BY: Bruce Berlet
Operating a professional sports franchise is never an easy undertaking, but few, if any, companies had more to deal with than Whalers Sports and Entertainment a year ago.
WSE assumed management control of the then Hartford Wolf Pack only 21/2 weeks before the season opener in early October and then had to organize a two-week outdoor extravaganza at Rentschler Field in East Hartford in February for local youth, high school, prep school and college teams. The unprecedented event was capped by a tripleheader of AIC playing Army, followed by a Hartford Whalers-Boston Bruins alumni game and an AHL game between the rebranded Connecticut Whale and Providence Bruins.
“Last year was about as difficult a year as I ever would have imagined,” WSE chairman and CEO Howard Baldwin said Thursday at the Whale’s preseason media luncheon at the Hilton Hotel in Hartford. “There was the late takeover of the team, dealing with a Winter Fest that was a great success but a very painful great success with the featured games played in 15 below zero. And we had a game on Super Bowl Sunday, but thanks to our friends with the New York Rangers and XL Center, we have a great schedule this season.
“So as difficult as last year was, this year will be that much more promising. The team has always been very competitive and should be again this season, so it’s déjà vu all over again. There’s nothing like opening day, and it should be a great year because we can focus on hockey – winning and hockey, hockey, hockey. We’ll always have a lot of promotions, but last year we had a lot of distractions. We’d play a game, and then we’d be going against UConn or the NFL or the Super Bowl. But now 38 home games and the operations are our focus, and I think we’ll have a great team. And we’ve got a few things going on in the arena and work on the big picture, so I think things are settling down nicely.”
Baldwin stressed how WSE is committed to trying to restore professional hockey to what it was in the 1980s and 1990s before the Hartford Whalers left for North Carolina in 1997 and became the Carolina Hurricanes. He pointed out Hockey Hall of Famers Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull and Dave Keon played their final NHL games with the Whalers and recalled how they occasionally formed one of the greatest lines in hockey history at the average age of 48.
Now WSE is attempting to showcase the some of the best veterans and rising stars in the New York Rangers organization, from 13-year NHL defenseman Wade Redden to rookie left wing Ryan Bourque, son of Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, one of the game’s legends, who usually made life miserable for the Whalers while often playing half the game. He and his wife, Christiane, should be frequent visitors to the XL Center this season.
Though attendance nearly doubled after WSE took over the team’s business affairs and the Wolf Pack became the Whale on Nov. 27, fan support has to continue to increase if the Hartford hockey market is to return to prominence. To try to achieve that goal, two new marketing people were hired and the ticket sales staff doubled from three to six in the past six weeks. After the Whale plays at Albany on Friday night, they have their home opener Saturday at 7 p.m. against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, coached by former Wolf Pack defenseman Brent Thompson, whose assistants include West Haven native Eric Boguniecki, the AHL’s MVP in 2002 with the then Worcester IceCats.
The game against the Sound Tigers is the first of 10 GEICO Connecticut Cup games and the first opening night under the Whale banner. The Whale was 6-3-0-1 against the Sound Tigers last season, winning 3-2 in a shootout in their first game as the Whale on Nov. 27. The Sound Tigers, who joined the Whale in the Northeast Division, have split two 4-2 decisions, losing to Portland and beating Albany, as feisty wing Justin DiBenedetto notched a hat trick and Anders Nilsson made 28 saves in his North American debut Sunday. And new captain Jeremy Colliton is expected back after sustaining a groin injury in the Sound Tigers’ first preseason game Sept. 23. He has played right wing in practice with Tyler McNeely and David Ullstrom, while Tim Wallace was moved alongside Micheal Haley and Trevor Frischmon.
“(Colliton) brings veteran experience to the line,” Thompson told Michael Fornabaio of the Connecticut Post. “He and Ullstrom can read off each other. And with McNeely, that’s a pretty good offensive line, and a defensively responsible line. Going on the road (to Adirondack on Friday night), we want to make sure each line (is capable) offensively and defensively.”
Before the game, there will be a “Whale Blue and Green” Fan Fest in the XL Center atrium starting at 4 p.m. in which fans can hear live music, test their shooting skills in the CT Whale Slap Shot Cage sponsored by Xfinity, frolic in a bounce house and enjoy a Wii station. Five thousand fans will receive a free Whale magnetic schedule, sponsored by Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over. Tickets for all games are on sale at the Public Power Ticket Office at the XL Center, on-line at www.ctwhale.com and through TicketMaster Charge-by-phone at 1-800-745-3000.
