Connecticut Ice Hockey Earns Fans’ Support Again

If you’re anything like me, you know how maddening it can be when you lose your keys. “But I put them right here,” you tell yourself. You feel around in your jacket pockets. Nothing. You feel around in your pants pockets. Nothing. You’ve re-traced your steps and they’re nowhere to be found. Luckily, your wife has her keys so you can take them to the locksmith and make duplicates. Crisis averted. If you’re a loyal sports fan like me, it’s hard to imagine losing any of the sports teams you root for, especially if it’s your only professional sports team. But this was the plight of Connecticut hockey fans in 1997.

The Whalers began playing in Hartford in 1979. In its 18 years of existence, the team never averaged more than 14,574 fans in one season (1987 – 1988). By comparison, in that same span, the Philadelphia Flyers never had an average yearly attendance under 16,636 fans. It’s the difference between being a small-market team and a big-market team but even small-market teams have die-hard fans too. And those die-hards were ecstatic for a while. The Whale, as the team was affectionately called, earned a playoff berth every year from 1985 – 1992. Their playoff record in that span was an unimpressive 1 – 7. The NHL playoffs are supposed to be what the players and fans look forward to. As far as records go, a playoff team has proved to be among the best in the regular season, and the Stanley Cup is only a few series wins away. Well, in the 1992 NHL playoffs, fans of the Whale didn’t get that memo.

I emailed a friend of mine who lives in Connecticut and attended Whalers games once in a while. I asked her how she felt when she heard the Whalers were moving. She said “it was unfortunate because [the Whalers] brought life to the city and state. We have no professional teams in CT.” Economics aside, I asked some hockey fan friends of mine on Facebook if:

  • they wanted to see Hartford return to the NHL
  • they think Hartford could make a return to the NHL in the next 10 years

The majority of my hockey friends said they would like to see Hartford make a return, but due to either Hartford’s small-market status or because “the market is too divided in that region” to support a team, they don’t think the Whale will be back in the NHL within 10 years. Other reactions ranged from “indifferent” to the Whalers coming back to “no, I would rather not see Hartford in the NHL again.”

While I do not have a vested interest in the Whalers returning to the NHL, I’m happy to see that the good people of Connecticut have an ice hockey team to root for. And not just any ice hockey team – the best ice hockey team. The Quinnipiac University Bobcats are the number one ranked men’s ice hockey team in the country. I went to graduate school at the Hamden, Conn., university and have recently been in touch with some officials. According to them, the buzz this team is generating is making people forget all about the Whalers.

“Hartford had its chance to flex its big-league ambitions with the Whalers, but that dream died in 1997,” says Rich Hanley, the director of the Graduate Journalism Program at Quinnipiac. “Nothing has changed between then and now to think the city is a worthy candidate for a second NHL franchise. Connecticut is a college-sports state anyway.”

Quinnipiac and Yale University in New Haven are ranked within the top 15 college ice hockey programs in the country. So I asked Hanley, who is also chairperson of Quinnipiac University’s Athletic Council, if the success of those two programs could influence how a fan base responds to a new professional hockey team.

“Once fans get a taste of college hockey,” says Hanley, “interest and intrigue in the pro game will fade. Quinnipiac and Yale, along with Sacred Heart [University] to a lesser extent have transformed the southern tier of the market into one with college hockey at its heart.”

Based on Quinnipiac’s last six home games, I’d say the interest is already there. The attendance at those games since January 12th (% capacity in parentheses): 3,430 (101), 3,938 (116), 3,764 (111), 3,826 (113), 4,074 (120), and 3,683 (109). Quinnipiac’s new arena, the $52 million TD Bank Sports Center, seats 3,386 for hockey games, according to its Wikipedia page.

Connecticut may have lost professional hockey but it doesn’t sound like they’re missing it.

Speaking of missing, has anyone seen my keys?

Go Bobcats!

What do you think? Will the NHL expand again? Where will the next NHL franchise be if there is expansion? Leave a comment below.

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