Howard Baldwin and old mascot friend Pucky the Whale pose at Barnes & Noble West Hartford today at his book signing.
Baldwin "Slim and None" Excerpt: How Ron Francis was the Whalers "Reluctant" Draft Pick and Was Almost Demoted
"Slim and None" Excerpt: Bobby Hull on Rick Ley - "I Wouldn't Piss in His Ear if His Brain Was on Fire!"
Howard Baldwin's new book, "Slim and None" features a lot of great hockey anecdotes. Here Baldwin's tells of the Whalers efforts to sign Bobby Hull in 1979.
Dear Whaler Nation:
As my last post seemed to generate some discussion – which I do believe is healthy – I thought I would do a follow up letter and continue to express my views on the Connecticut hockey landscape for the future. I hope that these thoughts will spark additional debate and some proactivity as well.
I want one and all to know that these letters are written in the interest of helping to mold the future for hockey in Connecticut. They are not being written to help sell my book. The book is a reflection upon past history and pays homage to the great people that made Hartford one of the premiere hockey markets in the NHL in the 80’s. That being said – perhaps there is something to be learned from how it happened initially—and how it could happen again.
Those of us who remember know that in the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s Hartford was revitalized by the building of a new Civic Center, the acquisition of a major league hockey franchise as a prime tenant, and the creation of an entertainment destination center around the actual arena.
The Hartford Civic Center was the FIRST to realize that this combination of assets - stores, restaurants, arena – would drive traffic to downtown. It worked. Anybody that says it didn’t work wasn’t there to witness it. To those that say it can’t happen again – you are sorely misguided. One just has to look at the sports landscape for the last 15 years and they will see that what was done in the 70’s in Hartford --- and then undone for some unknown reason in the 90’s --- is now being replicated throughout North America and, frankly, around the world. People joked about us playing in a mall – now that is the standard.
There are cities in North America today that don’t have the size, the television opportunities or the potential corporate support that Hartford has – yet they have major league teams. If anyone did their homework, they would see that these cities – such as Sacramento, Oklahoma City, Nashville, Winnipeg – had the political leadership to work with the corporate community to create the environment that would enable them to have new arenas to support major league teams that would then revitalize their cities.
We put forward a plan and presented it to the city, state and corporate community that we felt would be a major step forward in achieving our stated goals. Nobody stepped forward to support this plan. We have no pride of authorship – we were prepared to debate it and happily pursue any plan that might have been deemed “better”. The response from city and state was a resounding SILENCE. What quickly became apparent to us was that the “can’t do attitude” that seems to exist in Hartford now rose to the forefront. We tried to extend our lease so we could continue the dream of revitalizing the hockey market and improving the arena situation – and hopefully bring NHL back to Hartford. There were those in leadership positions that could have helped us, but rather than help, they not only didn’t support us, they actively worked against us.
Why is that? Is it ego? I am fascinated to see that now 35 million dollars is being pumped into the XL Center. I am now seeing that the city is willing to spend 65 million dollars to build a minor league baseball stadium in downtown Hartford. Frankly, that all could have some value, but my math says that is a total of 100 million that could have gone toward a brand new state of-the-art arena.
My constructive message for this letter is that Whaler Nation should be proactive and put pressure on leadership in the city and the state to make decisions based on what is best for the city and the state and stuff their egos and learn from history. We need to put people back on the streets of what was once a great city. We are HARTFORD - we aren’t Boston or New York.
We are HARTFORD. Isn’t it time to start showing some pride in ourselves and realize we don’t have to be subservient to any other city?
Best regards –
Following is an open letter to Whaler Nation from Whalers Founder Howard Baldwin.
Baldwin's new book - "Slim and None" -- will be available this fall
"It has been about three years since our venture with the Connecticut Whale was terminated by the various forces in Hartford. Since I so deeply care about the people, the fans, and all those who made the Whaler logo/brand such a resounding success over the years, I thought that it was the time now to openly and honestly express my feelings about what transpired, why it didn’t succeed, and what the future holds for the NHL and Hartford.
Currently my wife Karen and I are back in Los Angeles. My son Howard, Jr. is in Maryland. Collectively we view our efforts in the marketplace as a great success. It start with the Summer Festival - attended by 5000 plus loyal fans – and culminated at the end of the second season with the Connecticut Whale.
Suffice it to say, we are as disappointed as any one of you that this venture ended the way it ended. There was no rational reason for it to have to end, other than the ego of certain leaders in the community.
I am able to say with 100% confidence and certainty that had the city and state backed our many repeated requests to extend the lease, we would have been able to capitalize the team properly and be operating the team to this very day. Most importantly, we would have kept the dream of perhaps a return to the NHL for the Whaler brand in the forefront of everything we were trying to do.
One cannot possibly succeed in any league with a rent structure that is 2 ½ times higher than the next team coupled with not being the recipient of any parking, boxes, or concession revenues. The mistake I made, which I have taken full responsibility for – and always will, is that I felt that if we did a good job that the city, state and the Rangers would want to help find a way to keep us in the marketplace. As we all know, unfortunately, this was not the case.
The future – what is it for Hartford as it relates to the NHL? There needs to be a real champion for the city and the state in the marketplace. There needs to be leadership and pro-activity.
