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SBD/Issue 19/NHL Season Preview
Whale Of A Tale: Howard Baldwin Returns To Hartford Hockey
Published October 7, 2010
More than 35 years after Howard Baldwin helped turn Hartford into a hockey town, he is back and trying to do it again. The entrepreneur has owned part of four NHL teams, including the now-defunct Whalers from ’71-88, and last month assumed operational control and a sizable stake of Hartford’s AHL team with plans to rebrand it as the Connecticut Whale. Much has been made of Baldwin’s desire to return the NHL to downtown Hartford, which has been without a major professional sports team since the Whalers moved to North Carolina in ’97, but he knows there’s still plenty to do before the league will even consider the idea. “The future is what it is,” Baldwin said yesterday. “But the most important thing you have to remind everybody is that it’s a great market.” While stalled talks for a new arena ultimately drove Peter Karmanos and the Whalers out of town, the team’s nickname and logos have become a bit of a marketing sensation. Thirteen years later, Whalers jerseys can be found on NHL.com and in 2K Sports’ “NHL2K10,” and Baldwin acknowledges the power of that brand. Rebranding the AHL franchise from the Hartford Wolf Pack to the Connecticut Whale gives Baldwin and his Hartford Hockey LLC group a marketable, not to mention lucrative, start. “We’ll have a major merchandising program here like we always did,” Baldwin said. “We’ll be opening a store, and the rebrand will be sometime in the next two months. It will be a rebrand to The Whale; it will be a big night.” Tying the AHL franchise back to the city’s NHL legacy “figures prominently in all of our plans,” Baldwin said, noting the still-popular Brass Bonanza theme song will be prevalent in the rebrand.
BIGGER THINGS IN STORE? The former owner treads carefully when asked why he chose Whale instead of Whalers, the product of a sensitive debate about who owns rights to the iconic nickname. “There’re a lot of different viewpoints as to who owns what,” Baldwin said. “Our attitude is that it belongs to the people here. It doesn’t belong to me, it doesn’t belong to anybody but the people here. The NHL has been extremely cooperative and supportive of what we’re doing here. We just felt it’s more effective to start with a new, fresh brand and start clean. We still sell a ton of Whalers stuff here, and we buy through the NHL licensees almost like a 31st franchise.” The league confirmed that Whalers merchandise remains popular though it would not disclose specific figures. That brand appeal of the Whale, soon to be the most recognizable name in minor league hockey, is one of the reasons the Hollywood producer gets so excited when discussing his newest venture that has him back in Connecticut for the first time in more than two decades. “From ’88 to a year-and-a-half ago, we have been living in L.A. and came back here because our roots are back here,” Baldwin said. “We also have a great passion for this franchise because we started it.” The NHL no doubt will have one eye on Hartford when the puck drops later this month, and Commissioner Gary Bettman knows Baldwin’s enthusiasm can be infectious. “Howard Baldwin's love of the game, and of the game in Hartford, seemingly is without limit,” he said.
LITTLE BY LITTLE: Baldwin knows any dream of top-level hockey returning to Hartford in the near future is just that, which is why he preaches patience. “I’d like to see things made right by Hartford and in Connecticut,” he said. “And first thing is not so much the NHL; the NHL is a great league and they’re doing their business, but the AHL also is a great league. The most important thing is to get the thing humming back here in the AHL.” Baldwin adds, “They’ve done that in Winnipeg. They have an AHL team in Winnipeg that’s doing great. When people talk about Winnipeg they say, ‘That’s a great market. Look what they’ve done in the AHL.’ … That’s the important thing: to build the market back. All of that is gone. All of that we have to put back.” The problem surrounding the lack of a new arena in Hartford -- the downtown XL Center is 35 years old -- still exists. Yet Baldwin insists a replacement isn’t on his, or the city’s, radar. “I think the arena right across the street is still a terrific facility,” he said. “When you come into the city, it looks great. What it’s lacking is people. In order to get people down here, you’ve got to have fun things to do. The XL Center used to be the hub of all entertainment in Connecticut. And now it isn’t. We have to put that back quickly.” Baldwin and his team are off to a quick start, capitalizing on fan excitement about the rebrand. “We took this team over two weeks ago when they had sold about 600 tickets,” he said. “They did very little because they didn’t try. Just in seven days, we sold about 4,000 tickets. It’s all there, but is it going to be there instantly from day one? No, probably not. If we can do 7,000-8,000 people at the opener and build off that, we’ll be thrilled.”