By Bruce Berlet
Before thanking Howard Baldwin for bringing the Whale back to Hartford and proclaiming this “Connecticut Whale Week” in the state, Gov. M. Jodi Rell had a special request: “Where’s Pucky?”
Oh, he’s the mascot of the new Connecticut Whale, who debut on the ice Saturday night at 7pm at the XL Center against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
When Pucky appeared through a doorway in the front of Rell’s office, the governor broke into a wide smile.
“I’ve entertained a lot of folks in this office over the years – dignitaries, Olympians, contestants for different shows – but I’ve never had a whale in here before,” Rell said during a 20-minute ceremony in her Capitol office Tuesday afternoon. “But the Whale is back, and as some would say, we could end that statement with a hallelujah. The fan base and loyalty to the (AHL’s Hartford) Wolf Pack has been terrific and meant a lot, but to think of all the people who have believed through the years, led by Howard, it’s wonderful to have the Whale back.
“It’s good news for the state, it’s good news for Hartford, but I think the best news is for the fans, who have been there all along. I certainly appreciate that and their efforts. I think they’ll be there in full force and be a part of making this very special.”
Because it was “such a momentous occasion,” the outgoing governor read what she believed would be one of her last proclamations declaring Nov. 21-27 as “Connecticut Whale Week.” It will culminate with the Wolf Pack officially being re-branded Saturday night with the start of the “Catch the Wave” campaign to try to revitalize the sport in the region and hopefully bring the NHL back to Hartford.
Baldwin, the former owner and managing general partner of the New England and Hartford Whalers who is now chairman and CEO of Whalers Sports and Entertainment, thanked Rell for her continued support of hockey and the Wolf Pack, who began when she was lieutenant governor and spearheaded an effort to keep the Whalers in Hartford before they left for North Carolina in 1997.
“This is a big day and another step,” Baldwin said. “I appreciate all that the governor has done for hockey in the state. We feel there is great leadership here, and we hope we can provide leadership to bring hockey back and make this the premier market that it once was.”
Baldwin presented Rell with a replica of the team’s new blue-and-green jersey with RELL on the back. It was later borrowed from her so the Whale could add Rell’s favorite number, 24. Baldwin also presented Rell with several bags of groceries, which were among the first donations to the Governor’s Care and Share Program for FoodShare in which food is collected for the less fortunate for the holidays.
Then the talk returned to the re-branding of the Wolf Pack, who will play their 1,177th and final game Friday night at the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport against the Sound Tigers. The Wolf Pack have a 571-346-66-49-29 regular-season record and were 57-58 in 22 playoff series, winning their only Calder Cup title in 2000.
Saturday night will usher in the Connecticut Whale era, then, in a touch of irony, John Paddock, the man who coached the Wolf Pack to the only professional title in Hartford’s 35-year hockey history with Wolf Pack/Whale coach Ken Gernander as his captain, will be behind the Adirondack Phantoms’ bench Sunday at 5 p.m. for the second game in Whale history.
The Whale actually will make their first public appearance Friday night when the Festival of Light opens at Constitution Plaza in Hartford. Starting at 5 p.m., Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, cast members of the Hartford Stage Company’s “A Christmas Carol,” and Sonar, the Wolf Pack’s mascot, will lead a procession to Bushnell Park, passing through State House Square on the way to visitors seeing a giant Christmas tree and sipping free hot chocolate.
During the march, they will be joined by Pucky and Santa, who will be riding a Zamboni ice-grooming machine. The public is invited to walk with the group or cheer them along the route, which includes Asylum and Trumbull streets.
Saturday night, former Whalers players Garry Swain, Norm Barnes, Yvon Corriveau, Gerry McDonald and captain Russ Anderson will be signing autographs in the XL Center atrium from 5:30 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. and then participate in pregame ceremonies that include dropping the ceremonial first puck. Tony Harrington, who sang the national anthem for years before Whalers games, will do the honors Saturday night after the Whale players are introduced in their new uniforms.
There also will be a new game program entitled BlueLines, and celebrities, scouts and members of the media will give their perspectives on the team during the pregame show on the Jumbotron, replacing “Coaches Corner” with Gernander and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller. The coaches will continue to give their thoughts on the pregame radio show with announcer Bob Crawford and occasionally participate in the Jumbotron discussions.
The night is presented by Xfinity, and the first 3,000 fans will receive a green Whale T-shirt. As part of the Whale segment of the season, ticket packages are available from $638 ($242 savings) for blue seats to $290 ($110 savings) for kids (any seat except blue) and yellow seats. The offer includes 29 regular-season games, one voucher for Whalers Hockey Fest 2011 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford on Feb. 11-23 and 20 vouchers for games at the XL Center. For more information, call 860-728-3366 or visit www.ctwhale.com.