Please remember that when we gained entry into the NHL in 1979 that it was because we were a solution to a problem. Since there were two competing leagues the players were the recipient of salaries that couldn’t be afforded by either the NHL or the competing WHA.
The NHL was never contemplating expanding into Hartford in the 70’s. Hartford got into the NHL and became a force in both the WHA and NHL because the business community couple with the city and the state joined forces and tucked their egos into their pockets and made up their minds that this would be a great thing for the community. The only thing that mattered were the city and state being able to prosper as a result of having a major league team.
Once the team arrived, it succeeded beyond everyone’s expectations. No denying it – it is all there in the historical facts and record books.
Sadly, long after we left the marketplace in 1988, the team itself left and moved in 1998 to Carolina.
I am always asked: “Is there a chance for Hartford to ever get a team in the NHL again?”. My answer is the same as it was when we came back five years ago: Hartford has to show the NHL that they want a team and that they deserve a team.
Hartford has the luxury of having an incredibly valuable university basketball program at UCONN. This is huge. Why aren't Hartford and the leaders there talking about a new arena? Not an arena that is mid-sized or not state of the art – but a state-of-the-art new arena just as they have built in Nashville, Oklahoma City, Quebec, Winnipeg, and other markets that aren’t even as big as Hartford. By the way, I fully realize that when we arrived back on the scene to Hartford about six years ago now, we felt that a refurbished arena would be a short term solution and a stepping stone to a new arena---but that was six years ago. Clearly there is now a need for a brand new state-of -the-art arena in the marketplace. At the very least UCONN deserves this.
Right now all the talk is about a minor league baseball stadium. Frankly, that could be exciting --- but it isn’t major league. It is my hope that people can pull together and realize what a great market Hartford IS and that someone will step forward like we tried to do and show some leadership and commit to pulling the business community together along with the political leaders of the city and state and say that we won’t stop until we achieve our goal of a new arena that will attract a major league team.
Practically every other city in North America is doing just this.
Instead of the media racing to criticize those that have tried to do this, what they should do from this point forward is make an effort and do a little bit if work and try to analyze objectively why the Connecticut Whale wasn’t given their lease extension.
We send everyone our best wishes and we will play whatever role is needed for us to be constructive in trying to get the job done back there and bring pro hockey back to Hartford. "
Birthday wishes to Whalers founder Howard Baldwin. He created the franchise in 1972, moved it to Hartford in 1975 and led it to the NHL in 1979. — with Howard L. Baldwin. (shown here with Don Conrad)
On This date in 1979 the NHL/WHA merger is ratified. The New England Whalers are accepted into the NHL for $6,000,000.
Sports Illustrated, January 1978:
The architect and the structural engineers had wanted to create something daring and visually spectacular when they designed the Civic Center Coliseum in Hartford, Conn. So they included in their plans "a delicate roof that would appear to float high above thousands of spectators," as one of them wrote in Civil Engineering magazine. Late last week independent engineers were examining the rubble that once was the Coliseum's "delicate roof," a roof that appeared to have floated 85 feet straight down, shattering into a million pieces under the weight of a huge layer of snow and ice.
Providentially, no one was injured. Nearly 5,000 spectators had been in the building six hours earlier to see the University of Connecticut basketball team play Massachusetts, but the Coliseum was empty when the $2 million roof collapsed at 4:19 a.m.
The 1,400-ton lattice-type space frame roof had been composed of 4,455 small steel pieces and lightweight gypsum concrete, supported solely by four concrete posts. Three years ago hydraulic jacks raised the 2 acre lid onto the Coliseum, the centerpiece of a $70 million Civic Center complex designed to revitalize downtown Hartford.
Since the first of the year a series of rain, sleet and snow storms had dumped the equivalent of 4.71 inches of water on the roof. The weight of the ice and snow was approximately 24.54 pounds per square foot, less than the 30 pounds per square foot the roof reportedly had been designed to withstand, according to The Hartford Courant.
The New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association were the Coliseum's prime tenants and they have shifted the rest of their games for this season and next to a 7,449-seat arena in Springfield, Mass., 24 miles away. Whaler crowds had been averaging 9,701 in the 10,507-seat Coliseum, an increase of 12% over last season.
For Howard Baldwin, the managing general partner of the Whalers and president of the WHA, the experience was somewhat similar to one he had in 1968, when he was ticket manager of the Philadelphia Flyers: portions of the Spectrum roof blew off, and the team finished the last month of the season in Quebec City, where it operated a farm team.
Baldwin was philosophical, even confident, that from the shambles in Hartford would come a better and bigger Coliseum. He said he hopes the Whalers will be back in their home in 18 months and that seating will be increased to a minimum of 13,000, possibly to more than 15,000. "We'll lose some more money in Springfield, but we expect a lot of our season-ticket holders to stay with us," Baldwin said. "We have a solid partnership [including several Hartford insurance companies], and there's no question this franchise is one of the best. Everyone has been wonderful about the commitment to rebuilding."
And what effect would the collapse have on a possible WHA merger or consolidation with the National Hockey League? "Absolutely none," Baldwin said. "Last summer when we were talking to the NHL we knew we would have to expand our seating and we were planning to do it. New England will be part of anything that happens between the leagues. Nothing will go together if New England isn't a part of it."
Howard Baldwin discusses the state of hockey in a 1976 interview with Stan Fischler