As reported in January, Hartford is taking the first tangible steps to make a returned Whalers move from nostalgia and dreams back to having an NHL franchise again by proposing to upgrade the 41 year old XL Center by a $250 million renovation with seating increased to a more than adequate 19,000. When I heard about it, I wondered if it would not be better to build a brand new modern arena, provided the cost could kept at the Quebec Videotron level, of under $400 million. Costs for a new arena have been set as high as over $500 million but if Quebec can build a cheaper arena, why can’t Hartford?
Whatever, whether it is a new arena or a renovated old one, what is important is that a returned Hartford Whalers is no longer dormant but has the possibility of reality. In 2010, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three NHL cities that lost their teams in the 1990s, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford, and outlined three reasonable conditions for returning to the league: Great fan-base (which all three cities have), a proper NHL-size arena, and acceptable ownership (no mention of a $500 million entry fee). The tour produced immediate results in Winnipeg and Quebec. Winnipeg is already back in the NHL and Quebec built the Videotron arena, but is stuck at the ownership factor.
But no response came from Hartford. The then mayor declared his support for a new arena and a returned Whalers as part of a large downtown reclamation project but no action occurred until last year’s proposal for a renovated XL Center.
Now Hartford has taken another tangible step to try and get back into the NHL, but not by expansion but relocation. The target is their closest neighbor, the New York Islanders, a franchise with known arena problems.
Currently the Islanders play in probably the worst arena in the NHL, the Barclay’s Center which has poor ice, the second smallest seating capacity in the NHL, and is the only NHL arena with obstructed seats for hockey. Their fans have shown how much they like the arena by giving the team the second worst attendance in the current season. The Islanders are under contract to play there for two more years but already there is talk of either moving back to their old, newly renovated home on Long Island or building a brand new, larger, modern arena in Queens.
Recently, the Governor of Connecticut and the Hartford mayor signed a letter addressed to the Islanders ownership and management proposing that the team be moved to Hartford when either renovations are completed or a new arena built. They point out that 3.1 million potential fans live within an hour’s drive of the arena and that the team would now be located much closer to its farm team in Bridgeport. And they project that a renovated arena would turn a $2.1 million annual profit.
There has been no response to the letter by the Islanders. The only talk is about being committed to the Barclay’s Center for the immediate future, and the possibility of the Queens arena being built.
From the NHL’s viewpoint, there are three advantages to shifting the Islanders to Hartford. First it honors Bettman’s 2010 promise of bringing back the three lost franchises if they meet his conditions. The second is that the Islanders move out of a bad arena into a better one. The third is that by relocating instead of expanding, the NHL would only have to add one more western expansion team to balance up the conferences and realign into an NFL type structure. And a returned Hartford would be able to renew its rivalries with the New York area teams, the Rangers and Devils, any Quebec based teams, plus possibly Buffalo, Ottawa, and Toronto and above all the Boston Bruins.
The difficulty with shifting the Islanders to Hartford is their heritage and history. Does the NHL want the only American NHL franchise to win four consecutive Stanley Cups, a feat only accomplished twice before by Montreal, and the American expansion franchise currently tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins for most Stanley Cup victories by an expansion team since 1967 to disappear? Losing a 45 year old franchise with such a glorious history like the Islanders would be damaging to the league’s image and prestige. It was one thing to shift inglorious, unwanted, Atlanta to Winnipeg. It would be much tougher for the Islanders to leave.
Probably the NHL secretly would prefer the Queens arena proposal and hope everything works out. It is doubtful that the Islanders will remain in the Barclay’s Center when their contract expires. But perhaps the governor and mayor have targeted the wrong Eastern Conference franchise. It would be much easier shifting inglorious Florida or Columbus, two other teams with serious attendance problems.
Also with Bettman making proposals to bring back the three lost franchises plus expanding to Las Vegas, it shows that the NHL is willing to expand past the symmetrical 32 team barrier to the next symmetrical number of 40 (2 conferences with 4 divisions each, with 5 teams to a division). And offering Hartford an expansion team instead allows the league to collect another $500 million expansion fee.
But whether if by arena renovation, or new construction, expansion or relocation, the important thing is that the Hartford Whalers are now being talked about as becoming a reality again, instead of memories and nostalgia. The important thing is that significant public officials as well as their old fans want the Whalers back. Perhaps the next tangible step will be when a suitable rich investor who believes in a returned Hartford Whalers steps forward to make that dream come true.