FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

EAST HARTFORD, CT. – Howard Baldwin resembled a father with a new son.

It seemed so appropriate considering he and son Howard Jr., former New England Whalers center Garry Swain and Connecticut Whale mascot Pucky christened the new rink in Rentschler Field with a ceremonial first skate and puck drop, signifying the official opening of the historic “Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest.”

“This is really special for me,” said the elder Baldwin, chairman and CEO of Whalers Sports and Entertainment that runs the business operation of the Whale and is hosting the 12-day event. “My son was born (on June 26, 1971) just a few months before the Whalers were born.”

Yes, the New England Whalers were born in November 1971 when the World Hockey Association awarded a franchise to Baldwin and fellow New England businessmen John Coburn, Godfrey Wood and William Edwin Barnes to play in Boston. The Whalers would win the first AVCO Cup (WHA championship) in 1973 and then relocate to Hartford for the 1974-75 season.

Thirty-five years later, Baldwin and his Whalers Sports and Entertainment group have rebranded the Hartford Wolf Pack to the Connecticut Whale and have put together the biggest hockey celebration in state history.

“It’s amazing how they pulled all this together. It’s a beautiful rink, isn’t it?” said Howard Sr., on skates for the first time in 15 years. “A year ago, this was not even an idea. To see these guys take it this far … the whole staff did a hell of a job. This is a landmark event that’s going to do what I wanted it to do, package the brand and show it off to the world.

“It’s a defining moment, just as the Whalers Summer Reunion was in August. We were looking to get 1,500-2,000 then, and we got 5,000. They have made this for all ages, males, females. And the NHL is aware of it, and couple of their guys are going to be coming up (from New York) on the 19th. This has a $6-7 million budget that could generate who knows how much for the area.”

The rink has a large Connecticut Whale logo at center ice circled by Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest 2011 in capital letters. The face-off circles at each end include CBT and Hilton logos, and the ice surface has the logos of sponsors Bank of America, Bud Light, Travelers, St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, Powerstationevents.com, Connecticut Lottery, Hoffman Motors, United Healthcare, Xfinity and two logos of Harvest-Properties.com and Webster Bank.

Baldwin and his son, the president and COO of Whalers Sports and Entertainment, also helped unveil the legacy jerseys to be worn by the Hartford Whalers and Boston Bruins alumni teams in their portion of the featured event, the Whale Bowl, on Feb. 19. The elder Baldwin wore a New England Whalers jersey, the younger Baldwin a Hartford Whalers legends jersey, Swain a Connecticut Whale fleece jacket and Pucky his usual Whalers outfit. Ryan Wuerfel, assistant to the chairman, modeled a Bruins legends jersey on the sidelines.

About 20 celebrities will mix in with the legends in a 4 p.m. game to be followed by the AHL’s second outdoor game at 7 p.m. The day’s activities begin with the Army-American International College game at 1 p.m.

More than 20,000 tickets have been sold, so the game is all but assured of breaking the AHL record crowd of 21,508 who watched the host Syracuse Crunch beat the Binghamton Senators 2-1 on former Wolf Pack defenseman Dave Liffiton’s goal in the first outdoor game at the New York State Fairgrounds on Feb. 20, 2010.

The Baldwins’ goal is 30,000 fans, but a sellout would really help prove a point.

“There’s an easier way to make money,” Howard Sr. said with a smile, “but we’re on a mission to bring back the (hockey) market.”

“It’s a celebration of hockey from mites all the way up to professional, and that’s very important,” Howard Jr. said. “Some NHL officials are going to be here, so we want to show them that 38,000 people want the NHL back. We’re close to Syracuse already, but we want to hit it out of the part and show people what the great state of Connecticut can show them and show that we’re a great hockey state like Minnesota.”

The NHL-standard 200-by-85-foot rink was ready only one day late thanks to the Herculean effort of construction manager Jim Hartnett and his staff after record snowfall in January. They often worked through the night playing catch-up after seven of the first 18 days of construction were wiped out by snow and ice. The only work to be done is the netting at the ends of the rink for the AHL game.

“The only thing that we really have to do is keep grooming the ice to get it better,” said Hartnett, owner of EIS Rinks LLC in Syracuse that also built the rink last year. “Now all we need to do is keep skating on the ice, and it’ll open up little cracks so we can put hot water on to seal the cracks and make it better every day. It’s just a balancing act all the way through.”