Whale coach Ken Gernander said he’s enthused about “a real good mix of experienced veterans and real quality pros and young kids full of youthful enthusiasm.” The Whale split their first two games last weekend, losing 6-3 at Adirondack, despite center Kris Newbury’s first Whale hat trick, before notching a 1-0 shootout victory at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as Chad Johnson made 41 saves in regulation and overtime and stopped three of five shots in the skills competition while Newbury, John Mitchell and rookie Jonathan Audy-Marchessault were scoring for the Whale.
Gernander pointed out Johnson and Cam Talbot give the Whale a rarity with two solid, returning goalies, and the defense is the same except for the addition of veteran Brendan Bell, assigned by the Rangers on Sunday after they returned from a six-game stint in Europe, including their first two regular-season games.
The Whale have only three returning full-time forwards – Newbury, Mitchell and Kelsey Tessier – but the addition of veterans such as Andreas Thuresson, Andre Deveaux and returnee Jordan Owens and youngsters such as Bourque, Audy-Marchessault, Carl Hagelin, Tommy Grant and free agent signee Scott Tanski makes for an interesting mix that Gernander wants to play an aggressive, up-tempo style that the fans should enjoy.
“The Whale marketing department is doing all it can to put people in the building and create excitement and enthusiasm from that end of things,” Gernander said. “The players are going to do everything they can on the ice, whether it be in games or just their practice habits that spill over into games, so they can play a real exciting brand of hockey and give everything they’ve got night in and night out.
“They’re a real good group to work with as far as being very responsive to what we’re asking and being willing to do it. We’re all really looking forward to our home opener Saturday.”
Left wing Sean Avery should rejoin the Whale on the ice in the near future. Avery cleared waivers and was assigned to the Whale on Oct. 5 but was told he did not have to report until Tuesday. Meanwhile, Avery and his agent, Pat Morris, looked into possible deals in Europe, but when nothing materialized, Avery reported to the Whale and has been rehabbing an injury that has prevented him from playing since his third and final preseason game Sept. 30 in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Avery, the Rangers’ final cut at forward after losing out to Erik Christensen for the 13th and final spot, hasn’t skated with the Whale and won’t play this weekend. Avery is not available to the media until he returns to practice. After the Rangers claimed Avery off re-entry waivers from Dallas on March 3, 2009, he had two goals and one assist in eight games with the Wolf Pack before rejoining the Blueshirts, whom he left as a free agent after the 2007-08 season and signed a four-year, $15.5 million contact with the Stars.
“It’s up to the athlete as far as when he feels he can participate,” Gernander said. “Sean has been rehabbing and working with the guys, though not on the same schedule because he’s not on the ice. But he’s part of the group, and we’ll see how we use him when he gets healthy. Right now, he has to get ready to play and then we’ll get him in the group (on the ice) as soon as possible.”
Gernander said the 31-year-old Avery isn’t a special case despite being an 11-year pro veteran who has 87 goals, 157 assists, 1,512 penalty minutes and countless “chats” with the opposition in 565 NHL games with the Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings, Stars and Rangers.
“You work with the group, but you also have to look at each case individually,” Gernander said. “No two people are the same, whether they be NHLers being sent to us or young kids who are developing. Nobody’s (learning) curve, nobody’s personality, nothing is the same. So you deal with each case on an individual basis. Now, you might have learned something in past experiences with another athlete that’s applicable, but you try and deal with each individual on a case by case basis.”
Gernander isn’t sure how Avery will fit in with the Whale.
“I would expect that when he gets in our lineup that he would be able to chip in in several different areas,” Gernander said. “He’s a good skater, you know he can play a physical style of game, you know he can mix it up and he’s got offensive capabilities. He’s got a lot of NHL attributes because he has an NHL career, so I think he’s going to be able to participate, help our team in a number of different fronts. We’re not going to just pigeon-hole him into one role.”
The Rangers are carrying 24 players, one over the limit, but that includes All-Star defenseman Marc Staal, who is on injured reserve because of recurring post-concussion syndrome headaches, and right wing Chad Kolarik, who is on IR and now rehabbing in Hartford after surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee Oct. 5 that will sideline him at least six months. According to capgeek.com, the Rangers have $862,604 in cap space, not including the salary of Avery ($1,937,500 from both the Rangers and Dallas Stars), Kolarik ($525,000), Redden ($6.5 million), who cleared waivers in September, and Trumbull native and former captain Chris Drury ($3.325 million), who retired Aug. 19 after having the final year of his five-year, $35.5 million contract bought out on June 29.
Rangers general manager Glen Sather considered putting Avery through re-entry waivers so Avery could be claimed for half his salary, but that will depend on if the team feels it can take the risk of dead space against the cap, which likely won’t happen. The Rangers are off until Saturday night, when their early-season road trip because of renovations to Madison Square Garden continues at the New York Islanders before a Western trip to Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg.
