lengths to dissappoint their fan support as much as the Rangers do. Most Whaler fans believe its personal because there isn’t any reason given and they don’t respond to any feedback.

  6. Joshua Warnock

    April 24, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    The title of this article is “Embracing the Whaler legacy can make Rangers more green in Hartford”, but then you write “And even when Baldwin ran out of money and couldn’t market the team.” So, Baldwin ran out of money “Embracing the Whaler legacy”. Doesn’t that just refute your whole article?

  7. Gerry deSimas Jr., Collinsville Press

    April 24, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    Unfortunately, Baldwin ran out of cash and couldn’t market the team well. Still, the attendance was higher than it was the final three years before he got here. Let’s be honest. Selling minor league sports is a tough job no matter what the name of the team is. The Whaler brand is established in this market. And yes, so is the Wolf Pack brand. But I believe the Whaler brand has a better potential for bringing in more fans and eventually enabling the Rangers to make more money.

  8. Runtime Al

    April 24, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    Of course you’re right. I don’t know what management thinks they’re going to accomplish by going back to the Wolfpack. Nobody has explained how this is going to be better. The decision was arbitrary and capricious.

  9. Keith

    April 24, 2013 at 10:44 pm

    Nice article Gerry! Well said. Bravo!

  10. BiggieDoughBoy

    April 25, 2013 at 9:38 am

    Now the i….s can have section 109 all to themselves.

  11. Bringbackthenhl

    April 25, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    Well stated. And who knows, if we can ever elect officials who can believe in our potential, grow the area and state rather than drive people and business’ away, we may see the NHL and Whalers return someday.
    Hopefully this can happen in my lifetime, because if things don’t change in this state my family an I arei outta here after my kids graduate.

  12. Time To Move On

    April 25, 2013 at 11:22 pm

    Mr. deSimas, you needn’t have said anything more than, “The NHL isn’t coming back to Hartford”. The fact that so many people engage in a wailing and gnashing of teeth while arguing otherwise simply speaks to the delusional nature of so many Hartford area hockey fans.

    We got lucky in Hartford. It was lucky for Hartford that Boston Garden was overbooked with the NHL Bruins, NBA Celtics, AHL Braves, and all manner of circuses, concerts, and other events. Lucky for Hartford that the Whalers owners were guys with business ties to Boston who didn’t want to be absentee owners in another region of the country. Lucky for Hartford that the city had a new arena opening. Lucky for Hartford that the WHA was a fly-by-the-seat-of-its-pants league that was willing to even entertain the idea of the city being capable of hosting a team in a “major” league. We got L-U-C-K-Y.

    Times change and so do the circumstances surrounding them. Yes, Howard Baldwin was lucky enough to be able to talk the Whalers’ way into the true major leagues as part of the NHL-WHA merger, but the clock was counting down on the team’s stay in the big leagues from the moment the vote was taken. Hartford simply wasn’t – and still isn’t – a large enough city to successfully play host to a modern major league team. The major league sports loyalties of Connecticut residents were – and still are – divided between teams that call Boston and New York home. Worst of all, the aforementioned Mr. Baldwin didn’t – and still doesn’t – possess the sort of financial wherewithal necessary to own and operate a successful major league sports franchise. As a result, the Hartford Whalers were the very definition of a small market franchise swimming against the tide from the very start of their true major league existence.

    Today, Hartford’s story is that of a minor league market where the fans have major league pretensions. The problem is that Hartford never should have been a major league market to begin with and isn’t going to be a major league market again. So, a city that could – in fact, should – be amongst the very best minor league markets in the country, wallows in mediocrity because of the delusions of a certain percentage of its fan base.

    We should support the minor league teams that want to set-up shop in the Hartford area while we have them. Because some day, they may well be gone… with nothing to replace them.

  13. Hartford is a pro HOCKEY market

    April 26, 2013 at 2:23 am

    The Hartford metro area is the largest without a major 4 pro sport team, and your logic is correct in 3 of those major sports but not hockey. Baseball has the Sox/Yanks football has the Pats/Giants/Jets and bball has The Celtics and Knicks but hockey is a much more regional sport especially since a team already existed here. The Whaler brand is strong enough and popular enough amongst the younger generation that if a team were to come here they would be all over it. The older generation many of whom still cant stand the Rangers or Bruins have never changed their alliance towards the Whale. Yes Hartford did get lucky in the first place but to say that CT cannot support an NHL team is absured.

  14. Joshua Warnock

    April 26, 2013 at 8:50 pm

    Hey, at least I used my actual name, and didn’t attack people behind a fake name. Grow up. Also, I hardly even sit in 109.

  15. Time To Move On

    April 27, 2013 at 12:29 am

    The “younger generation” in Connecticut knows next to nothing about the history of the New England/Hartford Whalers. What the “younger generation” is “all over” when it comes to the Whalers is a logo they believe is cool. Sorry, but simply because members of said “younger generation” are willing to spend $25.00 on a cap, $35.00 on a t-shirt, $60.00 on a sweatshirt, or even $150.00 on a throwback jersey bearing the Whalers logo, doesn’t mean that they’re going to be willing – or, more importantly, capable – of forking over $61.00 for a ticket 40 times a season, year in and year out.

    Even as the largest metro area without a “Big Four” pro sports team, Hartford would still be in the bottom tier of markets in terms of population, TV market size, and a host of other criteria. As such, Hartford would be a typical small market team: constantly struggling to make a go of it financially, thus negatively impacting the quality of the product on the ice, which would make drawing fans consistently a touch-and-go proposition. Just like the first go-around in Hartford, there would be no room for error in operating a major pro sports team in the market. None.

    In order to have even a remote chance of surviving long term, a major pro team in Hartford would have to be successfully marketed to the entire State of Connecticut, which isn’t going to happen given the stranglehold that New York sports teams have over the hearts, minds, and wallets of Fairfield County residents. The NHL’s Rangers own the majority of Fairfield County fans lock, stock, and barrel. And Fairfield County just happens to be the core of Connecticut’s wealth.

    The State of Connecticut can’t support an NHL franchise, because the State of Connecticut isn’t home to a single fan-base large enough to support such a team. The state’s sports loyalties – major league hockey most definitely included – are too divided.

    If Hartford and the State of Connecticut are such sure-fire, can’t-miss markets to play host to a major league sports team, where are all of the successful businessmen fighting to run a major league franchise here? They’re non-existent. Nothing but rumors and figments of the imaginations of a few delusional fans. The only two “concrete” efforts – and that’s putting it generously – came courtesy of Larry Gottesdiener and Howard Baldwin. How did those turn out?

    Hartford had its shot at the major leagues and couldn’t play with the big boys once pro sports became a bottom-line driven industry. There’s no shame in that.

  16. Dan

    April 30, 2013 at 4:47 am

    Tihe biggest news in CT hockey and not a mention here? Both Finalists in the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Hockey were from CT, and in 2014-2015 UConn moves to Hockey East. This is huge, and the support will dwarf AHL or Whaler efforts in my estimation. The Whalers didn’t make it in a very good economy with corporations buying blocks of tickets they could not give away. I had seasons tickets for several years to the Whalers, and every game night I was swamped by scalpers on the steps of the Civic Center offering better seats than mine at less money.

    Best effort for NHL hockey here would be a few pre season games between Bruins and Rangers. Maybe it would grow into a couple of regular games.

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