FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

HARTFORD, CT – June 2 will mark the first anniversary of Whalers Sports and Entertainment chairman and CEO Howard Baldwin announcing his group’s plans to assume business control of the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack (now Connecticut Whale) with the hope of reviving the local hockey market and returning to the NHL.

Not surprisingly, Baldwin called WSE’s first year “an adventure” that included countless twists and turns and some financial losses. But that hasn’t deterred Baldwin and his group from forging forward with an expanded marketing plan for a continuation of increased attendance and achieving the ultimate goal while focusing more on winning than nostalgia.

WSE managed to fulfill its objective of increasing attendance despite not assuming control from Northland LLC until just weeks before the start of the franchise’s 14th season.

“Whenever you start something two weeks prior to opening day, it’s always an adventure,” Baldwin said Wednesday during a press briefing at the Hilton Hotel. “This was an adventure, but we all got through it together – and wait until you see what we do the next year. I’ve been doing this for a while through mergers (between the NHL and World Hockey Association) and all kinds of things in professional hockey, and I don’t know that there’s been an organization that has had to go through the kind of things that we’ve had to go through.”

Baldwin said it was “almost a re-educational process” to get people involved again, starting at the highest level, to help a region that lost its self-esteem after the Hartford Whalers left in 1997 and then was jilted by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

“One company (executive) who used to be a major partner of mine when I was here in the 1970s and ’80s came to ‘Gordie Howe Night’ and had a fantastic time in the directors suite,” said Baldwin, the former owner and managing general partner of the WHA’s New England and NHL’s Hartford Whalers. “It’s just getting people back and seeing what a great product it is on the ice and frankly what a great facility (the XL Center) is. They just need to be reminded that this is an asset of the city and the state and everybody has to get behind it.

“And it was interesting that this particular executive said, ‘Howard, we have to help you make what you’re doing work because if we want to attract young executives to come and work for our company, we’ve got to have a city that’s vibrant and jumping and has fun things to do.’ And that’s what all of this is about. But we can only do so much so fast. One of things we want to do is put some things back that were there in the ’80s, like a sports bar restaurant and a gift shop and creating that entertainment destination zone that this used to be and not an atmosphere of walking into a place that’s a little flat.”

Baldwin said WSE has completed Part I of their return and are “unyielding and more committed than we’ve ever been to seeing this through.” He stressed that while AHL teams have constant flux, it’s not much different than the NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball.

“We talk nostalgia all the time (like) the 1985-86 Hartford Whalers team that we all loved so much,” Baldwin said. “But almost to a person, every one of those players played on another team, so what you learn is you support the sweater and you support the young men that wear the sweater for the time that you have them.

“The New York Rangers have never not put a great product on the ice, and (their players) wear our sweater. So there will be players who go up and down; that’s just a fact of life and the nature of our business. This year we have to work even harder to get our crowds up to 7-10,000 because we want this to be the No. 1 market in the AHL. And this year will be a little different in that we want to put the emphasis on the hockey. Last season we had a lot of nostalgia moments and we’ll continue to do that with some retro nights, but we want people to live and die by wins and losses and the team that wears the sweater. When they win, we want to be happy, and when we don’t win, we want to be sad, so that surely will be one of our themes for the future. We want to win games and have a helluva good time doing it.”

To try to assure continued growth in attendance, corporate support and community involvement, Baldwin said WSE will employ “good, old grass-roots marketing.”

“Fundamentally, we have to get the corporate community re-engaged,” Baldwin said. “That’s going to be the key to the future of hockey in this market. I think the outdoor game (at Rentschler Field in East Hartford on Feb. 19) started to get them re-engaged. But we have to have the corporate community within a 35-to-40-mile radius of the city involved, which is why we’ll be really reaching out to each and every company in this market place with season tickets.

“We’re well underway already, but while the promotions are great, we’re selling hockey, and we’re fortunate to work with a great organization that will give us a great product. I want the folks to be into the hockey so when you walk around our stands the people are aware of the score and what’s going on.”

WSE has established the Whalers Alliance to create united support for WSE’s vision and the Whale Biz Network for season ticket holders and sponsors to insure they can increase their business by doing business with each other. There will be special networking events where partners are introduced to each other, a breakfast series beginning in the fall where prominent speakers from sports business will present tips and networking opportunities and a special page on the website (www.ctwhale.com) where members can speak to each other, find business opportunities and share news about their businesses.

