Minor league sports make headline with their memorable promotions. Once in a while, we see minor league teams cross over into the territory of a different sport. That’s what happened this past weekend when the Hartford Yard Goats, the AA team for the Colorado Rockies, held a Whalers Alumni weekend for former Hartford Whalers.
The Whalers Alumni weekend has been an annual occurrence for the Yard Goats since their inaugural 2015 season and draws some of the biggest crowds of the baseball season to their ball park. Three days of events took place, including an autograph session featuring former Whalers prior to Saturday’s game. The Yard Goats also wore special hockey themed jerseys for both games while “brass bonanza” was played through the ball park.
The Hartford Yard Goats, a minor league team for the Colorado Rockies, held a weekend honoring the Hartford Whalers. Former players were on hand to sign autographs and discuss the potential for the NHL’s return to the city.
The Whalers left Connecticut after the 1996-1997 NHL season to become the Carolina Hurricanes. The team still has a cult following in the Hartford area, so it’s not surprise that these Whalers themed events drew large crowds. The city is currently home the AHL franchise the Hartford Wolfpack, the New York Rangers affiliate. For a period of time, the franchise was known as “The Hartford Whale” to pay tribute to the former NHL team before transitioning back to the Wolfpack name for the 2013-2014 season.
Ever since the Whalers left, Whalers fan have hoped an NHL franchise would return to the city. They know it isn’t likely, it’s barely more than a pipe dream, but there’s enough interest that the thought makes a few headlines now and then as a possibility. Former Whalers captain Kevin Dineen, now head coach of the AHL’s Utica Comets, addressed Connecticut’s desire to get another NHL franchise:
"“I think hockey is the one sport where you can find niche markets — Columbus, Winnipeg — and know that, if you can get that quality of support, it makes a huge difference,” Dineen noted. “Hartford would fit that bill, kind of a sneaky, quality quality town that would probably need a little work on the infrastructure. But, certainly the passion is there.”"
Hartford definitely needs help on the hockey infrastructure. It’s no secret the NHL prefers new arenas for relocated or expansion teams as opposed to older venues. The Wolfpack currently play in XL Center, former home of the Whalers themselves. The arena opened in 1975 and had problems going back to the Whalers playing days, including a roof collapse in the winter of 1978. So far there are no talks of building a new arena in Hartford.
Dineen continued to be pessimistic about the Whalers returning: “There are so many different logistics that go into a franchise now,” he said. “There’s market size, television markets, those kind of things. The NHL has a heck of a lot of say in that.”
Hartford lacks a distinct media market. Half of the state aligns with the New York City media market, and the other half the Boston media market. Being in the middle of Rangers and Boston Bruins country hurt the franchise the first time around.
Hartford doesn’t seem to be on the shortlist of potential NHL franchises, much to the joy of Quebec City. Does Hartford deserve a second chance? Places like Winnipeg, Atlanta, and the San Francisco Bay area have all been given second chances by the NHL. Unlike Hartford, neither of them had any competition from nearby NHL teams with much more success, history, and longevity.