FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

Gordie Howe might be “Mr. Hockey” in the sporting world, but Howard Baldwin has held a similar title in Hartford seemingly forever.

Oh, there was about a two-decade sabbatical from the Insurance City that included the start of a filmmaking business in Hollywood that still consumes some of his time, though more of wife Karen.

But Baldwin returned to Connecticut about two years ago intent on reviving the pro hockey market in Hartford and bringing the NHL back to a city that he steadfastly believes it never should have left.

So Baldwin, the former owner and managing general partner of the New England Hartford Whalers, and his son, Howard Jr., formed Whalers Sports and Entertainment with the hope of increasing attendance for the American Hockey League’s Hartford Wolf Pack, re-branding the product and ultimately landing back in the world’s most elite league.

After realizing the enormity of the task and despite often trying times, Baldwin & Co. took giant first steps toward their goals after making their intentions public last June 2.

“I keep telling people that this is like going through combat with zero training,” Baldwin said. “I kind of hate to use that analogy, but it was about as hard a year as I’ve ever experienced. You had not only the lateness of getting the business operations started, but then you had the duality with the Heritage.Properties.com Hockey Fest and Whale Bowl (in February).

“I think if we had an ideal scenario, we probably would have done one or the other but not both. But as time went on, we were almost forced to do both, and we did them with the best effort we possibly could.”

Everyone needed to put forth their best effort in light of the late start, the unprecedented, record-setting two-week Winter Hockey Fest at Rentschler Field in East Hartford and trying to resurrect a market that Baldwin said was “in tougher shape than what I personally thought it was in.”

“I thought the corporate community and the fan base had lost touch with what a great thing hockey in Hartford is,” Baldwin said. “It was almost borderline apathy, which we got back to the point that I was really excited to see how many people showed up and how many hockey fans really cared about whether we won or lost.”

The work and tenacity of a 15-person staff, headed by Baldwin and his son, the president and chief operating officer of WSE, plus several part-time personnel enabled the organization to put together what Baldwin called “a very good year.”

The Whalers Fan Fest at Rentschler Field in East Hartford on Aug. 14 reinvigorated Baldwin and his forces. They were hoping 2,000 to 2,500 fans would come to meet, greet and reacquaint with 22 former Whalers players, including icons Ron Francis, the franchise’s only Hockey Hall of Fame member, Portland Pirates coach Kevin Dineen and Joel Quenneville, who had more stories than ever to share after coaching the Chicago Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup in 49 years.

But about 5,000 fans showed up, and many stood in line for as long as three hours waiting to get autographs from some players who hadn’t played in Hartford in 30 years.

“We were not expecting anywhere near that number of people, and some were lined up two and three hours before the gates even opened,” said Bob Ohrablo, WSE senior vice president of sales and business development. “It was just great and showed the Whalers have never been forgotten here. And it reinforced our decision, which we didn’t know at the time, that the Whale brand is something that the community wanted back.”

Still, there was so much work to be done because as Baldwin put, “It wasn’t like turning on a light switch.”

“People thought it would come quicker, but the fact is this business takes a tremendous amount of hard work and energy,” Baldwin said. “If it was like a light switch, you wouldn’t need the terrific group that we put together. What we’re doing is revitalizing a market, and Part One is complete. Now we go into Part Two, and I think we still have a lot of work to do. We have to get season ticket and sponsorship support, but it’s all there for us.

“This can be a great market again if everybody will chip in and support us, whether it be a small company buying a ticket plan or a big company stepping up and getting a couple of hundred season tickets. We HAVE to get that support. We really bit the bullet big time this year, made an extremely high investment and a sacrifice. Now everybody has to keep coming together. I’m proud of what we did and the way the community responded, but we’ve still got a ways to go.”

Summer is the most important time of the year for a hockey team as far as sales, and Whale officials have already started their “Skate to 3,000” campaign to have 3,000 season tickets for 2011-12. There were only 470 season ticket holders when Baldwin & Co. took over 21/2 weeks before the start of the 2010-11 season. That reached 600 by the time the first puck was dropped Oct. 8, but WSE officials would now like to more than quadruple that number and already have 750 new season ticket equivalents, plus an 80 percent renewal.

“We’ve got off to a quick start and are already number four in the league in new ticket sales,” Ohrablo said.

Plus there’s an added bonus to joining or rejoining early.

“The people who get on board now are going to be the first in line when and if we move toward the NHL,” Baldwin said. “Anyone who pays attention to what’s going on in hockey now can see there are going to be movement of franchises. And I can promise you that there is going to be movement in the next few years in the NFL. But this is the NHL, and we’re back on the radar … pardon the pun as far as Sonar (the Hartford Wolf Pack mascot).”

One of the major factors in trying to reach that season-ticket goal is the introduction of the Xfinity at Comcast Slapshot Cage that will tour the region with mascots Sonar and Pucky (Whale). The movable, inflatable cage will travel to various events throughout the summer and also make stops at the Comcast Theatre at 61 Savitt Way in Hartford. It also will visit corporate partners at lunch time when WSE officials will be pushing corporate sales, allowing interested parties to have the speed of their shots measured by a radar gun.

“The key is that it’s very visible and very colorful and represents us in the community,” Ohrablo said. “We’ll be all over Central Connecticut all summer at all kinds of different events. If someone is having a block party or something else, they should let us know and we’ll show up, along with information on our upcoming season, season tickets, things like that.”

WSE also will be holding another Summer Fest in mid-August at the XL Center that will include former Whalers and current Whale players.

“It will be a one-day celebration of hockey and a good time for families to come out to a kind of carnival atmosphere,” Ohrablo said. “It also will be a great time for people to get their season tickets. We’ll have a booth set up with the seats that are available, so it’ll be a nice chance to folks to come out about a month before training camp starts.”

