Former Whaler owner hoping to revive NHL interest

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The former owner of the Hartford Whalers is planning an outdoor hockey festival that he hopes will help re-energize efforts to bring the NHL back to Connecticut.

Howard Baldwin, who moved the World Hockey League's New England Whalers to Hartford in 1975 and brought the team into the NHL in 1979, launched a marketing campaign Wednesday designed to bring the Whalers name, and ultimately an NHL team back to Connecticut's capital.

"We have got to get people talking about Hartford again when they talk about hockey," Baldwin said. "That stopped, and if we ever want something to happen here, we've got to get it started again."

Baldwin is hoping a 10-day outdoor festival in February, based on the NHL Winter Classic, will do just that.

The "Whalers Hockey Fest," is expected to feature up to 20 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.

UConn already has signed on, and will play a men's and women's doubleheader at the outdoor rink on Feb. 13. The men will take on Sacred Heart, and the women will follow with a game against Providence, said athletic director Jeff Hathaway.

The 10-day festival also will feature a game between Hartford Whalers alumni and former members of the Boston Bruins, Baldwin said. Another contest, he said, will have NHL legends taking on a team of Hollywood stars called "Mystery Alaska" and based on the Baldwin-produced movie of the same name.

"We want this to be the go-to event for hockey in New England," he said.

Baldwin also plans to reactivate the Whalers Hall of Fame, and induct new members for the first time since 1990. He has planned a summer "Fan Fest" that will include a celebrity golf tournament and a reunion of former Whalers players.

His plans have fans, such as 51-year-old Joanne Cortesa of Hartford, excited.

"I have a feeling we'll get a team within the next three years or so," she said. "We just need to build a new arena. I think he's going to get this done."

But Baldwin has his work cut out for him. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Tuesday that he couldn't foresee another Whalers team in Hartford. The franchise left Connecticut in 1997 and moved to North Carolina, where they became the Carolina Hurricanes.

The NHL didn't immediately return a phone message seeking comment about Baldwin's announcement Wednesday.

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; the minor-league Hartford Wolf Pack ranks 18th in the AHL in attendance, drawing just over 4,100 fans per game. And, the city's mayor is currently preoccupied by a corruption trial. Other areas, including Kansas City, Winnipeg, and Quebec also are vying for NHL teams.

"The NHL is a different bird today than it was before," Baldwin said. "They are very careful, as they should be, about who gets in the league and who doesn't, and there's a lot of criteria that goes into it. But if we do a great job here, they'll come to us."

Former Whaler captain Kevin Dineen wouldn't say if he believes Hartford can again support an NHL team, but said if anyone can get one to come here, he believes it is Baldwin.

"I think Howard's a guy who over the course of his career has really done a job of connecting people and putting the pieces together that will really make any business work," Dineen said. "Howard is the right guy for the job."