Individual game tickets are also on sale at the XL Center ticket office and all Ticketmaster locations. Tickets also can be charged by phone at 1-800-745-3000 or online at www.ctwhale.com. Tickets start at $7 at the XL Center ticket office on game day. For information on Whale ticket packages, group sales or VIP packages, call 860-728-3366.
Baldwin said he would like to see the first Whale game sell out, but he set a target to beat of 10,507, which was the capacity of the original Hartford Civic Center before the roof collapsed on Jan. 18, 1978. Anything approximating that would be a vast improvement over the Wolf Pack’s average crowd of 3,466, which ranks 25th in the 30-team AHL.
“I’m feeling very optimistic that you’re going to see a nice five-figure crowd,” Baldwin said. “We certainly should do 10,595 and more on Saturday night.”
Baldwin said fans “will feel like they’re stepping back in time and hear some music that is familiar,” referring to the return of the Whalers’ legendary theme song, “Brass Bonanza.”
“What we want to focus on is the presentation of the product,” Baldwin said. “It’s our team, and we want the people to focus on winning and losing. When the team isn’t doing well, go ahead and get mad at us. And if it’s doing well, I hope the fans will be happy.
“No excuses, but we’re getting into this late. A lot of things that we want to get done will get done over the next five-six months as opposed to this quickly. But I don’t think you’ll be displeased. You’ll be happy.”
The Wolf Pack/Whale (6-11-2-2) has struggled most of their 14th season because of a lack of scoring and too many bad penalties. They won the first two games of a season-high, five-game road trip Friday night in Springfield and Saturday night in Binghamton before losing their 10th one-goal game Sunday in Hershey. They have won two of the first three games in this year’s 10-game GEICO Connecticut Cup series, including a split in Bridgeport, as they won 2-1 on Oct. 6 and lost 4-1 on Nov. 7.
The Sound Tigers (8-11-0-0) have a new coach, Pat Bingham, since their last meeting with the Wolf Pack/Whale. Bingham replaced Jack Capuano on Nov. 15, when Capuano was promoted to coach of the New York Islanders after Scott Gordon was let go and became an assistant to general manager Garth Snow.
The Sound Tigers improved to 2-2-0-0 under Bingham with a 3-0 victory over Atlantic Division-leading Portland on Sunday as rookie goalie Kevin Poulin made 29 saves for his first pro shutout. Poulin also had 28 saves in the Sound Tigers’ only victory over the Wolf Pack/Whale this season, 4-1 in Bridgeport on Nov. 6. He is 5-2-0 with a 2.28 goals-against average and .928 save percentage.
Baldwin said tickets have picked up for the Whalers Hockey Fest 2011 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford on Feb. 11-23, when 30 youth, high school, prep school, college and alumni games will be played, along with an AHL game between the Whale and Providence Bruins and a celebrity game between cast members of the Baldwin-produced “Mystery, Alaska” movie and players from the 1986 NHL All-Star Game that the Whalers hosted at the Civic Center.
“We’re really zoning in hard on the schedule and will be getting that out in more detail real soon,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin said the difficulty for his group is they started in January thinking they were going to take over the business operations of the Wolf Pack, but that hit a snag because of the disruption between AEG and Northland. So Whalers Sports and Entertainment fervently put together a Whalers Fan Fest in August that drew 5,000 fans to Rentschler Field and the Whalers Hockey Fest.
“It was (wife) Karen and I sitting around wondering what we were going to do to show we weren’t going away,” Baldwin said. “The Winter Fest became an entity unto itself and then all of a sudden, we got the team, so we’re balancing two rather large entities.
“We wondered for a while if we’d get the team, but once we got into July, I knew we would, but it was a question of how quickly. We easily could have said we weren’t going to do it, that we were going to walk away from it, but if we did that than there would be no hockey here, and we want hockey here. So we just had to make the sacrifice, which was done. Now we need to see improvements (in attendance). There are still going to be days where it’s slow, but I think you’ll see attendance jump now.”
Kennedy and Goalies Don’t Mix
Wolf Pack center Tim Kennedy can’t seem to stay away from brush-ups with goalies.
Kennedy got into his third tussle with a netminder Saturday night after being called for boarding Binghamton defenseman Derek Smith behind the Senators net. As Kennedy skated away, he was pursued by goalie Barry Brust, who pulled a Ron Hextall and smacked Kennedy in the face with his hard blocker/glove, knocking him to the ice. Brust got a minor penalty for roughing, while Kennedy received a double minor for boarding and roughing, though it’s hard to understand how he got the second penalty when Brust did all the roughing.
“I was trying to draw a penalty because we had one,” Kennedy said Tuesday after practice at Champions Skating Center in Cromwell. “I didn’t expect him to hit me at all. He thought (the hit) was dirty, but it was a clean hit. He (Smith) knew I was going to hit him, so in order to not get hit, he turned at the last second because he didn’t want to take a hit. I can’t let up because I’m already going for the hit, and if I try to pull up on a dime, I’m going to hurt myself.