The date and other details of the Summer Fest will be announced in the near future.

Ohrablo said he and his staff have already started talking to sponsors and hope to have “a whole new lineup” for next season.

“We offer sponsors a lot,” he said. “We offer them the opportunity to be involved in everything we have and see the whole thing through (to the NHL). We also want to make sure that their business benefits from the sponsorship, so we customize most of our packages to their needs.”

A large part of that is the creation of the Whale Business Club, a networking group to assure the sponsors and season ticket holders talk to each other.

“We want to make sure that while they’re supporting us and our cause and our mission that they’re also generating additional incremental business for themselves,” Ohrablo said. “The easiest way to do that is for people with like interests, those that are rallying behind us, should be doing business with each other. So we’re going to do a series of events where we get everyone together with introductions and have a separate page on our website (www.ctwhale.com). Again, people supporting us need to support each other and generate business for each other.”

Ohrablo then paused, smiled and added, “One big hug. But the big thing is just for us to be out there in the community as much as possible this summer and getting to the 3,000 season tickets. That’s the big focus for us.”

Anyone interested in booking the Xfinity of Comcast Slapshot Cage or becoming a season ticket holder or corporate sponsor should contact Amy Rimmer at amy@whalerssports.com.

Baldwin said 3,000 season tickets would give WSE “the opportunity to potentially break even, depending on what happens during the regular season.”

“We’re in a heck of a lot better position than we were in September,” said Baldwin, alluding to when WSE took over control of the business operations from AEG. “It’s important that people realize that while we have nothing but respect for the AHL we want to run this like we’re the 31st NHL team. We feel fortunate to be in the AHL, but that doesn’t stop us from wanting to run and position this as the 31st NHL team. What they might do in another market is great, but we’ve got our own set of criteria that we want to achieve.”

Another Winter Fest hasn’t been discussed mainly because of the scope and financial commitment involved in the two-week project that featured 42 outdoor youth, high school, prep school, college, alumni and pro games, highlighted by the Whale playing the Providence Bruins before an AHL-record 21,673 at the Heritage.Properties.com Whale Bowl at Rentschler Field on Feb. 19. That, coupled with the name change on Nov. 27, helped increase the average home attendance from 3,466 for the first 11 games to 6,450 for the last 29.

Despite too many home games early in the season, something the Whale is working to change next season, the team ended up averaging 5,659, the franchise’s highest total since 5,845 in 2002-03 and ranked 12th in the 30-team AHL after an all-time low 4,188 was 28th last season. The Wolf Pack/Whale hasn’t averaged at least 6,540 since 6,714 in 2001-02, and there will be two fewer home games but more weekend dates in 2011-12. The Whale is still selling 40-game season ticket packages that include the first two playoff games, and if the team doesn’t make the playoffs, the money for those games will be refunded or applied to season tickets for 2012-13.

Whale coach Ken Gernander likes that AHL board of governors reduced the number of games and extended the season for one week, thereby eliminating four games in five nights because it should enhance the quality of play and help reduce the possibility of injuries. Ohrablo likes the idea from a marketing standpoint.

“The more weekend dates are great because we’re a weekend-driven league,” Ohrablo said. “I think the dates we submitted (to the AHL) were a very nice partnership between hockey and marketing. (Assistant coach) Pat (Boller) and I worked together and were able to find a lot of weekday dates when there’s no school the next day and worked well for hockey as well.”

Baldwin commended the New York Rangers for being “a really good partner” and never putting a bad product on the ice, as demonstrated by the franchise making the playoffs 13 of its 14 years and missing in 2010 by only three points. In turn, Baldwin & Co. earned high marks from Rangers assistant coach/assistant general manager and Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld, who entered the NHL as a scrapping defenseman about the time the New England Whalers moved from Boston and became the Hartford Whalers in 1974 and has been part of the Madison Square Garden group that handled the Wolf Pack’s marketing until Larry Gottesdiener’s consortium was awarded control four years ago and then replaced by WSE in September.

“The biggest thing for us was increased attendance, and Howard delivered,” Schoenfeld said. “For our players, I think that was a nice bonus. As far as the business end, that’s for Howard to answer as his part of the equation, but he has fulfilled all his obligations with us. But one thing that Howard thought he could do was increase our attendance, which makes it a much better environment for the kids, and he did it, so kudos to them for that.”

WSE achieved such numbers in the face of the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team making an unprecedented run to a third national championship, the women’s team setting a NCAA record with a 90-game winning streak en route to another Final Four and the football team qualifying for its first BCS bowl appearance, the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma. It was the first time a school had two basketball teams reach the Final Four and a BCS bowl game in the same year.

“There were a lot of things that we faced, and look at UConn,” Baldwin said. “I don’t know much about football, but I do know they were in a BCS bowl with an average record (7-4) and went head-to-head on New Year’s Day with our game (against Providence). That’s rather unfortunate. And I sat at a breakfast in September with (UConn men’s basketball coach) Jim Calhoun when he talked about how he hoped the team would make the top 25. Then they win the national title, and three of their top games are against our Whale games.

“So there were a lot of things thrown at our group. It would be just impossible for all of them to happen again next year.”

Baldwin then smiled and tapped his right fist on a table about a half-dozen times.

“I know UConn stepped on our toes a bit,” Ohrablo said, “but if you look at the whole picture in terms of Hartford as a sports town, it’s worth it. If you look at football and basketball doing well and what we did with the resurgence of hockey, including a record walkup of more than 3,000 for our Dec. 29 game, it all happened in one winter. So I think that’s the message that Hartford has to take and say, ‘Let’s build on that.’ ”

It’s exactly the message that Whalers Sports and Entertainment wants to convey to the Hartford sports market and its fans this summer and into a future that they again hope includes the NHL.

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