FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

EAST HARTFORD, CT – As Howard Baldwin and his son, Howard Jr., walked into the Rentschler Field press box just after noon Thursday, their jaws seemingly dropped to the floor as they spoke as one.

“Awesome,” they said in stereo while getting their first look at the start of the rink that will host Outdoor Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Fest 2011 on Feb. 11-23.

“It’s unbelievable,” said the elder Baldwin, chairman and CEO of Whalers Sports and Entertainment. “I had no idea it would be so visibly attractive, and the sight lines are unbelievable. I was worried when the rink was moved (west toward the luxury boxes), but it’s fantastic.”

Howard Jr., the president and COO of WSAE, said this was everything that the organization has been working for since it announced plans to have about 30 outdoor games on June 2.

“I’m just blown away by it,” he said. “I hadn’t seen (the area) in a week and thought the weather would have set us back a little bit. Every time there’s a snowstorm I panic, so I can’t believe what’s been done already.”

Jim Harnett, the founder and president of EIS Rinks LLC that is installing the rink, said the snow, rain and ice didn’t put a serious crimp in the $300,000 project. Work began Monday, and the 600 feet of lumber for the mini-boards rimming the rink that will hold the water in the freezing process was already down. Harnett and his 12-person crew also had laid the 25,000 square feet of armor decking that will allow workers to walk and trucks to maneuver around the edge of the rink before players use it to get to the ice surface.

“We lost a day-and-half with snow removal and other things, but for all practical purposes, Stage I is complete,” Harnett said. “But I kept telling guys that I come from Syracuse where we have winters, and I kept hearing about how mild it is in New England. I’ll never believe that tale again.”

Hartnett, whose company has built more than 400 rinks over 30 years, including for the NHL’s Washington Capitals, said the armor decking is to protect the field and will give everyone great access to the rink. The armor decking was developed by the military mostly for Desert Storm so they could land planes on it in the desert.

Hartnett, a rink refrigeration specialist with more than 30 years of experience in the indoor and outdoor rink business in North America, said the wooden box was 93 feet wide and 208 feet long. The ice surface will be 85 feet wide and 200 yards long, so there will provide room for the workers and for the Zamboni leafs on the end.

EIS Rinks handled the installation for the AHL’s first outdoor game last Feb. 19 in Syracuse, N.Y., that drew a league-record 21,508 to see the Crunch’s 2-1 victory over the Binghamton Senators on a goal by former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Dave Liffiton in the second period. Baldwin, Baldwin & Co. hope to surpass that number on Feb. 19, when the Connecticut Whale faces the Providence Bruins at 7 p.m. after the Hartford Whalers alumni play the Boston Bruins alumni at 4 p.m. And so far, so good, as more than 13,000 tickets have been sold for the doubleheader.

Hartnett said snow during construction is “just a pain in the neck” but something that has to be dealt with during the loss of time. He said rain or warm weather can be a problem at certain periods.

“My best thing would be that once we get the sand placed, it gets cold and stays cold because then I have a brick-hard surface to work on,” Hartness said. “Then I can actually take the machines out there and don’t just have to work around the edges. But if it rains when we get all the sand in, we’ll have a bit of a mud pit, and it gets really harder to deal with because you can’t have tracks and footprints. Little shoeprints is fine, but once it’s frozen, it can be a problem.”

Hartness said 800 tons of sand is scheduled to be placed Friday, but because of a forecast for snow, he will wait until Friday morning to decide whether to go ahead or cancel the trucks and have people remove snow and start placing the sand on Monday. Placing the sand usually takes about six days, depending on weather. To prevent the sand from migrating into the grass field, 25,000 square feet of geotec fabric was laid down

About 10 miles of refrigeration tubing will lie throughout the sand, which will be attached to a refrigeration unit that has 400 tons of capacity. It will take 30,000 gallons of water (and three days) to make the ice – 10,000 gallons an inch deep – and the dasher boards will be the standard professional hockey league system.

A crew will be doing different projects concurrently with the goal being to complete the work by Feb. 9. Then the ice will be fractured to get rid of the cracks and low spots and then flooded over. Youth teams will play for two days to fracture the ice more before games begin on Feb. 11.

“The more ice is skated, the better quality it is,” Hartnett said. “I don’t like to start out with a pro team being the first people on a brand new ice surface because the ice isn’t good the first few times.”

The ice will be groomed to preserve its quality before an opening-night tripleheader: Cushing girls vs. Hotchkiss girls, 4 p.m.; Cushing boys vs. Canterbury boys, 6 p.m.; www.cthockey.com, 10 p.m.

About 30 games will be played through Feb. 21 involving 18 youth teams, 14 high school teams, 12 prep school teams, 10 college teams, four junior teams and the featured attraction, Whale Bowl, on Feb. 19. More than a dozen celebrities will play on the alumni teams, and with each team having about 25 players, more than 1,700 amateur athletes will be playing in the event over 13 days.