The Whale plays a third road game Friday night against their new Northeast Division rival, the Devils, who lost their first two starts. They have retained two of their top three scorers – No. 1 Matt Anderson (23 goals, 32 assists in 76 games) and former Wolf Pack wing Chad Wiseman (No. 3 with 16 goals and 28 assists in 48 games). Last season, the Devils swept the then Wolf Pack 3-2 in a shootout in Albany and 3-1 in Hartford, with both games in October.
FIVE HOME GAMES ON WCCT-TV; SWAIN NEW COMMENTATOR
WSE announced an agreement with WCCT-TV to telecast five Whale home games, starting Dec. 10 against the Providence Bruins. It is being billed as “Whale TV” and represents a return of the AHL to local television for the first time since the 2006-07 season.
“Together with our new radio relationship with WCCC-FM, this television package represents a major upgrade in broadcast exposure for our games,” WSE president and COO Howard Baldwin Jr. said. “We look as this expanded broadcast presence as a major pillar of our goal of expanding interest in the Whale and restoring Hartford’s status as a premier hockey market.”
The other Saturday night games to be televised are Jan. 28 against the Springfield Falcons, Feb. 18 against the Worcester Sharks, March 10 against the Norfolk Admirals and March 31 against the Adirondack Phantoms.
Whale TV also includes all Whale internet video content and will soon extend to other distribution deals with major media companies. WCCT-TV’s telecasts will be presented by Webster Bank, and on all Whale TV nights, fans can enjoy a live pregame show from a special set in the XL Center atrium.
Former New England Whalers center Garry Swain will be joining veteran play-by-play man Bob Crawford as a color commentator for home game radio broadcasts as part of “Rockin’ Hockey” on 106.9 WCCC-FM. Swain, a first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1986 and a veteran of three seasons with the World Hockey Association Whalers, brings additional broadcast experience to the radio booth. He previously worked with Bob Neumeier, former voice of the Whalers on WTIC-AM and now a broadcaster for NBC Sports and Comcast SportsNet New England. Swain also has done games with former Whalers broadcaster Chuck Kaiton, a Hockey Hall of Famer now working for the Carolina Hurricanes.
“I have a passion for the game, and I have an eye towards bringing the Hartford market back to prominence in the hockey world,” Swain said. “It’s nice not only to work with another professional in Bob Crawford, but also Howard Baldwin, and to help with his vision.”
Swain has been on the WSE board for several months working in the business development department in sponsorship series.
Crawford also read an official statement from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proclaiming Oct. 10-15 as Connecticut Whale Week in Connecticut.
ATKINSON JOINS FALCONS
When the Whale and Springfield have a home-and-home series next weekend, Greenwich native and former Avon Old Farms and Boston College standout Cam Atkinson will be with the Falcons, after being assigned by the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday. The right wing and sixth-round pick in 2008 made the NHL club after being the surprise of training camp, but had only one goal in the Blue Jackets’ first four games. That came against Cory Schneider in a 3-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, who lost to the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup finals in June.
Atkinson and wing Chris Kreider, the Rangers’ first-round pick (19th overall) in 2009 and the team’s top prospect, who was named MVP of the Ice Breaker Tournament at North Dakota last weekend, were major reasons why BC won the national championship in 2010, when they beat the University of Wisconsin, whose key personnel included Rangers center Derek Stepan and defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who started last season with the Whale. Atkinson led the nation in goals that season with 30, including two in the title game. In a 10-game stretch, he had three hat tricks and then proved that wasn’t a fluke last season, when he had 31 goals and 21 assists in 38 games before the top-seeded Eagles were upset by Colorado College in the NCAA West Regional semifinals, with Kreider on the sidelines with a broken jaw. Atkinson then signed a two-year contract with the Blue Jackets and had three goals and two assists in five games with the Falcons.
ROAD WARRIORS ANNOUNCE ROSTER
The Greenville Road Warriors, the Whale’s ECHL affiliate, announced their roster, captain and two alternate captains on Thursday. They will open their second season Friday night at home against the Wheeling Nailers with nine skaters from the team that won the South Division and Eastern Conference regular-season titles in 2010-11. They are joined by 11 newcomers, six of whom are rookies at the pro level.
The season-opening roster is goalies Jerry Kuhn and Billy Sauer, defensemen Wes Cunningham, Cory Toy, Sam Klassen, Jeff Caister, Francis Meilleur and T.J. Reynolds and forwards Jeff Prough, Brendan Connolly, Max Campbell, Connor Shields, Marc-Olivier Vallerand, Jeremy Gouchie, Kale Kerbashian, Justin Bowers, Ryan Hayes, Sean Berkstresser, Brett Robinson and former Quinnipiac University standout Brandon Wong. Kuhn, Klassen, Prough, Connolly, Campbell, Shields and Kerbashian were in Whale camp before being assigned to Greenville.