Hartnett said a favorable forecast of temperatures reaching the high 30s and mid-40s would make for optimal conditions for ice and the fans.

“Rain is about the only concern right now,” Hartnett said. “But we’d like it to be in the 40s because we freeze the ice from the bottom out, and when the temperature is in the mid-20s, we get a freeze from the top and the bottom, and we don’t really want that.”

The opening skate and puck drop preceded the first of 30 outdoor youth, high school, prep school, college, celebrity/alumni and pro games between the girls’ teams from Simsbury High and West Hartford’s co-op Hall/Conard. As the scoreboard in the north end of the stadium glowed with the slogan, “Whale Bowl 2011. More Than Hockey. This is History,” Pucky led the teams on the ice from the south end at 5:01 p.m. Then there was a five-minute skate and picture-taking session before a 10-minute warm-up with pucks.

“It’s unbelievable,” the elder Baldwin said as he watched the girls warm up with wife, Karen, as they sat in the press box. “I can’t believe the kids are actually out there on the rink.”

Any tears, Howard? “Not now,” he said, “but maybe on the 19th.

After the national anthem echoed through Rentschler Field, about 300 or so fans watched as the first official puck was dropped at 5:22 p.m. Simsbury’s Jamie Matson scored the first goal at 5:08 of the second period, but West Hartford’s Brianne O’Connor tied it at 5:52 of the third period and Alyson Alissi won it with 2:46 left. West Hartford beat Simsbury 3-2 on Wednesday night, but Thursday’s game was “for fun” because it was the third meeting of the season.

The girls’ game was followed by two youth and one cthockeyleague.com game. Friday’s schedule includes two prep school games, and there are five games and a Sacred Heart University alumni skate Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to midnight. “UConn Day” is Sunday, when the alumni plays at 9 a.m., followed by the men’s team facing Sacred Heart at 1 p.m. and the women meeting Providence at 4 p.m. Two days later, Feb. 15, is “Trinity-Wesleyan Day” as the schools’ women’s teams play at 4 p.m., their alumni teams at 6:30 p.m. and the men’s teams at 8 p.m.

High school and prep school games fill most of the schedule the remainder of the week until the Whale Bowl. All tickets are general admission except for Feb. 19.

Hall of Fame defensemen Brian Leetch, a Cheshire native, and Brad Park headline the Bruins legends team. Other commitments are Enfield native Craig Janney, former captain Rick Middleton, 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, 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 and Gary Doak 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, Ed Hospodar, Yvon Corriveau 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 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.”

Famed former NHL referee Paul Stewart will officiate the game. Stewart, a Boston native, refereed more than 1,000 NHL games in a 13-year career. On March 15, 2003, he refereed his 1,000th game, becoming the only American-born official to accomplish the feat. He also officiated during the Canada Cup in 1987 and 1991 after an eight-year playing career with teams in the NAHL, AHL, NEHL, CHL, WHA and NHL.

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.

A complete schedule of games can be found at www.ctwhale.com. There will be a free public skate on Feb. 22 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. to thank the sponsors and fans who supported the event.

WHALE LOOKS TO REBOUND BIG TIME

While the Baldwins & Co. celebrated the start of their latest dream, the Whale players did some soul-searching as they shoot for a major rebound after one of the worst losses in their 14-year history, 9-2 to the Toronto Marlies on Wednesday. The Whale allowed more goals (five) than they had shots (four) in the first period on the way to matching franchise records for goals allowed in a game and margin of defeat.

It was hardly the way the Whale (24-22-2-5) wanted to start the toughest stretch of the season, 10 of 12 games on the road, and wing Dale Weise and defenseman Pavel Valentenko will have added incentive Friday night at Hamilton after being a team-record minus-5 against the Marlies. Weise, who scored the Whale’s first goal, returned to the lineup after missing three games with shingles. Goalie Cam Talbot (high ankle sprain) is on the three-game road trip, but center Todd White (concussion) and wing Chris McKelvie (foot surgery) remained in Hartford.

Despite the lopsided victory, the Marlins were more interested in goalie Jonas Gustavsson’s recurring heart problem. Gustavsson was pulled after the first period because of an elevated heart rate. It was the Swede’s second start and first at home after being assigned to the Marlies for a two-week conditioning stint by the parent Toronto Maple Leafs.