There will be a free open public skate on Feb. 22 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. If teams are still interested in participating, call 860-728-3366.

“The ice is all sold out, so we’re going to have a huge public skating session so everybody around the area can celebrate this, not only if you’re a hockey play,” Howard Jr. said.

Baldwin Sr. said he is a bit amazed that everything has fallen into place in less than eight months since he announced the project and that he will be doing his “snow prayers” for good weather between now and Feb. 23.

“It’s a great thing to see the rink laid out and how hard everybody is working … I wouldn’t kid you. I’m a little overwhelmed,” he said. “It’s going to be a great event, and the whole organization has done such a great job because it’s a much harder and much bigger task than what any of us thought it would be when we sat up there (in the press box) announcing it. It’s a tremendous amount of work, and the ticket sales are great.

“This will be a wonderful moment for hockey in Connecticut and in Hartford, and now everyone can see that this is real.”

Howard Jr. then piped in, “We want to get 38,000 (a sellout). This is a great tribute to my father, and everything that he has done. We’re just pumped up, and it’s exciting because it’s for mites all the way up to the pros. It makes sense to have every person from every level involved. They can celebrate hockey.”

Howard Sr. reiterated Whalers Sports and Entertainment’s main objective is to revive the local hockey market, and the group wanted to have some special events such as the Whalers Summer Festival in August and now the Winter Fest.

“Things just evolved, and we were able to get more and more teams to play after he took over control of the team,” he said. “Then we could get them to play, and it just built up. The ultimate goal is to enjoy the journey, which is just the way we are. The AHL is a great league, and we’re proud to be in it. And there’s great hockey heritage in Hartford, whether it be WHA, NHL and now AHL.

“If the end result is the NHL, which, of course, everyone would love, then great. These are the kind of things that will make the NHL sit up or stand up and take notice and remind them (of what WSAE wants to do). We’ve already done it because the attendance has doubled since we did the rebrand (on Nov. 27). So it has already taken effect, and now we just have to keep building it.”

Baldwin said he has invited NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to the Feb. 19 doubleheader.

“I just saw Gary in New York last week, and I think if he can come, he’d love to come,” Baldwin said. “He wants us to do well. The NHL wants hockey to do well. This will be a great event, and Feb. 19 will be a great day for hockey. And remember who said that, my friend Bob Johnson (the NHL Hall of Fame coach and father of former Whalers and Olympic gold medal-winning center Mark Johnson). He always said, ‘It’s a great day for hockey,’ and this will be a great two weeks for hockey.”

In keeping with Johnson’s upbeat theme and nature, it will be “a great day to play two” on Feb. 19 – or any other day for that matter.

WHALE RANGERS GET MORE OLD/NEW FACES

After being called up by the New York Rangers for the first time last week, Whale center Kris Newbury joked the NHL team had become “the Connecticut Rangers.”

Newbury didn’t how right he really would be.

Wednesday brought the call-ups to New York for wings Chad Kolarik and Brodie Dupont, who replaced former Hartford Wolf Pack forward Brandon Dubinsky and wing Ruslan Fedotenko.

Kolarik was summoned when the Rangers learned that Dubinsky, their leader in goals (17) and points (38), would be out 3-to-4 weeks with a stress fracture in his left leg. Kolarik joined the Rangers after he had two shorthanded goals and two assists and was plus-4 in the first period of a 6-3 victory over the league-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Sunday. He set a franchise record for shorthanded goals in a period and tied team records for shorthanded goals in a game and points in a period. The Whale is 17-7-0-4 since Kolarik was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets and Springfield Falcons for former Wolf Pack captain Dane Byers on Nov. 8. Meanwhile, the Falcons are 11-15-1-2 after a losing their fourth in a row Wednesday night, 3-1 to the Charlotte Checkers.

Dupont got his first call-up in his fourth season in the Rangers organization after getting five of his eight goals and three of his 12 assists in the last 11 games. Dupont was the sixth Whale forward to be called up this season, and he and Kolarik rejoin center Kris Newbury and wings Mats Zuccarello and Dale Weise. And rookie defenseman Ryan McDonagh changed places with Michael Del Zotto on Jan. 3.

“It has been a little bit unique,” Gernander said of the run of injured defensemen. “But now there’s more opportunity for everyone.”

The loss of Dubinsky and Fedotenko came after injuries to former Wolf Pack right wing Ryan Callahan, Vinny Prospal, Alex Frolov, Erik Christensen and Derik Boogaard. And sniper Marian Gaborik and captain/Trumbull native Chris Drury have returned after lengthy absences early in the season. Frolov is out for the season, Prospal and Boogaard possibly as long, while Callahan and Christensen have resumed skating and are expected to return Feb. 1 for the first game after the All-Star break.

