The Whalers need to return to Hartford.
Here's looking at you, National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman.
The Whalers belong in Connecticut. We still have a strong fan base, and indeed, low ticket sales can't be blamed as the reason the Whalers were taken from us in the first place. It's been 17 years (as of last Sunday) since they left and nary a game of the minor American Hockey League's Hartford Wolf Pack passes where many fans don't wear Whalers gear.
We don't just miss the Whalers for the sake of nostalgia; we miss them because they were — no, are — part of our identity as a state.
When the Wolf Pack changed its name to the Connecticut Whale in 2010, ticket sales increased by more than a third in the first year. Every sporting shop carries jerseys or hats in Whalers colors and every Nutmegger knows the whale tale, whether they attended a game or not.
Although Bettman can claim that current levels of ticket sales don't warrant an NHL team in a state as small as Connecticut, the success of an AHL team has no correlation with the amount of tickets bought for an NHL team.
New England's passion for hockey is strong; multitudes of hockey players and fans are hungry for good hockey. The hockey fever over the match-ups between Yale and Quinnipiac universities in the last two years has proved that interest, not to mention the Whalers Fest at Rentschler Field that attracted thousands of fans on one of the coldest days of the year.
The Whalers (the current Carolina Hurricanes) have had dubious success in North Carolina. Many of the southern franchise teams struggle to fill seats, and the Hurricanes' attendance is in the bottom quarter of the league. Individual ticket prices, adjusted for inflation, are very nearly the same range as in 1994, when they were the Hartford Whalers. These tickets were some of the lowest-priced in the NHL then, and now.
If Connecticut would be good for the NHL, the reverse is true as well. Tourism dollars would bring more business to the establishments around the Hartford's XL Center, and in turn would create more small, locally owned businesses in the form of shuttle services and other modes of transportation, restaurants, bars and even hotels.
The University of Connecticut's move to Hockey East will also draw significant numbers to Hartford as they plan to play their conference home games at the XL Center. In a press release for Hockey East, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said, "I have been a longtime fan of college hockey and believe that this is an incredible opportunity for the university. It is also a great opportunity to bring more top-flight events to the XL Center and further enhance the quality of life in downtown Hartford."
Bringing the Whalers back to Hartford will have a similar positive economic effect.
First, we must remodel or rebuild the XL Center, which is in need of massive renovations just to continue operating as is. Problems with the air conditioning system, lack of seating and oddly configured box seats are problematic by NHL standards. Hartford needs a state-of-the-art facility and the current iteration of the XL Center will not appeal to the NHL.
After building a new XL Center, we need to court the NHL, both on a local level and a state level. Creating ties to local businesses, hosting hockey tournaments and supporting local hockey are all ways the denizens of Connecticut can prove to the NHL that Hartford is a viable market.
Isn't it time we brought the Hartford Whalers home?
Kaitlin S. Cimini, 26, lives in West Hartford.
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