FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

Bruce Landon has known Howard Baldwin for nearly four decades.

When Landon wasn’t tending goal for Baldwin’s New England Whalers for parts of their first five seasons in the World Hockey Association, he was playing mostly in Springfield, where he has spent the last 30 years working to build and then keep hockey alive.

On Dec. 21, Landon got a much-needed shot in the arm when Charles Pompea, a retired steel executive from Florida with plenty of ties to Connecticut, bought the Springfield Falcons, temporarily ending financial worries that had been hanging over the franchise for years.

It was one of the finest hours for Landon, who refused the temptation to sell to buyers who would have moved the team out of Springfield. Landon’s mission had been to keep the Falcons where he believed they belonged, and not even the possibility of substantially higher profits kept the straight shooter from deviating from his game plan.

“He cares deeply about his staff and his community,” AHL president and CEO Dave Andrews said at the time. “It’s his life, his passion. He lives and breathes it.”

When asked if he would have done the same thing in Landon’s position, Andrews said, “I think had I been a transient professional, as I was before I moved here, probably not.”

So Landon continues to do what he has loved to do for decades, and now one of his main competitors is Baldwin, the former Hartford Whalers owner and managing general partner who is now chairman and CEO of Whalers Sports and Entertainment.

Baldwin has begun to achieve his goal of reviving pro hockey interest in the area by assuming control of the business operations of the AHL team and rebranding it to the Connecticut Whale with an eye to bringing the NHL back to town. Baldwin had plenty of pieces to pick up in the wake of the lack of involvement by Larry Gottesdiener, chairman of the board of Northland Investment Corporation, which took over the team four years ago.

Now Baldwin’s former goalie is vying for some of the same clientele who live between the two cities separated by 25 miles, making Hartford and Springfield the closest neighbors among the AHL’s 30 teams.

But Landon, who has known Baldwin since the start of the WHA in 1972, insists the rejuvenated Hartford Wolf Pack turned Connecticut Whale is not affecting his business, though the Whale was told to stop advertising in the Springfield and Bridgeport areas for the “ Whalers Hockey Fest” at Rentschler Field in East Hartford on Feb. 10-21.

“It doesn’t hurt us at all,” Landon said. “Every market is different. Every market has got their challenges. Howard has his challenges. I’ve got my challenges. I have a different expense structure, so I don’t need as many people (in attendance) as Howard needs.

“But he’s doing everything he can do to create interest in Hartford. We want every market to do well because it’s good for the league, and right now there are a number of markets hurting, and a lot of guys are working hard to build them back. That’s what Howard is trying to do, and I give him all the credit in the world for trying.

“There was nowhere to go but up, and Howard came in with some aggressive marketing. One thing about Howard is he’s never been afraid to try some different things – dare to be different, I guess – and he’s been doing that and hopefully creating some interest. Whether he can sustain it and what his real numbers are is always a question mark, but I don’t care. I wish him well and hope they do well. I’ve got enough issues in my own market.”

In the first 11 games this season as the Hartford Wolf Pack, the team was 2-6-2-1 and averaged 3,466 at the XL Center. Since being rebranded the Connecticut Whale on Nov. 27, the team is 11-7-0-1 at home (26-13-0-3 overall) and has averaged 6,702, improving the team’s attendance position from 24th to 12th at 5,515. That includes an AHL-record 21,673 that were credited for the outdoor Whale Bowl game against Providence on Feb. 19, though the actual number of tickets sold to individuals and corporations through sponsorships was about 28,700. The AHL’s first outdoor game in Syracuse last year sold 21,508 tickets through individuals and sponsorships.

Landon said Hartford has had good teams in each of the team’s 14 seasons, missing the playoffs only once last season, by only three points, but never had gotten attendance to where it needed to be.

“No question they were losing money,” Landon said, “so Howard had a heck of a lot of work to do to make that franchise a viable franchise. He’s trying hard, doing a lot of different things. To his credit, some are working, some probably are not, but he’s trying different things and you have to give him credit for that.”

Landon single-handedly helped steer the Falcons franchise through some perilous times and into the arms of Pompea. Now he believes there are enough hockey fans between the two cities to keep both franchises viable, given the right marketing tools.

“We have a market that can be successful and has proven it before,” said Landon, who played for the Springfield Kings, administrated the Indians and helped found the Falcons. “It’s our little market with a great facility. We can make it work. But we have to have some success on the ice and create our own little buzz.”

The Falcons have created more buzz by being in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2003, but they’re 29th in attendance with an average of 3,562 for 32 dates.

But 6,486 showed up at the MassMutual Center on Saturday night to watch the Whale pull out another dramatic victory in overtime. Maybe the two cities and franchises really can work together in happy harmony to make hockey better throughout the region.

After compiling a commendable 8-3-1-0 record during their toughest stretch of the season, 10 of 12 games on the road, the Whale plays 10 of their final 16 games at home, starting Friday night against the two-time defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears (39-21-2-4). But the Whale has been better on the road (19-11-0-4) than they have been at home (13-13-2-2).

The Bears won the first meeting with the Whale 4-3 in Hershey on Nov. 21 as Mathieu Perrault scored twice and former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Brian Fahey had a goal and an assist. The Bears started a four-game road trip with a 3-2 shootout loss at Portland on Tuesday night and played at Worcester on Wednesday night.

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