City's Hockey Future: Where's Urgency?
December 21, 2005 -- Jeff Jacobs -- Hartford Courant

The Whalers aren't coming back to Hartford today.

And they aren't coming back tomorrow.

Wolf Pack fans, Whalers fans, dreamers, schemers and contrarians can all agree on that much.

Now it turns out the first step in planning their return, according to the president of the Connecticut Development Authority, does not need to be taken by Jan. 21.

"There's no reason to panic," Marie O'Brien said Tuesday.

With the Wolf Pack's 20th home game of this season, the CDA has the right to terminate its Civic Center management agreement with Madison Square Garden, based on substandard attendance and revenue. The state is losing about $4 million a year on a deal signed in 1997.

The way it has been presented publicly is that if the CDA doesn't pull the trigger by Jan. 21, MSG will hold all the options until the conclusion of the contract in 2013.

"The agreement with MSG has early termination rights that can be engaged by either party," O'Brien said. "The 20th game is only one of the opportunities. It's not the only one."

The others?

"The end of the fiscal year, June 30, 2006, and also the end of 2007."

Howard Baldwin, the man desperately trying to convince the CDA that a vision is a good thing, picked up the phone and was told of the other dates.

"First I've heard of it," Baldwin said from Southern California. "I hope this is not a stalling tactic."

Others surrounding Baldwin, smart folks, didn't know about the dates either. One of his supporters, House Speaker James Amann, D-Milford, even referenced 2013 in a press release: "This is a dangerous game of roulette that's being played with Hartford's future - I'm shocked that there's no urgency here."

Baldwin wants to move sooner than later. He wants an AHL team next season and to build toward gaining the NHL's interest. The critics say Baldwin is a pipe-dreamer. The critics say the CDA is inert. The critics say MSG has no interest in making Hartford anything more than a fancy bedroom in its tri-state castle.

I'm tired of the criticism.

Somewhere, sometime, the right people have got to decide what is right for the future of Hartford. And what better time to start than today when the CDA board meets to discuss and presumably approve a study of the Civic Center's future.

"We don't need a study to tell what we already know: The state is losing tons of money, and we're on the verge of continuing to endorse huge losses for the state," Amann said.

The CDA should have started a study last February, when Baldwin had made his intentions clear. The fact is the CDA didn't. So get to work, CDA, you are on the clock. With a new convention center and residential units being built downtown, the CDA wants to examine the changing market place. Fine.

How long should such a study take? Sixty days is plenty.

"MSG has done a great job on the hockey end, but they're either meeting their benchmarks or they're not," Baldwin said. "And if they're not, why not say, `Who's out there?' It may not be me. There may be someone else who could do a better job, make a better proposal.

"They're protecting an agreement that isn't working. For whatever reason, the CDA seems to be so afraid to take any action."

Added Amann, "I hate to even say it, but this arrangement reminds me of all that was wrong with the John Rowland/Arthur Diedrick tenure. It would be a shame, not to mention a colossal budget blunder, to sit back and act like there's no problem."

Baldwin wants to start a regional sports network. The CDA can find how feasible it is and how it will fit in with UConn and the casinos.

MSG gets $1.4 million a year to manage the facility and there's noise that it can be done for much less. Find out exactly what Baldwin will charge. Find out whether MSG will be willing to slash its fees.

MSG has said it would never stand in the way of anyone bringing an NHL franchise to Hartford. But at this point, Howard's the only guy who can pull it off. Yet if he's not allowed to nurture that cause, MSG would never have to worry about anybody bringing the NHL here.

"I heard it mentioned, `How come Gary Bettman mentioned cities like Kansas City, Winnipeg and Quebec as potential NHL cities and never mentioned Hartford?"' Baldwin said. "Why would he? All you have is a hockey market that's deteriorating year after year."

Other cities have new buildings. Other cities have businessmen lobbying leagues. Even those who think Baldwin has no shot have to admit Los Angeles, with the NFL, is about the only place where a sports league is openly trying to get into a city.

"Mid-sized cities go and make noise," Baldwin said. "I'd love to be able to do it, but right now I'm not in position. I just hate to see Connecticut lose faith in itself."

MSG has consistently put a strong AHL product on the ice. Baldwin says he has a good relationship with Glen Sather. Maybe the Rangers can keep their affiliate here.

Marty Brooks, who oversees the Civic Center and Rentschler Field, has done a good job and has worked well with UConn. Maybe he could be convinced to stay.

All possibilities should be on the table.

In the end, this is not a good-guy, bad-guy thing.

It's a what's-best-for-Hartford thing.

O'Brien said she is intent on making this an open, fair and transparent process. We hope the CDA asks all the right questions and comes up with all the right answers.

"There's such a simple answer," Baldwin said. "Put it out to bid right now. If it's such a great deal, MSG will make the same bid they made. Global-Spectrum [which would manage the building] and me may make a different bid. At least you'll find out."

O'Brien said she didn't expect anything to be done on Jan. 21. She also said that in any relationship with good-faith partners, if there were opportunities by which state taxpayers would benefit, she would expect to have productive conversations.

If this is true, the CDA should be able to tell MSG at the conclusion of its study it may want to open bids for a new deal on, say, Feb. 21. A 30-day process to determine a winner would allow ample time for potential franchise changes for the AHL next season. Waiting until June 30 would put Baldwin and MSG behind the eight ball for next season.

If MSG says no, the CDA should enforce the Jan. 21 deadline and open the bids as part of its study. Even if the CDA is convinced Hartford is minor league, at the very least it should be able to get a better deal from MSG and save the taxpayers money. O'Brien's right. There's no need to panic. There's a need to do the right thing. Starting today.