Goalie Jason Missiaen, defenseman Woody Klassen and left wing Jason Wilson begin the season on injured reserve. Missiaen and Wilson were in Whale camp before being assigned.
Defenseman T.J. Fast, assigned to Greenville by the Whale on Tuesday, signed with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs. The Road Warriors also hold the ECHL rights to forward Mark Voakes, who signed an AHL contract with the Rochester Americans, and defenseman Ryan Lowey, a rookie out of Colorado College who has signed with the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons.
The team voted Reynolds as captain for the second consecutive season, while Bowers and Cunningham will serve as alternate captains. … The Kalamazoo Wings released goalie Jared DeMichiel of Avon, the former Rensselear Polytechnic Institute standout who split last season between Elmira and South Carolina and had a tryout at the Boston Bruins training camp. But DeMichiel’s days in Kalamazoo were numbered after the New Jersey Devils, who are loaded with goalies, reached an affiliation agreement with the Wings. DeMichiel was released Wednesday, received two offers Thursday, signed with the Chicago Express and leaves for the Windy City on Sunday. Even better news is DeMichiel was able to get to Buffalo on Thursday and attend the wedding of his girlfriend’s sister. If he hadn’t been released, he never could have been able to go. “Crazy,” his father, Greg, said via email. On a more mundane front, the Idaho Steelheads released former Yale forward Greg Beller, a sixth-round pick of the Rangers in 2005.
SOME AHL OPENING WEEKEND LEFTOVERS
Average attendance for the 23 games in the first weekend of the AHL’s 76th season was 5,924, an increase of 2.2 percent from the first weekend last year. Lake Erie led the way with 18,534 fans for its two-game series with Abbotsford, including 13,021 for the opener Friday night. San Antonio drew 9,062 fans for Saturday’s game with Chicago, the largest ever for a Rampage home opener.
Texas, which scored as many as seven goals in a game only once in its first two seasons (an 8-2 win over Chicago on Nov. 16, 2010), went 4-for-8 on the power play en route to a 7-0 victory over Oklahoma City in the opener for both clubs on Sunday. Rookie Matt Fraser had two goals and an assist for his first three professional points and Richard Backman made 21 saves for the shutout. No other game on the AHL’s opening weekend was decided by more than three goals.
Whale center Kris Newbury had one of three hat tricks, as he accounted for all his team’s offense in a 6-3 loss to the Adirondack Phantoms on Saturday night. Manchester captain Marc-Andre Cliché, the Rangers’ second-round pick in 2005 who never played in the organization before being part of the trade that brought Avery to the Rangers on Feb. 5, 2007, had the AHL’s first three-goal performance of the season in a 5-2 victory over the Falcons on Friday night. DiBenedetto led the Sound Tigers to their first win of the season on Sunday.
The 30 AHL team rosters submitted to the league office on opening day included 726 players, from Acolatse (Worcester’s Sena) to Zolnierczyk (Adirondack’s Harry). The average age of a player was 24 years and 4 months. The youngest player was 19-year-old goalie Maxime Clermont of the Devils, a 2010 draft pick by New Jersey. Born Dec. 31, 1991, Clermont is one day younger than Milwaukee defenseman Taylor Aronson and is among eight teenagers in the AHL. All told, there were 304 AHL players (41.9 percent) who were 22 years old and under as of Oct. 7, and 481 players (66.3 percent) under the age of 25.
The Monarchs are the youngest team in the league (23 years, three months), with 12 players on their 21-man opening-night roster aged 22 and under. Leading the Monarchs’ youth movement are several members of the 2010-11 team that earned 98 points and finished second in the Atlantic Division, including 2011 Second Team AHL All-Star defenseman Slava Voynov, 2007 fourth-overall pick Thomas Hickey and second-year goalie Martin Jones.
Adirondack’s opening roster featured four players with older brothers in the NHL: Brayden Schenn (Luke), Tye McGinn (Jamie), Blake Kessel (Phil) and Eric Wellwood (Kyle).
After three days off, the AHL resumed Thursday night with the Rochester Americans’ 56th home opener that featured more than 50 Amerks alumni on hand to celebrate the franchise’s storied history. Friday’s schedule will be highlighted by the AHL’s return to St. John’s, Newfoundland, as the new IceCaps host Hamilton at Mile One Centre. Other home openers this weekend will take place in Abbotsford, Grand Rapids and Milwaukee on Friday and in Hartford, Chicago, Hershey, Oklahoma City, Portland, Springfield, Syracuse, Toronto and Worcester on Saturday. Syracuse is the only team that didn’t play the first weekend.