SPOTLIGHT: HOWARD BALDWIN

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

Howard Baldwin is the “Godfather of Professional Hockey in Hartford” on several fronts, spanning nearly four decades.

First, Baldwin became one of the youngest executive in professional sports when he was a founder and partner of the World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers at the age of 28 in 1971. The Whalers franchise won the WHA’s first AVCO World Cup championship in 1973 and then relocated from Boston a year later to try to find its own identity away from the NHL’s Boston Bruins, in its own building as a vehicle to revitalize downtown Hartford.

After moving the franchise 100 miles to the southwest and becoming WHA president, Baldwin was a key figure in the historic merger of the Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers into the NHL in 1979, with the team renamed the Hartford Whalers in what would have a bit of irony 31 years later.

“Howard is a doer,” former NHL commissioner John Ziegler said at the time. “We would have never put that merger together had it not been for Howard’s perseverance and his capacity to work with people. He was a very big part of NHL history.”

After selling the Whalers to local ownership in 1988, Baldwin became involved in creating the San Jose Sharks as an expansion team, later taking a controlling interest in the Minnesota North Stars and before purchasing the Pittsburgh Penguins, who won the Stanley Cup in 1990 and 1991. He also held a 50 percent interest in the “Red Army” team in Moscow, Russia, and became involved with the AHL, forming the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and the Manchester Monarchs, both of which were among the league leaders in attendance.

After a successful film career as a producer with his wife and producing partner, Karen, Baldwin returned to Connecticut and founded Hartford Hockey LLC, better known as Whalers Sports and Entertainment, to promote hockey throughout the state and in Hartford in particular. In August 2010, WSE entered into a partnership with the New York Rangers to manage the daily business and marketing affairs of the Hartford Wolf Pack. As part of the agreement, the Wolf Pack was renamed the Connecticut Whale as a tribute to the former Hartford Whalers, with the name change becoming official last Nov. 27 for a game against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

“Howard Baldwin is so special to the State of Connecticut and the City of Hartford,” said ESPN’s Howie Schwab, who introduced Baldwin.

So while his newest team was playing thousands of miles away in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Baldwin was receiving the Community Leader of the Year Award from the Connecticut Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation at its Sportscasters’ Super Ball on Saturday night at The Club at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. The black-tie optional gala honors Connecticut sports stars and community leaders while raising fund and awareness of cystic fibrosis.

“People have asked why my wife and I came back to Connecticut from Los Angeles, and we were glad to come back for evenings such as this,” Baldwin said. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful cause, and I’m honored, thrilled and very pleased. It’s a statement of recognition, and I’m very, very appreciative. It’s kind of what made the Whalers so special is the efforts that we made in the community and community relations.

“We’re big believers in giving back to what is given to us as professional athletes and the people in the front office. It’s our obligation, our duty, and frankly our privilege, to give back and be part of great nights like this. There’s more courage in this room tonight than there is on many athletic fields, courts or ice rinks.”

Baldwin noted the first movie project that the Baldwin Entertainment Group filmed involved Frank Deford, the well-known Sports Illustrated writer and National Public Radio commentator who was the CFF’s national chairman for 17 years after his daughter, Alexandra, died at the age of eight on Jan. 19, 1980. He chronicled his life in the memoir “Alex: The Life of a Child,” and the book was made into the movie “Bedlia” in 1986. He is now the CFF’s chairman emeritus and was part of an event in Pittsburgh with the Baldwins.

“When people ask Karen and I what the mission statement of our film company is, it’s to try to do movies that have to do with the triumph of the human spirit,” Baldwin said. “We’ve done all kinds of movies, and the good ones have been about the triumph of the human spirit, whether it be ‘Ray’ or ‘Mystery Alaska’ or ‘Swimming Upstream.’ So we’re big believers in that and big believers in giving back, so I’m honored to accept this award and hope we’ll be here every year to join with you in honoring the people who do so much for so many.”

CFF director of special projects Paul Drury said the organization’s goal is to select individuals who work hard in the community, with Baldwin providing a special link as part of a sports entity.

“It’s a good time because the Whale is back, especially with the Hockey Fest that they did at Rentschler (in February),” Drury said. “It brought attention to the city and the state, and Howard was a key figure.”