“I don’t know what it is,” Gustavsson told reporters after the game. “I’m going to talk to the doctors soon, again, and we’ll see what they say. They said it wasn’t as bad as last year, and I could have gone in to play the (second) period. But we decided not to do that. It’s more frustrating not to be able to keep going.”

Gustavsson, 26, was first diagnosed with an abnormal heart rhythm in September 2009 and has undergone two surgeries to treat the condition. But this was the first time he had to leave a game this season, and the Toronto Sun reported Thursday that he will be out indefinitely. In December 2009, he didn’t make it through a game in Montreal and went to the hospital because his heart rate had elevated.

“I’ve been feeling good since then,” Gustavsson said. “It hasn’t been bothering me, and I haven’t felt it, so I hope it’s going to stay that way. You never know. The doctors couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t come back.”

Jussi Rynnas inherited a 5-0 lead when he replaced Gustavsson and made 21 saves in the final two periods before 7,779 on hand for the school-day game. Weise and Tim Kennedy scored for the Whale, and Kennedy, Jyri Niemi and Justin Soryal were the only Whale players not to be a minus in the game.

The Marlies are 2-0 in school-day games this season, but the first on Nov. 24 against the Grand Rapids Griffins wasn’t really fit for children’s eyes. A 3-1 victory was marred by 204 penalty minutes, including 18 fighting majors and six game misconducts in the third period.

The Whale completes their only venture into Canada this season with the game against the Bulldogs and then moves on to play at Providence on Sunday at 4:05 p.m.

The Bulldogs (28-17-1-4) have lost three of their last four games to fall one point behind the North Division-leading Manitoba Moose, but they are still on a 7-4-0-0 run that included six consecutive wins from Jan. 12 to 26. They won the first meeting with the Whale 7-3 on Jan. 21 at the XL Center as rookie defenseman Brendon Nash had one of his three goals and three of his 30 assists this season. The Bulldogs’ best player has been veteran goalie Curtis Sanford, who is 19-11-1 with a 1.81 goals-against average and .935 save percentage, both second in the league, and five shutouts, which is tied for the AHL lead with Hershey’s Branden Holtby.

The Bulldogs’ No. 1 and 3 scorers, All-Stars David Desharnais (10 goals, 35 assists) and former New Canaan High and Taft School-Watertown standout Max Pacioretty (17, 15), are on recall to the parent Montreal Canadiens. Hamilton’s current top scorer is center Ben Maxwell (9, 25), followed by right wing Aaron Pulushaj (9, 21) and Nash. Center Ryan Russell, the Rangers’ seventh-round pick in 2005 who never played for the organization before being traded to the Montreal Canadiens, has seven goals and nine assists.

The Bruins (23-24-3-1) have lost three in a row and are tied for fifth in the Atlantic Division with Springfield, five points behind the Whale. The Bruins have lost four in a row on the road and won five consecutive home games after being 5-13-1-1 at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center and 13-7-2-0 on the road. The Bruins have won the last two games with the Whale at the XL Center after Talbot backstopped three consecutive Whale wins, including his first pro shutout, 3-0 on Oct. 17. Maxime Sauve has two goals in each of the last two games against the Whale, while none of his teammates have scored more than once.

All-Star center Jamie Arniel (14, 17) leads the Bruins in scoring, followed by center Zach Hamill (3, 25), who is on recall to the Boston Bruins, center Joe Colborne (12, 14), right wing Kirk MacDonald (10, 15) and Sauve (12, 6). Rugged left wing Lane MacDermid, son of former Hartford Whalers right wing Paul MacDermid, has four goals, seven assists and 105 penalty minutes. Matt Dalton (7-6-0, 2.51 GAA, .918 save percentage, two shutouts) has beaten the Whale twice. Veteran Nolan Schaefer is 9-14-1, 3.06, .902, no shutouts).

After four days off, the Whale will make a second trip to Glen Falls, N.Y., to face the Adirondack Red Wings (16-30-2-3) on Feb. 18 before a quick bus ride home for the Whale Bowl. The Whale is at Portland on Feb. 21 at 1 p.m. and then will play their first two games in Charlotte, N.C., against the Checkers, their former ECHL affiliate, on Feb. 24 and 26. They finally return to the XL Center on March 2 to face Springfield. Their ensuing home game is March 11 against the defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears, ending the brutal stretch of 10 road games in 12.

