The buzz this week in the hockey world has been all about Atlanta and Winnipeg, and at least some in Connecticut are listening. Sometime over the next few weeks, if things stay on track, the Atlanta Thrashers will likely pull up stakes and move to Winnipeg, Manitoba.
The move, when and if it happens, is something that will make those NHL fans left in Greater Hartford sit up and take notice for a couple of reasons. First, the move would reverse a decades-long trend of northern teams moving south to cities that rarely ever see ice. Minnesota, Hartford and Winnipeg lost teams to Dallas, Raleigh and Phoenix (Quebec City’s team moved to Denver, which is at least in the mountains). Second, Winnipeg has fewer people in its metropolitan area than Hartford does, and would be a smaller TV market. Third, Winnipeg’s arena actually has a smaller capacity for hockey than the XL Center, and would be by far the smallest arena in the NHL.
So if Winnipeg can do it, the thought process runs, why can’t Hartford? After all, there’s another struggling NHL franchise down in Phoenix, might not the Coyotes turn north should they not be able to find a long-term solution in the desert? Sadly, Hartford fans shouldn’t expect to see the Whalers back any time soon. There are factors that exist in Manitoba right now that simply don’t exist here. However, Winnipeg’s experience, and the differences between the two cities, may provide a blueprint for Hartford.
Perhaps the most significant difference between the two cities is that Winnipeg has a new arena. The XL center is nearing forty years old, and it shows its age. Winnipeg’s MTS Centre, by contrast, opened in 2004 and is a far more modern, up-to-date facility. The MTS Centre was built not just as a lure for an NHL team, but as a concert and entertainment venue, and as a home for the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. In fact, fans criticized the relatively small hockey capacity of the MTS Centre (15,015) as a barrier to Winnipeg ever getting an NHL team back—most new NHL arenas have capacities of over 17,000. And yet, strong AHL attendance and Winnipeg’s passion for hockey suggests that they won’t have trouble putting people in the stands, and it’s worth pointing out that eight current NHL teams have an average attendance under the MTS Centre’s capacity. The XL Center, by comparison, seats 15,635 for hockey, though you’d never know it by the dismal attendance at Whale games. The MTS Centre draws plenty of non-hockey business, too; it ranked in 2008 as the 3rd-busiest arena in Canada, and the 19th-busiest in the world in terms of ticket sales, according to the concert industry trade publication Pollstar.com.
Winnipeg also has a much stronger economy than Hartford, at least for now. Winnipeg was rated as one of the cheapest places to do business in Canada, and its economy is growing rapidly. Hockey teams can’t exist without corporate support, and Winnipeg is home to a wide range of diverse corporations.
The last thing Winnipeg has that Hartford lacks is a committed ownership group which has control over pretty much all aspects of hockey in the city. True North Sports and Entertainment owns the MTS Centre and the Manitoba Moose, and is the group trying to purchase the Thrashers. They’ve been in existence for a decade, and have worked tirelessly to make their building and AHL team second-to-none. Hartford’s situation is a lot more muddy; Howard Baldwin’s Whalers Sports and Entertainment runs hockey operations for the AHL Connecticut Whale (formerly the Hartford Wolf Pack) but the team is still owned by Madison Square Garden, which also owns the New York Rangers. The XL Center is owned by the city, and is operated by Anschutz Entertainment Group as part of a deal with the Connecticut Development Authority. It’s a mess.
There are other problems. Sports and entertainment dollars are spread much more thinly here. Fans go to New York or Boston, or down to Uncasville (note which venue was rated by Pollstar.com just ahead of the MTS Centre—Mohegan Sun Arena). Parking in downtown Hartford is still terrible and expensive, and has never even come close to being fixed. Mass transit options are still not great, though hopefully commuter rail and the busway will help with that. Politicians are wary of embracing sports-related ventures ever since the Patriots debacle during the Rowland years, and there seems to be little interest in a new Hartford arena in the state capitol. Lastly, Baldwin’s group has done great work over the past year to try and rejuvenate hockey interest in Hartford, but there’s still a pervasive attitude that sports and entertainment in Hartford is by nature second-class. Where we are right now is about a decade behind where Winnipeg is in terms of creating an atmosphere major league teams might find attractive, in terms of addressing the problems the city faces.
It’s tempting to give up. Things that work for other cities never seem to work here. But maybe the best lesson of all from this situation is that Winnipeg didn’t build up its infrastructure and finance a new arena with the return of the NHL as the only goal. With provincial support, they built an arena that was the right size for their city, and it’s been a fantastic success.
The question shouldn’t be how can Hartford get an NHL team back, but what is the best course of action for Hartford and the region? Does it make sense to build an arena to replace the aging XL Center? Will that help draw entertainment dollars back up to Hartford from Mohegan Sun? Is that even something state and city leaders want to do? Is an arena an essential component of a vibrant downtown, or should Hartford follow New Haven’s lead and tear the place down, replacing it with nothing?
There’s a saying in hockey: “Throw the puck in front of the net, and good things happen.” It’s true. Winnipeg could have kept the ancient Winnipeg Arena and called it good enough, but city, provincial and business leaders found the will to take a shot at something better, and may be about to score a huge goal. That political will doesn’t seem to exist in Connecticut right now. However, Hartford’s future and the future of the region and the state as a whole are inextricably bound together. City, state and business leaders need to come together and work out a comprehensive, forward-looking plan for the future of sports and entertainment in downtown Hartford, and do what’s right for the city. If we can do that, and help draw people back into the city, then who knows what may happen a decade or two down the road?
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of Connecticut Local Politics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.