The numerous injuries in New York have also taxed the Whale lineup, but Gernander and assistants J.J. Daignault and Pat Boller have done a masterful job of rallying the team from last in the Atlantic Division to a solid position to return to the playoffs for the 13th time in 14 AHL seasons.

And several in the Rangers family took note after the Maple Leafs game.

“You know what?” Rangers coach John Tortorella started. “Kenny and his staff have done a tremendous job, especially with the year we’re going through with injuries, these guys come up and it’s a pretty seamless process as far as their understanding how we play. They try to play very similar to us. They’re in shape, and they come in and produce.

“So not too much talked about Kenny Gernander and his staff, but they’ve done one hell of a job as to keeping their team afloat while we’re taking half of their club and trying to compete in this league. So they deserve a lot of credit.”

Goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who made 22 saves to notch his league-leading-tying seventh shutout of the season, and wing Brandon Prust concurred with their coach.

“Absolutely,” Lundqvist said if had to like the way the Whale players played. “They’re Rangers guys now (smiling). They’re playing really well. They look comfortable out there. They make good decisions, and you know that’s the only thing you can ask for, so hopefully they can keep going.”

Said Prust: “It’s great. They’ve stepped into the lineup and done a great job for us, and we need that. We got some guys out of the lineup, and it’s about everybody stepping up and making sure we all do our jobs and do our roles well.”

After practice Wednesday, Gernander said he hadn’t heard of Tortorella’s compliments. When told the gist of what Tortorella had said, Gernander said, “That’s nice to hear.”

When the Rangers faced the Hurricanes Thursday night, 11 of their 18 skaters were Hartford graduates: forwards Zuccarello, Weise, Newbury, Kolarik, Dupont and Artem Anisimov (career-high four assists Wednesday night) and defensemen Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Matt Gilroy and rookies McDonagh and Michael Sauer. And that doesn’t count the injured Dubinsky and Callahan.

The promotions Wednesday left the Whale with only 10 healthy forwards and seven defensemen for practice. Veteran Wade Redden and rookie Jyri Niemi, a defensive pairing for much of the season, practiced with the team for the third consecutive day and will be ready for a game Friday night against the North Division-leading Hamilton Bulldogs.

To fill one of the forward openings, the Whale recalled rookie wing Chris McKelvie from the ECHL’s Greenville Road Warriors. McKelvie started the season with Whale and had one goal and two assists in 15 games before being reassigned on Dec. 4. He had three goals and three assists in 16 games with Greenville.

“He’s definitely a good skater who gives us some flexible because he’s a role player who can kill penalties,” Gernander said.

The newest face with the Whale is goalie Pier-Olivier Pelletier, who was signed to a professional tryout contract to back up Chad Johnson. Pelletier, 23, the Phoenix Coyotes’ second-round pick in 2005 from St. Louis, Quebec, was 10-6-3 with the Laredo Bucks of the CHL and Elmira Jackets of the ECHL last season as a rookie. He was 6-9-4 with a 3.33 GAA, .895 save percentage and one shutout in 21 games with Laredo this season.

Pelletier was needed after Cam Talbot sustained a high ankle sprain when a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton player fell on him in the final minute of Sunday’s game. He has had extensive treatment the last four days with trainer Damian Hess and hopes to return next week.

VIRTUE, HALL VISIT AND SIGN AS WHALE’S HOMESTAND ENDS

The Whale’s three-game homestand ends against the Bulldogs (23-13-1-4) on Friday night, when former Hartford Wolf Pack standouts and close friends Terry Virtue and Todd Hall of Hamden will sign autographs in the XL Center atrium from 6-7 p.m. and then drop the ceremonial first puck. Virtue is an assistant coach with Owen Sound of the Ontario Hockey League, whose owners include former Hartford Whalers right wing Paul MacDermid. Hall is an assistant coach with the third-ranked Hamden High hockey team, which won the state Division I title the last two years.

Virtue will be making a pit stop on his way from his home in Tara, Ont., to Worcester, Mass., where he’ll be one of the first six inductees into the Worcester Hockey Hall of Fame on Saturday at the DCU Center. It’s “Salute to the IceCats Night,” the former name of the Worcester Sharks, and Virtue will be inducted with former Whalers wing Scott Young, Kelly O’Leary, Eddie Bates, Larz Anderson and Marvin Degon Sr., father of former Wolf Pack defenseman Martin Degon.