“We’re going to be very aggressive this summer in asking for corporate support and season tickets,” said Bob Ohrablo, WSE senior vice president of sales and business development. “The Whale Biz Network is set up to give the companies that do support us a little extra with the idea of being able to network and do business with each other. We would love to see an organization that’s supporting us increase their business by working with other businesses that are part of our family.

“I helped to create a similar program when I was with the (NHL’s) Florida Panthers, and it was a major point of difference that sponsors and corporate season ticket holders really appreciated. We did link businesses together, and they would see benefits over and above the tickets or the sponsorship that they purchased.”

WSE has begun a “Skate to 3,000” campaign to have 3,000 season tickets for 2011-12 after only 470 were on board when they took over in late September. That number 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 800 new season ticket equivalents, plus an 80 percent renewal.

“Every game we were really starting from – pardon this expression from this time of our lives – close to ground zero,” Baldwin said. “We had a lot of support from key people, but our staff really had to hustle, hustle, hustle. But when we started the rebrand (Nov. 27), we had a heckuva night (13,089 for a game against Bridgeport), which you would expect, and then we had some nights that were slow and some nights that we were up against UConn football and basketball. So there were extenuating circumstances, but excuses are excuses and they’re all gone. They had a great year, and we had a great year. We’re happy because we increased our attendance and our gross gate, and now we’ve just got to build off of that.”

WSE will host Hockey Fest II at the XL Center in August with Whale players and former Whalers and Wolf Pack players scheduled to participate. The date of the event will be announced in the near future.

“It’ll be something to get the community engaged with us right before we start training camp,” Ohrablo said.

Baldwin said WSE is also planning new television and radio programming that will be announced within the next 30 days and “generate a lot of excitement.”

“It will generate a lot of excitement,” he said. “There will be really good and exciting packages.”

Baldwin thanked the Rangers and Whale coaching staff for their professionalism and patience during some trying times. The Whale and Rangers continued a successful bond as the team returned to the playoffs after missing for the only time in their 14-year history despite a record 350 man-games lost to injuries and call-ups. Eight Whale players, notably defenseman Ryan McDonagh and center Kris Newbury, helped the Rangers remain afloat during the most trying times and qualify for the postseason after failing last season.

Whale coach Ken Gernander said making the postseason by finishing third in the Atlantic Division with 88 points was vital “but just the first step.”

“Every season our goal is to win the Calder Cup, so getting back into the playoffs was very important to us,” he said. “But that’s just the foundation for moving ahead where we’re going to be challenging for the Calder Cup.”

Gernander said having eight players contribute to the Rangers “speaks to the level of hockey that the Rangers bring in here and to the level of hockey in the AHL and in Hartford.”

“All the guys are at different levels of development, but all are that close to being full-time NHL players,” he said. “Just a little bit of refinement to their games, and they can find their way onto a NHL roster, so it’s really good for our market to have the players who we have been given.”

Rangers assistant coach/assistant general manager and Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld commended Gernander and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller with helping keep the Rangers going while still getting the Whale in the playoffs.

“We went through a period in New York where we were banged up big time, we were calling guys up six deep and we didn’t lose,” said Schoenfeld, who will participate in the Rangers’ organizational meetings May 16-22 in La Quinta, Calif. “The players came from Hartford and knew how to play, knew the system to play and were well conditioned. It was seamless, and without the extraordinary job that the guys here die, we wouldn’t have made the playoffs.

“I talked to (Rangers president and GM) Glen (Sather) as recent as yesterday about this staff and the job they’ve done, and he would echo my sentiments, that they really did a top-notch job. The first thing we look for is development in our prospects, and the next thing is to make sure the players we deem as call-ups are ready to make a difference when we need them. And we try to do it all in a winning environment. We want it to be an exciting team and one, as Howard said, that the people can root for. We want them to care. We want to get fans as opposed to spectators.

“We want people to come and feel good about the success of the team and hurt a little bit when the team fails. It’s a hard thing because it is a transient league, but sports are really transient. So you’ve got to start cheering for the Connecticut Whale, and we want to make sure that we give a good enough product here so that most nights, people are going home happy.”

Schoenfeld also lauded Baldwin for fulfilling a pledge to increase attendance. 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. Those numbers were helped by the two-week Heritage.Properties.com Winter Fest 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. That coupled with the name change, helped increase the average home attendance from 3,466 for the first 11 games to 6,450 for the last 29.

The Wolf Pack/Whale hasn’t averaged at least 6,450 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.