FORMER WOLF PACK PLAYERS IN THE NEWS

Former Wolf Pack players scored key goals in victories on Wednesday night.

Alexandre Giroux had the winner to back Martin Gerber’s 33 saves for his fourth shutout of the season in the Oklahoma City Barons’ 2-0 victory over the San Antonio Rampage. The Rampage have scored one goal on 96 shots in their last three meetings with Gerber and the Barons, including two consecutive shutout losses.

Boyd Kane scored the lone shootout goal in the fifth round, lifting red-hot Hershey to a 2-1 road victory over the Atlantic Division-leading Manchester Monarchs. Todd Ford stopped 28 of 29 shots through regulation and all five of the Monarchs’ attempts in the shootout. The Bears swept the two-game regular-season series with the Monarchs and extended their points streak to 9-0-0-1. The Bears (32-14-1-3) have moved within eight points of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for first place in the East Division. Despite the loss, the Monarchs extended their points streak to 4-0-0-3 and moved three points ahead of idle Portland for the division lead.

While Giroux and Boyd made news on the ice, former Rangers’ first-round picks Hugh Jessiman and Al Montoya were on the move off the ice.

Jessiman, the 12th overall pick in 2003 and the only player from that first-round class not to have played in the NHL, was traded from the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks to Florida with fellow right wing Jack Skille and center David Pacan for right wing Michael Frolik, the Panthers’ second-leading scorer, and goalie Alexander Salak. Jessiman, 26, had three goals and two assists in 25 games with the Rockford IceHogs. The 6-foot-6, 215-pounder had back-to-back, 20-goal seasons with more than 100 penalty minutes with the Milwaukee Admirals. The Blackhawks are in a battle for a shot to defend their title, while the Panthers are trying to avoid missing the playoffs for a 10th consecutive season.

Montoya, the sixth overall pick in 2004, was traded by the Phoenix Coyotes for a sixth-round pick in June to the New York Islanders, who have been going through goalies like throat lozenges in the middle of this wild winter. The Islanders have had four goalies injured, including rookie Kevin Poulin, who caught a blade in a rut in the ice in warm-ups Tuesday night and will out for the season with a dislocated right kneecap that will require surgery.

Mikko Koskinen, who had a 5-15-0 record and 3.64 goals-against average with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, had to make an emergency first NHL start against the Maple Leafs and gave up two goals on the first two shots and three goals in the third period in a 5-3 loss. Koskinen, a 6-foot-6 Finn and the Islanders’ second-round pick in 2009, was the fifth goalie this season for the Islanders, who didn’t have a backup Tuesday night until Joel Martin got to Nassau Coliseum for the third period. The problem stems from Rick DiPietro, the first overall pick in 2000, thought he was “Rocky Balboa” when he left the crease to fight Pittsburgh goalie Brent Johnson with just 16 seconds remaining in what would be a 3-0 Penguins victory on Friday night. However, Johnson’s devastating one-punch knock-out of the Islander netminder made DiPietro look more like a heavy-bag than a heavyweight. DiPietro has appeared in only 13 games the past two seasons and the punch left the fragile goaltender with facial fractures and will miss at least 4-to-6 weeks.

Amazingly, the Islanders were scrambling for a goalie after having five under contract on New Year’s Day. But they traded 41-year-old veteran Dwayne Roloson to the Tampa Bay Lightning that night and called up Nathan Lawson. They claimed veteran Evgeni Nabobov off waivers on Jan. 22 after he signed with the Detroit Red Wings for $570,000 with the intention of using him as their starter for the remainder of the season. But Nabokov refused to report so the Islanders suspended the former San Jose Sharks star who had started the season with St. Petersburg in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in Russia before returning home for family reasons.

DiPietro was in and out, but when he was in, Lawson was usually out so Poulin has been mostly with the Islanders since early January. Last week, Lawson was out with a sprained knee, and DiPietro took Johnson’s left to the face, so Koskinen was called up for a game at the XL Center on Friday night that the Whale won 3-2.

Now the Sound Tigers have Montoya, who was supposed to be in Bridgeport on Thursday but wasn’t, is expected to join the Islanders on Friday as Martin is reassigned to the Sound Tigers. He will join Riley Gill, signed to a professional tryout contract after spending the first half of the season with Kalamazoo and Victoria in the ECHL.

So the Islanders’ No. 1 goalie will be a former No. 1 pick of the hated Rangers. Only in hockey.

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