This weekend, in the middle of their thirteenth season in Hartford, our minor-league hockey franchise is getting a name change. The Hartford Wolf Pack is becoming the Connecticut Whale, summoning the restless ghosts of Greater Hartford’s hockey past. It seems like a small thing, in so many ways. After all, a new name, new uniforms reminiscent of the green, blue and white Whalers togs and new marketing strategy for a team that’s been struggling at the gate won’t fix a lot of the problems that keep hockey fans from going to see games downtown. It’s tempting to dismiss this as yet another quixotic attempt to get an NHL team, when in reality we’re not big enough, not rich enough, and not far enough from the big cities of Boston and New York for the NHL to ever consider coming back. Hartford is not major league.
Or so we believe.
I’ve always found it remarkable how professional sports, politics, economics, culture and regional identity all start to blend together after a while. Gov. Jodi Rell, whose predecessor and running mate took a lot of the blame for letting the NHL leave town in 1997, declared it “Connecticut Whale Week” and posed for pictures with new Whale CEO (and former Whalers owner) Howard Baldwin showcasing the team’s revamped jerseys. The new Whale, just like so much in politics, play on dubious nostalgia and potential at the same time: this is what we were, this is what we could be again.
That sounds familiar to anyone who has ever taken a passing glance at Connecticut’s history. Yes, Hartford was once one of the richest and most beautiful cities in the country long ago, and yes, during the heyday of the Whalers in the 1980s the city and region enjoyed a brief, surprising renaissance. But the Whalers, when they were actually here, found themselves the object of scorn, ridicule and indifference. This is good, old-fashioned Connecticut pride: if it’s here, it must be second-rate. The Hartford Failures, everyone, the NHL team that played in a shopping mall in front of tiny crowds and never, ever won. But once they left, we found we missed them. They were something that was ours, and ours alone. As usual, most people around here never realized how good we had it until after it was far, far too late.
This is what we were, but who are we now? Our economy started heading downhill in the late 1980s, and despite a few upticks here and there we’ve never really recovered. Our political leaders either disappoint or outright betray us, our infrastructure is old and creaky, and our people are divided by race and class. Prisons bulge, our population ages or flees, our taxes are high, our weather is terrible, and our only major league sports team took off for North Carolina thirteen years ago. It’s not surprising that we’re mired in doubt and pessimism. What is there to be proud of?
In the face of all this, a name change for their minor-league replacement seems sort of pointless. It isn’t, though, not entirely. Maybe something useful besides paying too much money to park in downtown Hartford to cheer for a team that’s a little more like the one my father and I went to see when I was a teenager can be accomplished. Sometimes it’s the smallest things that can start to make a bigger difference. When we build a conscious, visible and positive link to the past like this, we affirm a little piece of our identity.
So, a team gets a new name in an effort to save itself from stagnation, and we dimly recall that we in Connecticut have an identity that isn’t entirely negative. What next? What could we become? The immediate hope is that this move generates interest in minor league hockey. It may even work, since it’s not like minor league sports aren’t viable here. Ask the New Britain Rock Cats, who used to draw only flies to games but now pack New Britain Stadium all the time. We can do it.
The NHL dream may be out of reach, sadly, at least for now. The NHL has lost its appetite for relocating franchises, and smaller, colder cities like Hartford don’t seem to be part of their plans at this time. We should still consider renovating or replacing the aging XL Center, because the benefits go beyond hockey. We should make it easier and cheaper to park downtown, not just for hockey fans, but for fans of all the arts and entertainment venues in the city. We should continue to invest in fast, safe and visible public transit, not just to get people to hockey games, but to make it easier for everyone to move between the city and the suburbs. I could go on, but the point is this: if we can shake off our pessimism and start believing in Greater Hartford’s potential again, if we can believe that we are special and unique, and that the effort to make this place better is well worth it, then we really will be major league. We won’t need the NHL to tell us so, either—though it would be nice. Here’s hoping the Whale is a runaway success.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner/author of CTLocalPolitics.com. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.