Drury presented a special recognition award to Ralph Correale, a recently retired sales representative of American Airlines, CFF’s national corporate partner. Kolbe Cathedral High-Bridgeport and University of Connecticut basketball star Chris Smith and Plainville’s Abigail Negro received the Native Son Award and Rookie of the Year Awards from Central Connecticut State University basketball coach Howie Dickenman and WTIC-Ch. 61 sports director Rich Coppola, respectively.

Drury said the Native Son Award is given to someone raised in Connecticut who has made a mark in the community and represented the state well. Smith is UConn’s leader in career (2,145 points) and Big East (1,140) scoring and three-point field goals (242) and one of only two Huskies to score at least 500 points in three different seasons while becoming a member of the UConn basketball All-Century Team. He graduated from Kolbe Cathedral, where he was a high school All-American, played on the U.S. national team and was Connecticut Player of the Year before becoming the first major in-state recruit of UConn coach Jim Calhoun and his staff, which included Dickenman.

After his record-setting career in Storrs, Smith played three seasons with the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves and six years in France, Spain and Israel.

“I kind of traveled the world and loved France because they’re big on steaks and pastries,” the 41-year-old Smith said with a smile.

Smith is now Kolbe’s boys basketball coach and appreciative of the award.

“It’s a great cause, and whenever you can be honored is a great day, especially at Rentschler Field, where I’ve come to watch the UConn football team,” said Smith, who had 10 family members see him receive his award. “I haven’t played at UConn since 1992, so to still be recognized is wonderful.”

Though he hasn’t played competitively for nearly a decade, Smith’s motto is “growing boys into men to become a better person,” which is something that he said he learned from Calhoun, who was “like a father figure to me.”

“Any problem that I had, I went and talked to him without the lights on,” Smith said. “He talked about the future, and that’s what I try to do with my kids. I want to let them know that I’ve moved on (from UConn), and you can do a lot of great things in life. Family has always been the most important thing to me, so remember the people that are around you every day. Keep a smile on your face, be happy and always support the ones that love you.”

Negro, 16, an honor student at Plainville High, made an emotional and memorable debut as a CFF ambassador. She is on the basketball and powder puff girls football teams and involved in the student athletic leadership team, the yearbook, junior prom and homecoming float committees, the Plainville Choral Society Youth Theater Group and AAU basketball and has raised more than $140,000 for CF through “Abby’s Army” that participates in The Great Strides Walk. She was recommended from care centers at Yale-New Haven Hospital and the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford, where Negro is treated.

“We want someone who has good spirit and is compliant with her medications,” Drury said with a smile.

Negro certainly demonstrated plenty of spirit in her acceptance/thank you speech that brought tears to the eyes of many listeners. A junior at Plainville High, Negro takes 16 pills daily to combat her CF and has been hospitalized 10 times because of lung infections.

“I think it’s good to receive the award so I can speak about CF and show how it may affect my life but you can stick through it and remain healthy through basketball,” Negro said. “There are definitely times when I don’t want to do any of the three treatments I have to do each day, but I know they are a necessity so I can stay healthy and keep my airways open and clear.”

Negro has been a shooting guard on the Plainville High junior varsity team and hopes to make the varsity this season when practice starts on Nov. 21. Drury tried to get a basket set up in the room where the awards dinner was held so Negro could have a free throw shooting contest with Smith, but it didn’t pan out. But Negro did chat with Smith about the sport and position that they have in common.

“Paul was teasing Abigail that Chris made a big donation so that he wouldn’t bring the basketball hoop because he was afraid of the competition,” joked Negro’s mother, Lisa.

Negro has been playing with the Plainville High team in a fall league at St. Paul High in Bristol, after choosing basketball over soccer and hip-hop dance because she thought it was more challenging and was more proficient at it. But while making the varsity would be nice, her message in her speeches is most important.

“Even though you have an element that may affect your life, you should always go further and beyond the expectations and do what you can,” Negro said. “My motto before every game is: Go hard or go home.”

Anyone who heard or spoke with Negro on Saturday night quickly realized she hasn’t gone home.

