Pictures: Hartford Whalers
Make no mistake, the end game for Baldwin is to bring the NHL back to Hartford. The team would be called the Whalers.
"Absolutely right," Baldwin said. "That's everybody's dream. But the only way to make that dream a reality is to create a tremendous amount of excitement in the hockey we currently have at all levels."
Speaking publicly for the first time since word emerged last month that he had taken steps toward gaining management of Hartford's AHL team with an eye toward the NHL, Baldwin also confirmed his interest in building a state sports network and in other entertainment and merchandising plans.
On this day, however, he was much more interested in talking about the beginning game than the end game. The NHL isn't coming this year or next year or maybe even the year after that. And that's why Baldwin wanted to get out a simple message loud and clear:
"We're back. We're here to stay. And we're committed to bringing the Whalers name back to Connecticut."
It is a start. Assuming management of the Wolf Pack is a tricky path, one yet to be negotiated. It hasn't stopped Baldwin from starting work on other aspects of his larger plan.
"We'll start doing events, activating the Whaler alumni team," Baldwin said. "There will be major events summer and winter."
This summer, there will be a Fanfest. There will be a golf tournament and banquet. A great number of former Whalers will return to Hartford. Baldwin is still putting the finishing touches on the winter events. There also is merchandising of the Whalers brand.
"I'm going to do everything with the team that I did when I ran the team in the Seventies and Eighties, other than put a team on the ice," said Baldwin, who has started a Facebook page. "We're going to create an atmosphere as if the Whalers were here. It's Howard's fantasy team."
Baldwin is convinced the fantasy is based in reality. He is convinced attracting an NHL franchise starts with creating an awareness of the market. This isn't New York or L.A. The hockey fairy isn't going to drop the puck in Hartford's pillow one night. Quebec has started its campaign. Winnipeg has an AHL team and is pushing its NHL goal. Kansas City has been pushing for a while.
"I hope we get people excited about hockey," Baldwin said. "This is the only way you'll start a movement toward getting back to the NHL or [attracting larger crowds] for the AHL. Somebody's got to wave the flag for the city and for hockey."
Who gets to wave that banner, of course, is a tricky matter. While Baldwin's plans will re-establish him in the community, the fact is Larry Gottesdiener won control of the XL Center over Baldwin and Madison Square Garden in 2007.
Baldwin, 67, has been everywhere, seen everything, done it all. From the Whalers to the North Stars to the Penguins to producing movies like "Ray," he has been from Hartford to Hollywood and back. The Whalers were Baldwin's baby. He is the godfather of major league hockey in Hartford. Whalers II would be Baldwin's legacy. It is the great passion of the twilight of his career.
This has to bruise Gottesdiener's ego a little. Larry took some swings at quickly landing an NHL franchise. He found out how tough it was. He also got the XL Center in 2007 and the hard truth is, after talking plenty, he has disappeared the past few years. The Wolf Pack have struggled at the gate, struggled for public exposure. The Courant went looking for him Friday and he had no comment on Baldwin. Clearly, if he was eager to join forces — something he should have done all along — he would have done it already. Somebody has to convince him it's in everybody's interest to work with Baldwin. It's in Hartford's best interest.
"Hopefully we'll all find a way to work together," Baldwin said. "We'd love to get involved in the AHL here. Right now we're not involved."
The Rangers, meanwhile, have confirmed there were discussions with Baldwin. They seem amenable. Baldwin also had high praise for XL Center general manager Chuck Steedman. Yet there have been other scenarios emerging. One would have the Rangers taking their affiliation to Bridgeport in the future — not believed to be next year — and Hartford would get another affiliation. That could work under Baldwin's Whaler brand. But losing the Rangers, who have been a strong parent club, for no reason other than helping Bridgeport doesn't help Hartford.
In the meantime, Baldwin insists he can push on successfully without taking over the AHL affiliation.
"We'll get this market back on the map under the Whaler brand," Baldwin said. "I went to the Bruins game the other night. They honored the 1969-70 team. The amount of good feeling was overwhelming. I don't want to be melodramatic, but people still feel like that about the Whalers. It's something that should never die.
"It's going to take a lot of effort to get this done, but I believe in Hartford. We can do it. Look, three years ago, when the [Connecticut Development Authority] voted for the other group, I accepted it and went back to L.A. Well, this time I'm staying around."