The former owner of the Hartford Whalers is taking control of business operations of the city's minor league hockey team and renaming the franchise the Connecticut Whale.
Howard Baldwin announced on Monday his company, Hartford Hockey LLC., will be responsible for marketing, ticket sales and other day-to-day business operations of the AHL's Hartford Wolf Pack. Madison Square Garden and the NHL's New York Rangers will continue to own the team and retain control over the players and coaches.
The team will begin the season as the Wolf Pack, but will change the name to the Whale sometime in the middle of the season, Baldwin said.
Baldwin, who moved the World Hockey League's New England Whalers to Hartford in 1975 and brought the team into the NHL in 1979, is trying to generate enough support for hockey in Hartford to convince the NHL the city again deserves a big league team. He has said that increasing attendance at AHL games is an important part of that plan.
"A Wolf Pack fan is a hockey fan and a Whaler fan is a hockey fan," Baldwin said. "It is my fervent hope that everyone will become fans of the Whale."
The Whalers left Hartford in 1997 and became the Carolina Hurricanes. The Wolf Pack ranked 18th in AHL attendance last season, drawing just more than 4,100 per game.
"If there is anyone who can promote and build hockey back in Hartford, I'm sure Howard is the guy that's going to do it," said Glen Sather, general manager of the Rangers.
As part of his efforts to market hockey to the community, Baldwin is planning a a 10-day outdoor festival in February, based on the NHL Winter Classic.
The "Whalers Hockey Fest," is expected to feature about 30 minor league, college, high school, prep and youth hockey games at a rink to be built at Rentschler Field, the University of Connecticut's football stadium in East Hartford.
The festival will include at least one Whale game, Baldwin said.
UConn also has signed on, and will play a men's and women's doubleheader at the outdoor rink on Feb. 13.
Baldwin has reactivated the Whalers Hall of Fame, and held a summer Whalers fan festival that drew several thousand people to see and get autographs from former Whalers including Gordie Howe, Kevin Dineen, and Ron Francis.
Baldwin acknowledges that Hartford has some major obstacles to overcome. The city's XL Center is 35 years old, and there are no current plans for a new arena.
But fans such as Al Victor, who runs the Hartford Whalers booster club, say they will come out to support The Whale more than they ever supported the Wolf Pack.
"Now fans know, that if they buy tickets for The Whale, they are telling the NHL that the passion to support hockey is still here," Victor said.