Call it what you will — “Chronic Whaleritis” comes to mind — but it’s happened again. The state of Connecticut, as Charlie Brown, is being seduced by Lucy into trying yet another field goal, only to have the ball pulled away before the kick.
The latest episode of false hope occurred a few days before Christmas as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told reporters he’s had conversations with “at least two groups” about the possibility of bringing a National Hockey League franchise back to Hartford.
You might recall the governor said largely the same thing a year ago when he revealed that he’d recently spoken with “individuals” who want to bring major league hockey back to the Nutmeg State.
Poor Connecticut. Situated as we are between the Goliaths of Boston and New York, we’ve always had both an inferiority complex and an identity crisis. Our capital city, home to more insurance workers than hockey fans, was famously branded “America’s File Cabinet” by Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy.
Consequently, it’s always been difficult in Connecticut to develop fan loyalties among devotees of major-league professional sports. Our college fans root for our great home teams, but the vast majority of professional sports fans in the state live in the suburbs and have always rooted for either Boston or New York teams. During the Whalers era, those who remain had to be coaxed away from their television sets to travel downtown and pay good money to watch an NHL game at what was then the Hartford Civic Center.
It was always a tough sell. So in 1997, new Whalers owner Peter Karmanos was faced with declining attendance and a fan base of only a few thousand season-ticket holders. So he moved the team to Raleigh, N.C., where the natives didn’t know icing from forechecking, but ex-patriot northerners had flocked to work several years earlier in the burgeoning hi-tech industry.
After losing the Whalers on his watch, then-Gov. John Rowland was determined to put Connecticut back on the major-league map and stick a thumb in the eye of Karmanos. In the late 1990s, he got the General Assembly to dangle financing for a new stadium in Hartford before New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who in turn used it as leverage to shame the Massachusetts legislature into giving him site improvement funds for a new stadium in Foxborough. Kraft cleverly used Connecticut to extract more money out of the Bay State and make Rowland look like a jilted bride at the altar.
But now the situation with major-league hockey is more complicated. The Civic Center, now the XL Center, is a 40-year-old dinosaur that houses the minor-league Connecticut Whale. The state recently spent $35 million on improvements to XL that would only make it suitable for an NHL franchise for few years. Ultimately, a new arena will be necessary, adding greatly to the obstacles any incoming NHL team owner would face.
Would the state pony up the money for a new arena, or partner with the new owners, to build it? It would be yet another tough sell for either party, considering — if history is any guide — the unfavorable odds of recovering the hundreds of millions it would cost for a state-of-the-art venue. But hey, Connecticut taxpayers just bought a money-losing tennis tournament in New Haven, so stranger things have happened.
One of the biggest cheerleaders in bringing the NHL back to Hartford has been WFSB-TV newsman Dennis House. Last month on Face The State, House interviewed former Whalers owner Richard Gordon, who conjectured that if UConn were to join the Big Ten, then it would make it much more attractive for an NHL owner to expand or relocate from another city.
Presumably, Gordon was talking about UConn basketball since football is firmly ensconced at the 10-year-old Rentschler Field across the river in East Hartford. But if the Big Ten UConn men’s and women’s basketball programs were to play in a new downtown arena with the NHL team, what would become of Gampel Pavillion in Storrs, which opened in 1990 and is hardly ready for mothballs?
No, this idea of bringing an NHL franchise back to the nation’s insurance capital just reeks of yet more spending — or wasting — of taxpayer dollars in a vain attempt to restore some dignity and relevance to the state.
But if Connecticut could improve on its record of having the nation’s worst new-job creation rate over the last 20 years, I would feel vastly more dignified. And so would the legions of unemployed and the frustrated taxpayers who have left the state in recent years. Not even the cheering masses at center ice can make up for feeling broke.