Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Whales of Wolves

Delusions are weird, in that some you can control and others you simply can't. I'd like to consider myself a realist on many subject, and cities getting NHL teams are one of those things you have to be careful not to get people's hopes up over. Cities like Halifax, Nova Scotia, Milwaukee ,Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Ohio or Hamilton, Ontario aren't made for NHL hockey. Pretending in NHL 17 is all well and good but once expansion/relocation rumours come around and people are getting mad that these markets are not getting teams...well that's on you for putting that in your head.

Instead of photos of the teams, enjoy the jersey designs I've come up for them 
I wouldn't say Hartford lucked out when they were chosen in the WHA/NHL merger, but the 3 Canadian teams were MUCH stronger choices. Even with Winnipeg's early struggles in the NHL, Québec City & Edmonton were competitive right away and were always competitive until the 3/4 WHA teams moved starting in 1995. The teams passed up, Cincinnati Stingers & Birmingham Bulls lost out since Southeastern NHL hockey had failed in Atlanta and wasn't tested anywhere else and the Cleveland Barons failed upon relocation from California, turning the NHL and investors off from those markets. It would take until 1998 and 2001 respectively for NHL hockey to return to Dixieland & Ohio respectively. I wonder how Cincinnati would have faired in the NHL. Having Mark Messier as a star would have helped and given the team had a history, would fans have accepted the team more than the rehashed Golden Seals in Cleveland that were, like Cleveland itself, the definition of stereotypical bleh. Birmingham was a mixed bag. It may have been great, but no surprise if it failed. No NHL or AHL team has returned to Alabama since, which does make you wonder how bad things must have been not for even a desperate mid 90s-early 2000s AHL bid for the Thrashers would have been.

When the Whalers left the Hartford Civic Centre in 1997, the Hartford Wolfpack were quick to replace the team in the AHL, similarly to the Manitoba Moose in the IHL turned NHL. Minor league hockey jumped on the new markets. Québec rejected the Citadels, Winnipeg welcomed the Moose with open arms (which is why they came back to be the Jets' AHL franchise) and Hartford has been apathetic to the Wolfpack. Sure, they have their fans, and I will say good for them! These people really want Hartford hockey no matter the team. I frankly like the Wolfpack identity in both the literal wolf and the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) submarine. The Connecticut Whale (I may do a post on what a mess that rebrand was) made many appreciate the Wolfpack name compared to forcing the a whale and shoehorning the Whalers branding without actively using it. 

Designed by yours truly: Still a fan of these 3 years later!
If the hockey fans of Hartford wanted hockey...why would you be so picky? The Wolfpack aren't exactly a failure, but the people seem to be apathetic to the team. Why? Because the team is tied to the Rangers, and regional rival to the Whalers. Sure, this is also why the Abbotsford Heat failed as a Flames farm team in a Canucks fanbase and the Québec Citadels failed as a Habs farm team, but it certainly doesn't look good for an expansion market. Some are actively campaigning for the Wolfpack to fail in vain hope the Rangers will ditch the team after what will be 20 seasons next year and another Metropolitan division team will pick them up. In the world of AHL, second chances don't happen all too often.  The Wolfpack first and foremost need to replace the Civic Centre (XL Centre). It's still the Whalers arena, and that's being nice. The arena is 41 years old, and while I do like old arenas, the 70s & 80s were not good years for arenas (see also Sleep Train Arena, Izod Centre). It's no Cow Palace! Furthermore, it's only 15'635 people for hockey. Those are very small NHL numbers the only arenas smaller in the NHL is MTS arena...and that sells out every game give or take and plus...the Jets fan base is one of the most faithful in the NHL.

In 2015-16 the Wolfpack, who finished 22nd in attendance, averaging 4440 fans a game, more than 1'500 fans below the league average (5'982) In a year where the AHL was as popular as it was during the 2004-05 Lockout season. The sad thing is the Wolfpack won the 2000 Calder Cup, usually something that acts as a big boost in attendance for years to come, only average attendance went down more than 1000 per game in the two prior seasons. However most will say that was 16 years ago and they are right...but when the Wolfpack make the playoffs every season from 1997 to 2009 and then only missing half the seasons (one of those seasons as the Connecticut Whale) after (which like in most minor league teams is inevitable since the Rangers got good and their prospects got promoted) you'd think people would still attend to watch a contender. However that average attendance number is the 2nd highest since the return of the Wolfpack name.  Between 1997 & 2002, the Wolfpack averaged more than 6'000 fans a game. By 2006, that number was down to 4563, at its lowest reaching 4188. Seeing as in 2006 the relocation rumours in Pittsburgh began, one would think these numbers would increase

I will level with you...from 1979-1992, the Hartford Whalers were a decent team with a good look and while never an amazing roster, they were memorable and a thorn in the Montréal Canadiens sides during this era, creating a good rivalry many still remember to this day. Once the team swapped bright green for navy blue and grey....the passion was gone. The team never made the playoffs in those colours, and it's..simply....depressing looking at the team after that period. They were a ticking time bomb for relocation. The 3 Howes made the Whalers, the 80s embraced the Whalers, and the 90s lost the Whalers. They were the one team in the relocation era that was no surprise to anyone. Maybe it's a surprise they ended up in Raleigh, but not that they left Connecticut.The fact they stayed longer than Minnesota, Québec or Winnipeg is a surprise.

This isn't meant to be a disrespect to Whalers & Wolfpack fans. If you are part of those average 4440 fans, good on you. You care more about Hartford hockey than the who abstain from the AHL and the 'Pack because "I miss the glory days with the Whalers" when they likely abandoned the Whalers in 1994. So if you tote the "Bring the Whalers Back" banner, I'm calling you out, go to Wolfpack games, support the Wolfpack, get them into the top of average fans a game in the AHL. To even get into the conversation of relocation. But sitting around commenting on the Brass Bonanza videos on youtube about how great things were in 198x and how Bettman only cares about if he shouldn't and only listen to 54 year olds on the internet.  

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