Developer Shops For NHL Team
April 6, 2006 -- Jeffrey B. Cohen and Paul Doyle-- Hartford Courant

Lawrence R. Gottesdiener - downtown Hartford's largest landlord - said Wednesday that he has begun shopping for an NHL franchise because he thinks the best way to convince investors and politicians to build a new sports arena in the city is to have a team in his portfolio first.

"We're out there looking for a team," said Gottesdiener, head of Northland Investment Corp., which owns roughly $500 million worth of real estate in Hartford. "Hartford is my goal, but you can't bring a professional sports team to a secondary market in this day and age without a brand new, beautiful arena.

"So if that's not available here, then we'll own it somewhere else."

Gottesdiener in late December floated the idea of building a new $250 million sports arena in Hartford, with potentially $25 million of his own money and a significant public subsidy. At the time, he said the goal would be to land an NHL franchise but that a team wasn't a prerequisite.

Wednesday, he said his change of course was driven by the realization that without a team he could not generate serious interest among critical leaders. He also made it clear that there is no bringing hockey to Hartford without a new arena.

"I don't believe the political will is there to make that happen," he said. "Let's think big, let's bring professional sports back to a market that's craving it.'"

In his quest to buy a team, Gottesdiener has hired brokers, is negotiating with consultants, and is eyeing teams that may be ripe for buying, including the Pittsburgh Penguins. He plans to go to Minnesota with Mayor Eddie A. Perez for meetings with the owners of the Wild to see how that market lost a hockey team and got one back.

"They lost it, got it back, and it's excelling," he said.

Hartford lost an NHL franchise, the Whalers, in 1997. Even if Gottesdiener were to secure a team, many other players would have to get on board before the first puck is dropped. One critical ingredient would be public money.

A spokesman for Gov. M. Jodi Rell said Wednesday that her office preferred not to comment. House Speaker James Amann, D-Milford, said a team would make an arena an easier sell.

"It's much easier that way than to say, `If you build it, they will come,'" Amann said.

Another critical ingredient would be corporate support, which Gottesdiener says he has yet to evaluate.

"I don't think there's any doubt that there's some number of companies that would welcome this, who would ... buy a [corporate] box," said R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel, head of the MetroHartford Alliance. "But I don't think that's the real question."

"The real question is how many of them are there."

Any franchise sale or relocation would have to be approved by the NHL's board of governors, which represents each of the 30 teams. League Commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters last month the league has no relocation or expansion plans.

The Penguins are the most obvious target for relocation, and the only team Gottesdiener named.

The Penguins are seeking a new arena and the ownership group headed by Mario Lemieux is selling the team. Negotiations on the potential new arena are ongoing, and Lemieux said in December there is a "slim chance" the franchise will remain in Pittsburgh without a new arena.

"The advantage of Pittsburgh is that it's on the market and its lease is up," Gottesdiener said.

Other potential targets are less evident. The New York Islanders have the lowest attendance in the NHL and play in the antiquated Nassau Coliseum, but billionaire owner Charles Wang lives on Long Island and plans to renovate the arena.

The Nashville Predators and Atlanta Thrashers are near the bottom of the league in attendance, but both teams are locally owned and not for sale. The Florida Panthers' attendance is in the lower half of the league, but there has not been talk of the team's being available.

Gottesdiener isn't the only hockey suitor - Kansas City, Houston and Winnipeg are cities with new or soon-to-be opened arenas in search of a team.

Should an NHL team not be in Gottesdiener's future, he's willing to be flexible, he said.

"Right now we're focusing on the NHL," he said. "But if we find ourselves frustrated in that regard, the search will be expanded [to include the NBA]."

Perez said he likes that Gottesdiener is willing to change his mind to better fit the market.

"I think it's smart for anyone to work two angles instead of working just one," said Perez, who says the city could play an important role in a partnership to bring major league hockey back to Hartford.

Renewed talks about hockey in Hartford began late last year with a discussion of the aging Hartford Civic Center. The state leases the city-owned center, has a management contract with Madison Square Garden until 2013, and could lose $4 million a year for the next seven years under current arrangements.

Former Whalers owner Howard Baldwin says the best way to bring an NHL team back to Hartford is to rebuild the market with a better performing American Hockey League team than the Wolf Pack.

"I would never be critical of Larry; he has the right to approach it whatever way he thinks is best," Baldwin said Wednesday of Gottesdiener. But, he added, "teams aren't low-hanging fruit," and one can't just go out and buy a hockey team.

"I think the way it has to happen is you've got to build it from the ground up," he said.