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease affecting the respiratory and digestive systems. Thick mucus blocks the airways, leading to life-threatening infections, with the median life expectancy being 37 years. The CFF is consistently rated one of the most efficient health charities in the country and is devoted to controlling the disease. Headquartered in Bethesda, Md., the CFF has more than 80 chapters and supports and accredits a nationwide network of 115 care centers. To advance research for a cure, the foundation has invested nearly $300 million in promising drug research in the biotech industry since 1998. For more information, visit www.cff.org.

The gala was established in 2002 by ESPN’s Joe Tessitore and Chris Berman to celebrate Connecticut’s rich sports history. Since its inception, one of CFF’s two annual galas has raised more than $1.2 million in much needed research funds, including Saturday night, when the 10th anniversary event drew about 200 people and netted $125,000. Anyone wishing to donate to the CFF should contact Drury at 860-632-7300 or pdrury@cff.org.

ELECTION SEASON, GIRARDI FOR ALL-STAR:

When the NHL All-Star ballots were released last week, there were four Rangers listed: goalie Henrik Lundqvist, defenseman Marc Staal, right wing Marian Gaborik and center Brad Richards. Lundqvist, Richards and Gaborik were expected to be on the ballot, but Staal hasn’t played a game this season because of post-concussion symptoms from a hit by his brother, All-Star center Eric Staal, in a game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 22.

The Rangers’ best defenseman, former Wolf Pack Dan Girardi, though, is not on the ballot. To try to right the wrong, Kevin DeLury of “The New York Rangers Blog” has started a write-in campaign for Girardi, who certainly deserves All-Star considerations. He is tied for sixth on the team in scoring (three goals, five assists), first in blocked shots (38), second in hits (37), tied for third in plus-minus (plus-7) and leads the NHL in ice time (27:46), all while getting the most difficult defensive assignments with partner Ryan McDonagh, who slipped into Staal’s spot after splitting last season between the Wolf Pack/Whale and Rangers.

Girardi has seven points (three goals, four assists) in the last nine games, as he has become the most important Ranger not named Lundqvist and deserves all the support that Rangers fans can muster. Starting Monday, fans can vote at nhl.com or text Girardi’s name to 81812 (standard rates apply). A mobile ballot is available on iPhone, Android and other mobile devices, using any wireless carrier.

As if on cue, Girardi’s power-play goal, the first of four in the third period, with 9:13 left off assists from Richards and McDonagh was the winner in a 5-1 victory over the Hurricanes on Friday night. Then former Wolf Pack wing Brandon Dubinsky, who led the Rangers in goals, assists and points last season but hadn’t scored in the first 14 games, scored nine seconds later on a rebound. He celebrated by opening his arms, tilting his head back and letting out a scream of relief. He later got his seventh assist on captain Ryan Callahan’s goal with 6:13 left.

“They say a picture is worth a thousand words,” said Dubinsky, honored with the celebratory “Broadway Hat” as the Rangers’ player of the game. “Take a still shot, my head back, arms up. It was like, ‘Mercy.’ Finally, something gave. Huge relief, it’s like the weight of the world comes off your shoulders. Those are the ones you need. Cally makes a great play, (Brian) Boyle and Cally driving and shooting the puck to the net. You can’t ask for a better gift than a wide-open net with the puck on your stick, especially when you’re in dire need of a goal.”

Sean Avery, who worked out and played two games with the Whale, getting the shootout winner in the second, also scored his first goal of the season on a brilliant rush and flip under the cross behind Cam Ward, who was shelled with 40 shots, a season high for the Rangers.

“I don’t think that we had a ton of energy the first two (periods),” Avery said, “but certainly between the second and third, we just kind of identified what the difference between being a regular team and real good team is.”

The Rangers responded with 17 shots and four goals, the first coming after Eric Staal high-sticked Girardi. The penalty cut short a Hurricanes power play, and the Rangers then scored three goals in the next three minutes. Girardi got the winner when he buried a snap shot off a pass from McDonagh after a brilliant pass by Richards. Dubinsky then quickly converted a Callahan rebound.

Before the Rangers’ sixth consecutive victory, their longest winning streak since winning seven in a row Oct. 3-17, 2009, coach John Tortorella continued a campaign for recognition for Girardi, whom he considers one of the NHL’s most underappreciated players, as demonstrated by his All-Star snub.

“It’s because he’s not pedigree,” Tortorella said. “There’s no pedigree there. It’s not just this year that he’s been underrated. This guy has been a really good player.”