“(Brust) was screaming at me about the hit and then told me to shut the (bleep) up. I turned my head for a second, and he hit me. He didn’t hit me that hard, but I was just trying to draw a penalty because I didn’t want us to be down (a man). It didn’t work because we ended up being shorthanded, but it was a case where the goalie did more than he should. He should just worry about stopping the puck because we scored on the next shift. But things like this happen. There are no rules down here (the AHL). I guess you can do whatever you want.”
As expected, Senators coach Kurt Kleinendorst supported his goalie’s retribution.
“It’s a shame that (Brust) had to, that he was the one who had to realize something needed to be done,” Kleinendorst told Yahoo’s Puck Daddy blog. “But it doesn’t surprise me. I think he would have chased the guy down to the far blue line if he had to, but that’s a good thing.”
Brust had 40 saves, but Kennedy and the Wolf Pack/Whale got the last laugh when Jeremy Williams’ power-play goal at 1:03 of overtime gave the visitors a 3-2 victory. That came after Chad Kolarik had two goals and one assist against his former team in a 5-2 victory over the Springfield Falcons on Friday night and before the Hershey Bears scored four second-period goals and then held on for a 4-3 win over the Wolf Pack/Whale on Sunday.
Rangers Trade Nigel Williams to Anaheim for Stu Bickel
The Rangers traded disgruntled Wolf Pack defenseman Nigel Williams to the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday for defenseman Stu Bickel.
Williams, 22, wasn’t interested in returning to the Wolf Pack this season but had to report or he would have been suspended. He asked to be traded and was finally obliged after being a healthy scratch the last seven games. Williams, acquired from Colorado for defenseman Brian Fahey on July 16, 2009, had one assist and two penalty minutes in 12 games and played wing at times in his last few appearances.
Bickel, 24, had three assists and 14 penalty minutes in six games with the Syracuse Crunch this season and played one game with the Elmira Jackals of the ECHL. Signed as a free agent by Anaheim on July 2, 2008, Bickel has two goals, six assists and 103 penalty minutes in 63 AHL game. A native of Chanhassen, Minn., Bickel played one season at the University of Minnesota, where he had one goal and five assists in 45 games, before turning pro. … Left wing Brodie Dupont skated with his teammates for the first time since he sustained a 16-stitch cut when the blade of a Manchester Monarchs’ player opened a gash above his left knee late in a 4-3 loss to the Monarchs last Wednesday.
“It’s feeling better, but we’re still waiting for the swelling to go down,” Dupont said. “We just want to make sure it’s pain-tolerable because turning causes some pain. Everything is questionable right now.”
Dupont was expected to be sidelined 7-to-10 days and hoped to play this weekend, but that’s up in the air.
Familiar Faces Abound
A lot of familiar faces faced off Sunday night in Hershey. Wolf Pack/Whale defenseman Wade Redden and Bears defenseman Lawrence Nycholat, who played for the Wolf Pack in parts of three seasons (2002-05), were teammates with the Ottawa Senators in 2006-08. Bears left wing Boyd Kane played most of his first four pro seasons with the Wolf Pack (1998-2002), and defenseman Brian Fahey played in Hartford in 2008-09. … Texas Stars goaltender Richard Bachman was named AHL Player of the Week after stopping 87 of 90 shots in three victories, capped by a 26-save performance in a 2-0 win over Milwaukee on Sunday. The Wolf Pack/Whale nominated right wing Jeremy Williams, who had three goals and two assists in four games, while other nominees included Brust, Nycholat, former Wolf Pack goalie Al Montoya (San Antonio), former New Canaan High and Taft School-Watertown standout wing Max Pacioretty (Hamilton) and goalie Kevin Poulin (Bridgeport). … The Greenville Road Warriors loaned goalie Dov Grumet-Morris, who appeared in two games with the Wolf Pack/Whale earlier this season, to the Portland Pirates. Grumet-Morris, 28, was 3-2-0 with a 3.00 goals-against average and .906 save percentage in five games with the Road Warriors, who are affiliated with the Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers. He was 0-1-1 with a 1.32 GAA and .935 save percentage with the Wolf Pack. Now he has been reunited with the Pirates. In the 2006-07 season, he was 1-6-3 with a 3.03 GAA and .903 save percentage in 11 games with the Pirates and backstopped them to a playoff victory over the Wolf Pack. … Mired in a 0-for-22 slump on the power play, the Rochester Americans pulled off one of the quickest comebacks in AHL history when they scored three goals in 52 seconds with the man advantage in the last 7:20 for a 5-4 victory over the Syracuse Crunch on Sunday night. The Amerks, who had lost four in a row at home and seven of eight this season, took advantage of three Crunch penalties in 46 seconds to get two goals from Evgeny Dadonov and one from Mike Kostka. Chris Taylor assisted on all three goals after scoring the Amerks’ second goal and was nominated for player of the week.
(Photo courtesy of Paul Doyle via CTNow.com)