“The one thing Howard promised us – and he delivered on – is that he was going to get people in the stands,” Schoenfeld said. “When we went back to our first conversations, that’s what excited me. Howard guaranteed he was going to get more people in the stands even than in the distant past when the franchise drew pretty well. He has done it. Whether it has been enough for Howard to make money is up to Howard to tell that story. But as far as our part of the equation, Howard has fulfilled his agreement. We provided the players, he has had the agreement, we’re all up to snuff and he kept his word and put more people in the stands.

“And he wants to put even more people in the stands for our benefit because it’s a big kick for the kids. It’s a great kick to skate on the ice and have 7,000 people cheering for you as opposed to 1,200. If you’re a pro at any level, you want people to come and watch you play. Most pros want to be in a situation that makes them feel slightly uncomfortable. You have to make the 4-footer on the 18th hole. You want to be the guy taking the penalty shot. That separates the wheat from the chafe, the good from the very good or great. All kids have some of that in them or they wouldn’t be playing professional sports.”

Gernander said Baldwin “brings a big vision for hockey in Hartford, a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of new ideas.”

“You don’t have to go back very far in the season to see some of the new undertakings like the outdoor game and some of the marketing strategies,” Gernander said. “We’re excited about working with them again in the upcoming season, and it should be all that much better given that we’ll have the whole offseason to build. I think we’ve made a pretty good foundation of the AHL in this market, but it’s just the starting point.”

Schoenfeld emphasized people around Hartford might not realize what they’ve got.

“Ryan McDonagh is not coming back,” Schoenfeld said, referring to the defenseman who is now an NHLer much like former UConn stars Kemba Walker and Maya Moore are now headed to the NBA and WNBA. “You had a kid in a short period of time who went from a struggling player just feeling his way through early on who kept working with (the coaches) and grew into a player who became very valuable to the Rangers. (Defenseman) Michael Sauer was dinged up for two years here, but they kept working with him and he made our club (this season).

“This is a good, exciting product. If you like hockey, you don’t always have to watch the NHL to see good hockey. A lot of the guys here are right on the cusp, so, like Howard said, cheer for the team. It might be a different player, but this is your city, this is your team. Come out and cheer for the team because the team, by and large, gives you everything it has every night.”

SUCCESSFUL SURGERY FOR DEL ZOTTO

Defenseman Michael Del Zotto, who split his second pro season between the Rangers and Whale, has to hope things have finally turned for the better for him.

After a season that saw his demotion to the minors after being named to the NHL All-Rookie Team and a broken finger that sidelined him the final six weeks, Del Zotto had successful surgery Tuesday to repair a sports hernia. The procedure was performed by Dr. William Meyers at the Riverview Surgical Center in Philadelphia, and Del Zotto is expected to be ready for the start of training camp in September.

Del Zotto, the Rangers’ first-round pick (20th overall) in 2008, had two goals and nine assists in 47 games with the Rangers this season. He started the season on Broadway but switched places with Ryan McDonagh on Jan. 3 when the Rangers wanted him to join the Whale to try to rediscover his game. Several Rangers injuries led to Del Zotto being recalled on Feb. 2, but he was reassigned to the Whale on Feb. 28 and sustained the broken finger when hit by a puck in his first game against Springfield on March 2, causing him to miss the final 25 games.

Del Zotto had seven assists in 11 games with the Whale but was unable to play against Portland in the first round of the playoffs as the Pirates prevailed in six games. He plans to celebrate his 21st birthday on June 22 with his first visit to Las Vegas, where the NHL Awards Show will be held June 24.

PIRATES STAY ALIVE WITH EASE

Talk about a turnaround.

After being hammered and put on life support in Game 4, Portland rebounded with four goals in less than 141/2 minutes Tuesday night in a 6-2 victory over host Binghamton, extending their Atlantic Division finals to Friday night at Cumberland County Civic Center in Maine.

All-AHL right wing Mark Mancari, who split time between the Pirates and parent Buffalo Sabres in the first round against the Whale, had two goals and two assists in a reversal of a 6-1 loss in Game 4. The successive blowouts came after the first three games were decided by one or two goals.

“You look at the video from (Monday) night, and we got outplayed in a lot of different areas,” Pirates coach and former Whalers icon Kevin Dineen told reporters after the game. “Tonight we just cleaned up the little things that make a difference in a playoff series. Little things turn into big things.”

Such sentiments were often expressed by Gernander, who was most exasperated by a slew of ill-advised penalties that ultimately led to their ouster by the Pirates.

The biggest improvement for the Pirates on Tuesday night was their special teams. They ended a 0-for-10 drought on the power play by scoring on their first two chances in the four-goal first period that all but settled the issue. They also killed off all five Senators power plays, including a 5-on-3 for 1:09 in the first period, and scored their first shorthanded goal of the playoffs.