The Bulldogs have won two in a row despite their top two All-Star scorers, center David Desharnais (10 goals, 35 assists) and former New Canaan High School and Taft School-Watertown star wing Max Pacioretty (17, 15), are on recall to the Montreal Canadiens. The remaining top offensive threats are center Ben Maxwell (6, 19), right wings Aaron Palushaj (5, 17) and J.T. Wyman (10, 9), and defensemen Brendon Nash (2, 17) and T.J. Wyman (10, 9). Center Ryan Russell, the Rangers’ seventh-round pick in 2005 who never played in the organization, has six goals and two assists and is plus-11 in 40 games. Veteran Curtis Sanford (16-7-1), who will make his AHL All-Star debut next week, is No. 1 in the league in goals-against average (1.74) and save percentage (.938), which improved with back-to-back shutouts on Friday night and Tuesday night. He won a classic goaltending duel with Jean-Philippe Levasseur of Syracuse 1-0 in a shootout on Friday, when he made 22 saves in regulation and overtime, while Levasseur had a season-high 46 stops. After surrendering an opening-round shootout goal to former Avon Old Farms standout Nick Bonino, Sanford stopped the Crunch’s next four shooters to notch the win. Ben Maxwell and rookie Alexander Avtsin scored for the Bulldogs as Sanford got his third shutout of the season. Levasseur also got credit for a shutout, his third of the season. Then on Tuesday night, he had 22 saves in a 7-0 romp over the Rochester Americans as Russell had one goal and two assists.

It will be a special Family Value Night and “City of New Britain Night” at which New Britain Rock Cats mascot Rocky will be on hand with Whale mascots Pucky and Sonar. There will be an autograph signing with a Rock Cats player and a Rock Cats giveaway, and the New Britain High School marching band will perform the national anthem and during the first intermission. Tickets in the lower level are $16 and include a soda and pizza slice or hot dog. Visit www.ctwhale.com.

The Whale will visit Springfield on Saturday night to play the Falcons (18-20-1-3), who have lost four in a row. Then the Whale will hold their eighth Tip-A-Player Dinner and Sports Carnival, presented by Aetna, at the XL Center on Sunday from 4-7 p.m. Dinner provided by area restaurants will be served by the Whale players, who will be available for autographs and pictures and competing for “tips” to benefit Gaylord Specialty Healthcare at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford. The event also will include a silent auction and inflatables and games. Tickets are $30 for adults and $20 for children, and walk-ins are welcome. For more information, contact Lori Lenihart at 860-728-3366.

WHALERS-BRUINS LEGENDS FACE OFF ON FEB. 19

Hall of Fame defensemen Brian Leetch, a Cheshire native, and Brad Park headline the Bruins legends team that will play against the Hartford Whalers legends Feb. 19 at 4 p.m. before the Whale faces the Providence Bruins at 7 p.m. The doubleheader is part of the “Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest” on Feb. 11-23 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, where construction of the rink begins Thursday. In case of bad weather, the Whale-Bruins game will be played Feb. 20 at the XL Center.

Other early commitments for the Bruins team are former captain Rick Middleton, who played 12 season in Beantown and two with the Rangers, Reggie Lemelin, Ken Hodge, Don Marcotte, Rick Smith, Bob Sweeney, Lyndon Byers, Cleon Daskalatis, Jay Miller, Bob Miller (no relation) and Ken “The Rat” Linseman, who was a member of the Whalers as he passed through in a multi-player trade with Philadelphia and Edmonton that included Mark Howe leaving Hartford for the Flyers. Early commitments for the Whalers team are WHA Hall of Famer Andre Lacroix, Garry Swain, Bob Crawford, Chris Kotsopoulos, Jim Dorey, Jordy Douglas, Ray Neufeld, Gordie Roberts, Darren Turcotte, Nelson Emerson, Mark Janssens, Bill Bennett, Jeff Brubaker, Norm Barnes and the Babych brothers, Dave and Wayne. Emile “The Cat” Francis, a coach and general manager with the Rangers and Whalers, will be back behind the bench again.

Celebrities scheduled to play with one of the legends teams include Michael Keaton, Alan Thicke and David E. Kelley, son of New England and Hartford Whalers coach and general manager Jack Kelley and the writer of the 1999 hit film “Mystery, Alaska,” which was produced by Whalers Sports and Entertainment president and CEO Howard Baldwin and his wife, Karen. “Mystery, Alaska” cast members slated to appear are Michael Buie, Scott Richard Grimes, Jason Gray-Stanford, Kevin Durand, Fred J. Dukes and Cameron Bancroft, along with Neal McDonogh, Kevin Zegers and the Hanson brothers – Steve, Jeff and Dave – who played for the Minnesota Fighting Saints and were the comedic linchpins of the classic movie “Slap Shot.”

Tickets ($20 to $85) for the doubleheader can be purchased at Ticketmaster.com and the Bushnell box office in Hartford on Monday through Friday from noon to 5 p.m. or by calling the Whale at 860-728-3366. They also can be purchased online and printed immediately at Ticketmaster.com.

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