Return of the Whale?

The Twittersphere is ablaze with speculation that the National Hockey League might return to Connecticut. I don’t mean to throw cold water on it but … really … there’s a better chance Herman Cain will be elected president.

The Courant reported this morning that former Whalers owner Howard Baldwin “unveiled his vision for the XL Center at the Metro Hartford Alliance breakfast Tuesday morning at the Bushnell, which includes the return of the NHL to Hartford by 2017.”

I’m all for renovating and rebranding the XL Center (formerly the Hartford Civic Center) into a premium destination for more exciting events than The CT Whale, UConn Huskies basketball, Trans-Siberian Orchestra concerts and the endless auto shows.

But what makes Baldwin so sure that the CT hockey market has changed to the point that it can generate enough revenue to support a major-league sports franchise? Declining ticket sales, the inability to agree on a new arena and an overall lack of enthusiasm from the natives compelled new owner Peter Karmanos to move the team to Raleigh in 1997.

Courant columnist and blogger Rick Green tweeted the following statistic this morning: “Winnipeg mkt 750K. Hfd hockey mkt 2M. Interesting.”

To which I replied: “The 750k in Winnipeg are hockey fanatics. Of the 2M in the CT market, at least half could care less about the sport.”

I lived in Canada for five years. Trying to compare U.S. and Canadian hockey markets is as absurd as trying to compare baseball markets between the two countries. Canadians live and breath hockey. Americans live and breath baseball and football. Ever watch a Toronto Blue Jays game at the Rogers Centre?

The other problem Baldwin will face in trying to bring back the NHL is Hartford’s reputation. Several years ago, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy famously branded Hartford “America’s File Cabinet.” And there’s some truth to that. After 6 p.m., for obvious reasons, there’s not a whole lot going on in the Insurance City.

Good luck, Mr. Baldwin. But I just don’t see it happening without an awful lot of government money. And I don’t think taxpayers are in the mood for that right now.

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