“Special teams win games,” Mancari said. “When you have a power play, you’re not going to have a better opportunity to score goals. We really took pride in it tonight. We really worked hard on getting pucks to the net.”

Colin Stuart added a goal and an assist for the Pirates, who got within 3-2 in the best-of-seven series, with the final two games scheduled Friday and Saturday night in Portland. Mark Voakes, who was in Whale training camp and played much of the season with the ECHL’s Greenville Road Warriors, returned to the Pirates lineup in place of Igor Gongalsky and scored his third goal of the playoffs for a 5-0 lead early in the second period. Jhonas Enroth, who spent the last six weeks of the season and first round of the playoffs with the Sabres, had 35 saves.

Bobby Butler, who split the season between Binghamton and the parent Ottawa Senators, and Jim O’Brien scored for the Senators, who had won six of their previous seven games since falling into a 3-1 hole in the division semifinals against the Manchester Monarchs. Former Wolf Pack center Corey Locke, the AHL’s MVP and leading scorer this season, had one assist for the Senators, giving him six helpers in five games since returning to the lineup after missing the last three games of the regular season and first round of the playoffs with a shoulder injury. Robin Lehner was pulled after allowing four goals on 14 shots in the opening 14:29. Barry Brust stopped 25 of 27 shots the rest of the way, but a Binghamton AHL team still hasn’t clinched a series at home since the B-Rangers defeated Rochester in the first round in 1995, which was Gernander’s first season in the Rangers organization. But the Senators still have a chance to become the first team to reach the AHL’s Final Four after finishing in fifth place in the regular season since Hershey in 2001. … When Brett Sutter scored his third goal of the playoffs at 5:40 of overtime to give the Charlotte Checkers a 2-1 victory over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Monday night, he and his father, Darryl, became the first father-son duo in the AHL’s 75-year history to score sudden-death goals. Darryl did it for New Brunswick on May 6, 1980. The Checkers, the Whale’s ECHL affiliate before this season, took a 3-1 series lead on Wednesday night as Chris Terry scored a power-play goal off an assist from former Wolf Pack defenseman Bryan Rodney at 2:01 of the third period to back the 44-save performance of Mike Murphy in a 1-0 victory. Charlotte, which ousted two-time defending Calder Cup champion Hershey in the first round, is now just one win away from eliminating a Penguins team that had an AHL-high 58 victories and 117 points in the regular season. They can accomplish that Friday night at home, with the Penguins needing a win to send it back to Wilkes-Barre for Game 6 on Saturday night. A Game 7 would be Sunday in Wilkes-Barre. … Devante Smith-Pelley scored twice as host Mississauga beat Owen Sound 5-2 in the opener of the Ontario Hockey League finals Tuesday night. Scott Stajcer, the Rangers’ fifth-round pick in 2009 who had won eight of nine playoff games, stopped 23 of 27 shots for the Attack, coached by former Whalers forward Mark Reeds and former Wolf Pack defenseman Terry Virtue. Robby Mignardi had the two games for Owen Sound, which hosts Game 2 on Wednesday night.

RANGERS, WOLF PACK WELL REPRESENTED IN WORLDS

While the Calder Cup playoffs roll on, 129 AHL graduates fill the 16 rosters in the World Championships, which began Friday in Bratislava and Kosice, Slovakia.

Former AHL All-Stars in the competition include Jason Spezza (Canada), Mikko Koivu (Finland), Tomas Plekanac and Patrik Elias (Czech Republic), Jaroslav Halak and Pavol Demitra (Slovakia) and Danbury native Ryan Shannon and former Springfield Pic Mike Komisarek (USA). Current and former Rangers/Whale players competing are McDonagh, Ty Conklin and Al Montoya (USA), Petr Prucha and Karel Rachunek (Czech Republic), Fedor Tyutin (Russia), Ivan Baranka and Marcel Hossa (Slovakia), Vladimir Denisov (Belarus), John Tripp (Germany) Andres Ambühl (Switzerland) and Jarkko Immonen (Finland). Wing Mats Zuccarello would be playing for Norway, but he broke his hand in Game 5 against Portland.

Former AHL coaches in the event are Scott Gordon (USA coach), Glen Hanlon (Slovakia coach) and Scott Arniel (Canada assistant coach). Germany coach Uwe Krupp, Switzerland coach Sean Simpson, Austria assistant Emanuel Viveiros and Finland assistant Pasi Nurminen won Calder Cup titles as players.

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