The NHL just went through a rigorous and yet, exciting expansion process when league owners approved Las Vegas as the latest city to be awarded an NHL franchise.
However, with the current state of a few NHL franchises up in the air, it’s time to officially bring back the age-old question.
The Hartford legacy
Despite being a franchise that won just one Stanley Cup Playoff series in 18 NHL seasons, the Hartford Whalers were somewhat of an iconic team for the northeast corner of the United States, putting the metro area of Hartford-New Haven on the map for professional sports. Their logo was perhaps the most iconic item of the team.
It was so iconic that fans still buy the hats, toques and other Whalers merchandise that features the logo above. But forget that. Forget that fact that NHL legends Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull donned the same sweaters before announcing their retirement. Forget the fact that the team registered a lowly five-winning season during their span in the NHL. Hartford was in a premier market and its only become better.
According to a study done by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, in 2013, the Hartford-New Haven media market is the largest in the country without a major professional sports franchise. After the Whalers left in May 1997 for Raleigh, North Carolina and became the Carolina Hurricanes, the city of Hartford could be very close to seeing an NHL team return to the XL Center.
The reasoning behind the hype and reality, the movement for Hartford to have an NHL team return is due to the New York Islanders being on the brink of eviction from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. According to HockeyDB.com’s average attendance database for the 2016-2017 season, the Islanders were 28th in average attendance with a mere 13,101 fans. Only the Arizona Coyotes and the Hurricanes – two franchises also rumored to be on the cusp of relocating – had fewer fans in attendance. It doesn’t appear to be getting any better in 2017.
Everybody. Loves. Vegas. Music.
— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) October 30, 2017
When the news broke that the Islanders were soon to be out of a home, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy wasted no time in attempting to get the wheels spinning to Hartford. It took two days for Gov. Malloy and Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin sent a letter to members of the Islanders front office making a pitch for the XL Center to be a temporary – possibly permanent – fix.
— newsbell (@newsbell) February 3, 2017
Long process for NHL return for Hartford
Now, the one main problem that could arise in a potential return to Hartford for the NHL is that the XL Center is essentially outdated to house a franchise. Aside from being the home ice for both the UConn men’s hockey team and the New York Rangers’ AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolfpack, the arena is used sparingly.
There is a proposed $250 million renovation project that could help bolster the capability for a return and the two Democrats noted in their letter to Islanders brass that Hartford has more Fortune 500 companies than NHL markets cities such as Columbus, Raleigh, Buffalo, and Nashville.
“This is a ready market anxious for an NHL team, eager to fill seats, buy merchandise, and support your team,” they wrote in the letter earlier this year.
Now, It could be difficult for the Whalers to lock down a potential fanbase. However, according to Silver’s study, he estimated that 175,000 avid NHL fans call the Hartford-New Haven metro area home. He also stated that an estimated 17 percent of NHL fans in the New York area. He noted that if the Islanders were to in fact relocate to Hartford that the number of fans in Hartford (7 percent according to Silver’s Rudy) could increase. I would easily agree with that assessment.
Furthermore, there are already established franchises in the area. The New York Rangers, Boston Bruins and New Jersey Devils (not counting the Islanders) are in markets that could potentially rival Hartford. You could also loop the Buffalo Sabres into the area.
However, we have seen the widespread fandom of the Vegas Golden Knights. Heck, one could even say that when merchandise was available for purchase, it swept through the whole of hockey like a plague. And, that was before most NHL fans knew who was going to be on the roster. If a team like the Islanders were to relocate with a star like John Tavares on the roster that could help lure those diehard Iles fans but could easily grab the attention of fans that were forced to retire their fandom when the Whalers left.
There are still plenty of hurdles that need to be cleared before fans can really get excited. The biggest being the recent state of the XL Center. It was reported that the arena is currently in the process of a $40 million renovation project, but will be up for sale for at least two years.
Let’s be honest though if everything happens the way that the Governor of Connecticut wants it to go, who wouldn’t get chills hearing “Brass Bonanza” play after seeing Tavares rip a clapper from the slot?
I know I would.
- Josh Zimmer is the Lead NFL Draft analyst for NGSC Sports as well as serving as a contributor for NHL coverage.
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