Marc Staal was the Rangers’ first-round pick (12th overall) in 2005 and has two brothers in the NHL, while Girardi signed with the Rangers on July 1, 2006 as an undrafted free agent out of the Ontario Hockey League, where he played for Barrie, Guelph and London, winning the Memorial Cup just weeks before Staal was drafted. Girardi started his pro career with Charlotte of the ECHL before graduating to the Wolf Pack and then the Rangers without ever looking back. His ascension to one of the better defensemen in the NHL is truly a terrific story of hard work and perseverance and deserves recognition.

Meanwhile, Eric Staal, the Hurricanes captain, is aware his hit contributed to the situation his brother is in – out indefinitely and scheduled to visit concussion specialist Dr. Robert Cantu in Boston this week for further evaluation. But Staal said he believes the collision with his brother isn’t the only reason Marc is on injured reserve.

“There were a lot of steps that happened after that hit that probably have put him in the position that he’s in now,” Eric said. “I don’t think it’s just that hit. It’s not like I hit him and he’s been done since that point. He played, he came back, and he’s in and out. And I think there’s a lot of other decisions and things after that that have led to where he is now, but that, like I said before, is all behind us and behind him, and now we’re looking forward and he’s healing and on the right track to getting back.”

After Eric’s hit, Marc played all but five games in the regular season and playoffs, but he was unable to work out this summer without experiencing headaches. He last skated with the Whale in early October and then was told to shut it down for a month, as he got injections in his neck and acupuncture treatment before visiting Cantu.

The Rangers’ 5-1-1 start through seven games at Madison Square Garden is their best at home since they went 5-1-1-0 through seven at the start of the 1992-93 season. They have at least one point in 10 of the last 12 games (9-2-1), including in each of the last seven games (6-0-1). The last time the Rangers registered a seven-game point streak was March 12 to 26.

The Rangers begin a four-game trip Tuesday night on Long Island against the New York Islanders, who completed a three-game trip Sunday night in Vancouver.

AND HOWE NIGHT IN TORONTO:

Former Whalers defenseman Mark Howe will be one of the four new inductees into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday night in Toronto, and he’s delighted that his father, Gordie “Mr. Hockey” Howe, is still alive to see him enshrined.

NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor Adam Kimelman has a terrific story on son and father on nhl.com, which also has a story on Mark and fellow inductees Doug Gilmour, Ed Belfour and Joe Nieuwendyk being honored Saturday night at Air Canada Centre before the Ottawa Senators beat the Maple Leafs, 5-2.

The evening started with a video tribute that showed several members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, including Gilmour and Nieuwendyk in their Maple Leafs blue. After introducing 15 members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, including Mr. Hockey, the Class of 2011 got their due. Since Gordie was the last of the 15 introduced, it was only natural that Mark was the first of the incoming class to greet the crowd. He walked the line and ended with an embrace with his dad.

Having known Gordie and Mark for more than 30 years, I would have loved to have been there for that one. Congratulations, father and son. You deserve it as true credits to the game.

GRETZKY CONSIDERS PLAYING IN WINTER CLASSIC…

It appears Wayne Gretzky is warming to the idea of playing in the Winter Classic Alumni game on Dec. 31 in Philadelphia. The Great One, who won four Stanley Cups and finished his record-setting career with the Rangers in 1999, originally said family plans for the holidays would keep him out of the game, adding that no one wants to watch a 50-year-old on skates.

But according to ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun, the Rangers, specifically president and general manager Glen Sather, have turned up their recruiting efforts.

“Glen called and we talked for 45 minutes,” Gretzky told ESPN.com. “I really respect the Rangers doing that. That’s classy of Slats, Mike Keenan (the Rangers alumni team coach) and the Dolan family. So I told Glen I would think about it.”

The Rangers will play the Flyers in the fifth NHL Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia on Jan. 2.

LOOSE ENDS:

In honor of Veterans Day on Friday, the Whale is offering “buy one, get one free” lower-level tickets for this Friday’s game against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Military/veteran personnel who show an ID can get the special tickets at the Public Power Ticket Office at the XL Center. … Former Wolf Pack wing Alexandre Giroux scored twice in his first game back from the Columbus Blue Jackets, but the Springfield Falcons lost 4-3 to the Sound Tigers on Saturday night.

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