FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

EAST HARTFORD, CT – Jim Hartnett called it his “Unlucky Number 7” project.

But a Herculean effort of countless hours of overtime and dedication the past three snow-filled weeks have kept the historic “Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest 2011” close to on schedule.

“This has been the toughest weather project I’ve ever encountered,” construction manager Jim Hartnett of EIS Rinks said Friday at Rentschler Field. “I had floated in four days for possible delays, and we’ve lost seven (of the first 18) days to weather as far as our production schedule, including snow removal (from the ice surface). I’ve done seven of these projects and had never lost a day to the end of the floated-in schedule.

“We’ve always been able to maintain a (finished) schedule, so this is Unlucky Number 7,” Hartness added with a smile. “But the weather is the weather. We’re shooting for Feb. 11 for skating, but we’ll open it up as soon as it’s safe and skate-worthy.”

With any luck – and some cooperation from Mother Nature for a change – Harnett and his crew will be able to have the rink ready for opening day next Saturday. Two “break-in-the-ice” days have been wiped out, but Hartnett is confident that without further delays, the Cushing Academy and Hotchkiss girls teams will face off on time at 4 p.m.

There are six games or groups scheduled to use the rink next Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to midnight, then Feb. 13 is “UConn Day” starting with an alumni game at 9 a.m. After an alumni family skate, the UConn men will play Sacred Heart at 1 p.m., followed by the UConn women against Providence at 4 p.m. The day will conclude with the Junior A Wolf Pack playing the Springfield Pics at 7 p.m., and a cthockeyleague.com game at 10 p.m. If games are postponed, they can be moved to the backend of the schedule.

Hartnett’s crew, which began the building the rink Jan. 17, hopes to finish putting up the dasher boards by Saturday afternoon and then start 21/2 days of ice-making on Sunday. Then there’s installation of the plexi-glass and cosmetic carpentry work such as building ramps, player and scorers benches and penalty boxes.

As Hartnett surveyed his hard-working crew and spoke near the rink covering the Rentschler Field grass that’s the home to UConn football, about 75 people from “Teen Challenge Connecticut” based in New Haven, “Teen Challenge Albany (N.Y.)” and “Teen Challenge New York” began the massive task of removing the record of more than four feet of snow that fell on the area in January from the 38,000-seat facility.

Ray Bohn, supervisor of Team Challenge Connecticut, was among 40 people from the local non-profit group removing snow to raise money for the organization. Bohn said the group had previously done snow removal, but nothing close to as extensive as this.

“We’ve done multiple projects like this, but not shoveled out stadiums,” Bohn said.

Kansas-based Kingdome has supervisors overseeing the three snow removal groups, who are expected to need four days to clear out Rentschler Field.

Howard Baldwin Jr., president and COO of Whalers Sports and Entertainment that is funding the Hockey Fest, said it is costing $72,000 to remove the snow from the stadium seats and $32,000 from the parking lots, including one runway. That’s more than $80,000 over the $20,000 budgeted in the $300,000 project.

“Getting the snow out of the stadium is a huge job, and an expensive one,” Baldwin said. “But we are glad to turn this into a positive for the community. The three groups doing the work are three very worth organizations, and we are grateful to be able to direct this snow-removal expense to help them with fund-raising objectives.”

More than 30 youth, high school, prep school, college, alumni and pro games are scheduled from Feb. 11 to 23, with the feature attraction being the “Whale Bowl” on Feb. 19. It’s a doubleheader starting with the Hartford Whalers legends against the Boston Bruins legends at 4 p.m., followed by the second AHL outdoor game in history between the Connecticut Whale and Providence Bruins at 7 p.m. Celebrities will play for the alumni teams, and if the Whale-Bruins game is postponed, it will be played Feb. 20 at the XL Center at a time to be announced.

The legends-AHL game will be preceded by the Army-AIC game at 1 p.m., and Baldwin said about 18,500 tickets have been sold for the tripleheader. The crowd of 21,508 at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse last year was an AHL record that Whalers Sports and Entertainment officials hope to shatter.

“We need another 12,000 (people),” WSAE chairman and CEO Howard Baldwin said. “Our measure of success is 30,000 or more.”

The younger Baldwin said he might have Hartnett’s crew put “Go Whale” into the snow surrounding the ice surface.

“We’re pumped up and excited,” Baldwin Jr. said. “We’re a little upset about the snow, but weather is not something we can control. We just hope we get a huge turnover for the 19th.”

Hall of Fame defensemen Brian Leetch, a Cheshire native, and Brad Park headline the Bruins legends team. Other Bruins commitments are Enfield native Craig Janney, former captain Rick Middleton, who played 12 seasons 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 for a few moments as he passed through in a multi-player trade with Philadelphia and Edmonton that included Mark Howe leaving Hartford for the Flyers. Derek Sanderson will coach the Bruins team.

Commitments for the Whalers team are WHA Hall of Famer Andre Lacroix, John McKenzie, whose No. 19 is retired in the XL Center rafters, Blaine Stoughton, Pat Verbeek, John Anderson, Garry Swain, Bob Crawford, Chris Kotsopoulos, Jim Dorey, Jordy Douglas, Ray Neufeld, Gordie Roberts, Darren Turcotte, Nelson Emerson, Mark Janssens, Bill Bennett, Jeff Brubaker, Fred O’Donnell, Terry Yake, Scott Daniels 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, and Norm Barnes and former captain Russ Anderson will be assistant coaches.

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 Howard Baldwin and his wife, Karen. “Mystery, Alaska” cast members slated to appear are Michael Buie, Scott Richard Grimes, Jason Gray-Stanford and Cameron Bancroft, along with Neal McDonough, Kevin Zegers, Bobby Farrelly, David Henrie 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.

The official charity of the Hockey Fest is “Sam’s Race for a Place,” a fund-raising effort spearheaded by West Hartford resident Samantha Udolf that benefits the Ronald McDonald House. Since Udolf, a successful competitive skier, founded Sam’s Race for a Place in June of 2008, it has generated donations of more than $43,500.

The Ronald McDonald House is a non-profit charity operating since 1991 that helps hundreds of families and children enjoy the comforts of home while they await treatment at area medical facilities. Udolf became familiar with Ronald McDonald House and its good works while volunteering there, and she conceived Sam’s Race for a Place after learning it is independently-funded and depends on grass-roots campaigns for nearly all of its support.

For more information about Sam’s Race for a Place, visit www.samsraceforaplace.com. Donations also can be made through that web address.

Besides the games, the Hockey Fest will include “Whale Town” featuring exhibitors, games and the Whalers Mobile Hall of Fame.

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