Long-Shot Goal
January 3, 2006 -- Shawn Courchesne -- Hartford Courant

Don't line up to get your tickets just yet.

Even though developer Lawrence Gottesdiener thinks Hartford is ready to be a player in the National Hockey League again, much would have to happen to make that a reality. And that's assuming the $250 million building Gottesdiener proposes, financed from public and private sources, can be built.

The NHL has said it has no plans for expansion and no plans for a team to move, though there is always speculation that some under-performing teams are ripe for a takeover.

Still, Hartford has already lost an NHL franchise - the Whalers in 1997 - and at least 10 other cities in North America have been mentioned as potential homes for NHL teams. Any move would have to be approved by the NHL Board of Governors.

The finances extend well beyond even getting the new building, because the key to any arena or stadium in professional sports these days is the revenue stream that flows from corporate boxes.

A lot has changed since the Whalers last played in the Civic Center. Rentschler Field, home to the University of Connecticut's Division I-A football team, opened in 2003, and the team would continue to compete for that corporate dollar. The UConn facility has 38 luxury suites that sell for $50,000, but only 21 have sold.

Still, not even the man who once was a big player on the Hartford hockey scene would rule out anything in a sport that also has changed a lot since the city last hosted a league franchise and since the game returned after a lockout cost the sport the 2004-05 season.

Jim Rutherford, general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes, wouldn't give an opinion on whether he thought Hartford was ready to be an NHL city again, but he did say a new arena would change the dynamics. Rutherford was general manager of the Whalers when the team left the city.

"New buildings are usually a good thing in any market," Rutherford said. "There's no question that's part of what we tried to do was get a new building [in Hartford]. We felt that would give us a better chance there, but it didn't happen.

"Looking at it from an overall picture, [an NHL] team left Denver and went back, and the second time around they were successful. It's happened also in Minnesota and Atlanta, so it's been done. The one thing that really has to be looked at by the investor is where the economics of our game are now. When we left Hartford, the economics just didn't make sense there. We had an average ticket price of $22. The league average ticket price now is $50. The average payroll then was $16 million; now it's more than twice that. Those would be some of the things that a new owner would really have to study and figure out if it would be feasible in that city."

Gottesdiener, who heads Northland Investment Corp., said one way to finance the new arena, which also could be used for UConn men's and women's basketball games, is $150 million in tax-exempt government bonds, $75 million from state or other government grants and $25 million in cash from Northland.

Northland has a real estate portfolio in Hartford worth $500 million. The company's financial holdings in the city include residential, retail, commercial, office, industrial, hospitality and development.

At the same time that Gottesdiener is proposing a new building, an old friend of the city also has a desire to bring the NHL back to where it once reigned, in the Hartford Civic Center. Movie producer Howard Baldwin, who once owned the Whalers, would like a crack at taking over the lease of the Civic Center, with plans for bringing an NHL team back there.

The city owns the Civic Center and currently leases it to the Connecticut Development Authority. Baldwin has said he would help finance improvements at the Civic Center to bring it up to speed for the return of an NHL team. The CDA recently decided to study the best options for the building, which is run by Madison Square Garden.

Hartford was home to the Whalers from 1972 to 1997. The team, which originally played in the World Hockey Association, became part of the NHL in 1979.

Whalers owner Peter Karmanos moved the team out of the Civic Center to Raleigh, N.C., following the 1996-97 season. Connecticut's capital city has been home to the Hartford Wolf Pack, a minor league team in the American Hockey League, since 1997-98.

Since the Whalers' departure, there has been little maneuvering to bring an NHL team back to the city. Frank Brown, the NHL vice president of media relations, said any talk of a team returning is premature.

"At the present moment, the National Hockey League has no plans to expand or to transfer a franchise out of its incumbent city," Brown said. "Any other expression would be completely speculative. Obviously, circumstances change, but that's the position at the moment."

Hartford, as a suitor for an NHL team, would get in line with at least 10 other North American cities that have been talked about as possible relocation sites. Over the last five years, Kansas City, Mo.; Cleveland; Las Vegas; Seattle; Houston; Milwaukee; Cincinnati; and Portland, Ore., have been mentioned as having an interest in the NHL. Across the border in Canada, Winnipeg and Quebec, two former NHL cities, are regularly mentioned as wanting teams back.

In 2004, Forbes magazine rated the New York Rangers as the most valuable team in the NHL, with a worth of $282 million. The Hurricanes were ranked at the bottom, with a value of $100 million, which doesn't necessarily reflect the price that could be reached on a sale. The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim were the most recent team in the league to be sold. Disney got $70 million for the Ducks in February. In 2004, the New Jersey Devils were sold for $125 million.

Although there's a perception that a number of cash-strapped NHL franchises, coming off the canceled season, are ripe for the picking by the highest bidder, no teams are looking to relocate.

The St. Louis Blues are for sale, but the team won't be leaving that city. Recently, plans for a new arena in Pittsburgh took the Penguins off the market as a franchise that could relocate.

The Miami-based Florida Panthers franchise is most mentioned as a candidate for relocation. This season, the Panthers are ranked 19th out of 30 teams in average attendance, drawing an average of 15,979 over their first 19 home games, or 83 percent capacity. Other teams at the low end of the scale for attendance are the New York Islanders, the Phoenix Coyotes and the Atlanta Thrashers. The Islanders have the second lowest attendance in the NHL, averaging 12,962.

"I think that the NHL is ripe to have some franchises move," said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College who studies economic trends in sports. "Hartford is a viable area when it comes down to that. To be in the Northeast, in New England, with hockey, is viable. I think the economics of the league have stabilized. They're not perfect, but they're a heck of a lot better than they were. I wouldn't draw the conclusion that Hartford can't work. In fact, I think I'd draw the opposite conclusion. I think it's a much stronger location than several of the cities that are currently hosting NHL teams. And I know that there's a lot of talk about franchises moving around. I don't think it's a slam dunk, but I think it's very viable."

Attendance at Whalers games declined steadily through the early 1990s, hitting bottom in 1993-94, when the team played to an all-time low average of 67.1 percent of capacity at the Civic Center. But that number jumped to just over 76 percent the next season and up to 77 percent in 1995-96. In the Whalers' final season in Hartford, 1996-97, attendance at the Civic Center went to 87 percent of capacity, with an average attendance of just under 14,000 per game.

When the Whalers left, the Wolf Pack - owned by MSG, the same entity that owns the New York Rangers and runs the Civic Center - brought hockey back to the city in the form of the AHL.

Attendance at Wolf Pack games has declined steadily since the team's inception. In its opening season, the Wolf Pack averaged 7,017 per game. Last year, with the NHL not playing, the Wolf Pack drew an average of 5,142, 15th in the 28-team league. This year, the team is averaging 4,755 through 14 games, 13th in the league.

Zimbalist said he doesn't believe there's a stigma attached to the city because it lost an NHL franchise.

"If you look at the NFL," he said, "look at all the franchises that left and the cities that have gotten teams back: Cleveland, Baltimore, Oakland. I think that it's not a damning stigma if you lose a sports team, particularly if you can point to particular problems. With the Whalers, you could point to the way the team was managed, you can point to a facility that was inadequate, you can point to inadequate development of community relations on the part of Karmanos, and then there's the fact that it wasn't a winning team."