WAIL FOR THE LOST WHALERS

During the period when future NHL expansion was rumored and then became a reality, many cities were expected to be active bidders to get a new NHL team (until the obscene $500 million entry fee and $10 million “consideration” fee were announced). Quebec, Las Vegas, Toronto, and Seattle were up front but there was speculation that cities like Houston, Hamilton, Milwaukee, and Portland might make bids. But one city was seldom mentioned, a city whom NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman specifically visited and invited to make a bid, ex-NHL member, Hartford, Connecticut.

In 2010, Bettman made a tour of the three cities which lost their franchises in the 1990s, Winnipeg, Quebec, and Hartford and stated the terms for readmission: adequate fan-base, good ownership, and a proper NHL arena. None of these terms were unreasonable. Each was a crucial factor that ensured long-term membership and stability.

So far Winnipeg has got its team back and Quebec which has built a new arena and has secured acceptable ownership can almost taste its returned Nordiques. But sadly, a returned Hartford Whalers is nowhere in sight.

It would not be so bad if Hartford did not bid for a team this time. The NHL’s excessive entry fee made even the most die-hard Nordiques and Vegas fan pause, wince and say, “wait until later”. But what is truly distressing about Hartford is that a returned Whalers is not even on the horizon.

Like Quebec and Winnipeg, there is no problem with an adequate fan-base, but a solution to the other two conditions, the two main reasons why Hartford lost the Whalers, a proper arena and good ownership, is a million miles away.

Quebec ought to have provided a blueprint for getting the Whalers back. The Nordiques fans were smart enough to turn the arena and franchise issues into political issues when 80,000 of them signed a petition urging the Nordiques to be returned in a proper NHL arena. This issue became a way to get votes at both the provincial and municipal levels of government and eventually Quebec’s new arena would be financed by provincial and municipal taxes. The petition also caught the attention of media giant Quebecor, which wanted to project a greater presence for itself in the province by buying and owning the NHL Montreal Canadiens. When that failed, Quebecor switched goals and announced it would pursue a returned Nordiques in a new arena instead. All the missing pieces for a returned Nordiques were now in place for Quebec.

When Bettman made his tour in 2010, his terms were received enthusiastically in all three cities. Hartford’s then mayor, like Quebec’s was in favor of using municipal money to finance a new arena as part of a downtown reclamation project. But whereas key activity was provoked in Quebec, nothing of substance has occurred in Hartford.

When NHL expansion began to catch fire last year, it was reported that Quebec, Seattle, Toronto, and Las Vegas were “done deals” for admission in 2017. There was no mention of Hartford, not a word about rich people seeking to bring back the Whalers and resolve the arena problem. All that exists are Internet stories about Whaler memories, fan reunions, and vows about not letting the Whaler legacy die. But nothing serious about a new arena and an owner.

Would a returned Whalers work? If a returned Nordiques with a proper arena and good ownership is a sure-fire winner in the Province of Quebec, then a returned Whalers with a larger market of half of New England including much of the city of Providence will be just as successful. Hartford/New England like Quebec was a mainstay of the old WHA and when the Whalers joined the NHL they carried on their rivalry with the Nordiques and established great new ones with Montreal, the New York area teams and especially with their arch New England rivals, the Boston Bruins. A revived Bruin-Whaler rivalry would be just as potent as the projected resurrection of Canadiens-Nordiques.

Hartford with a proper arena and good ownership is a no-brain choice for an expanded NHL. If Quebec and Winnipeg can get back into the NHL then so can Hartford. Gary Bettman and the NHL have left the door open. It is up to Whaler fans, Hartford and Connecticut politicians, and potential New England owners to make it happen.

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