- Associated Press - Saturday, January 29, 2011

EAST HARTFORD, CONN. (AP) - On its soon-to-be frozen surface, the outdoor rink that is under construction at UConn’s Rentschler Field might seem like an attempt to duplicate the NHL’s popular Winter Classic at a minor-league level.

But Howard Baldwin, who brought the NHL’s Whalers to Connecticut in the 1970s, sees a higher goal for his Whalers Hockey Fest 2011: A renewal of the hockey tradition in the state the team deserted for Raleigh, N.C., more than a decade ago.

The event next month features two weeks of hockey games with NHL alumni, celebrities, college and youth hockey players. Baldwin said he hopes it will build Connecticut’s hockey fan base, make some stronger connections among the region’s hockey community, and perhaps instill some pride in the local sports market.

Of course, isn’t it ironic that this all comes at a time when Raleigh _ and along with the former Whalers, the Carolina Hurricanes _ are busy hosting the NHL’s All-Star Weekend.

“I was away on the West Coast for a few years, and what I noticed when I got back is this market has lost some of its self-esteem,” said Baldwin, the chairman and CEO of Whalers Sports and Entertainment. “What I hope we’re doing is bringing the self-esteem back to this area and this market as a real, viable sports market and a great place to live and a great place to be.”

Baldwin’s company is building the rink at a cost of about $300,000 using 600 feet of lumber, 800 tons of sand, 10 miles of refrigeration tubing, and about 30,000 gallons of water. They hope to make that back through ticket sales, renting ice time, and concessions. It will host more than 30 hockey games between Feb. 9 and Feb. 23.

The marquee matchup will be “The Whale Bowl,” a Feb. 19 game between the AHL’s Providence Bruins and Connecticut Whale, a team Baldwin rebranded from the Hartford Wolf Pack after taking control of it last fall.

The league hopes to break its all-time attendance record of 21,500 fans, set last season at the AHL’s first outdoor game, held in Syracuse, N.Y.

“What Syracuse did last year is still being talked about there, and will be for years to come,” said Chris Nikolis, the AHL’s executive vice president of marketing and business development. “I know Hartford has similar lofty goals, and we are supplying any support we can.”

A sellout at Rentschler field would mean about 38,000 fans. Almost 14,000 tickets already have been sold for the game, part of a Feb. 19 doubleheader that will also feature a “legends” game between the alumni of the Boston Bruins and the Hartford Whalers.

Outdoor hockey has become popular with the success of the Winter Classic, a four-year old event held outside on New Year’s Day. The University of Michigan set a record in December by playing Michigan State in front of over 104,000 people at Michigan Stadium.

Baldwin said his biggest worry is the weather. Rain in Pittsburgh forced officials to delay the start of this season’s Winter Classic between the Penguins and Washington Capitals, and Baldwin says a blizzard could be a real problem.

At the same time, though, he said the elements are part of the experience.

The other events planned for the inaugural Whalers Hockey Fest include five college games, numerous junior, high school, prep school and youth hockey games, and a celebrity game featuring stars such as Michael Keaton, Alan Thicke and cast members from the movie “Mystery Alaska,” which Baldwin produced.

The University of Connecticut will have the rink on Feb. 13 for a men’s game against Sacred Heart, a women’s game against Providence and an alumni game.

“It puts our program on a bigger stage,” UConn men’s coach Bruce Marshall said. “Not many kids get to play outdoors in college, so it’s a tremendous opportunity for us.”

Baldwin said working with UConn could also pay dividends in the future. There has long been talk of building a new arena in Hartford that could meet NHL standards and serve as a new home court for the UConn basketball teams.

“The more people are working together the better it is,” he said, “and it bodes well for anything you are trying to do here in Hartford.”

Bob Pilney, co-president of the Eastern Connecticut Hockey Organization, a youth hockey program in Bolton, says his organization spent about $10,000 to purchase four hours of ice time so the 150 kids on their travel teams and 100 kids in their learn-to-skate program can play at the outdoor rink.

“We are starting to see an uptick in the number of kids playing hockey,” Pilney said. “And to have someone like Howard putting time and effort into the grass-roots effort, these kids will be Whale fans for the rest of their lives.”

Baldwin, who moved the World Hockey League’s New England Whalers to Hartford in 1975 and brought the team into the NHL in 1979, would like to see the festival become an annual event.

And if it helps attract the NHL back to Hartford, well that’s a good thing, too.

“We want this to be the go-to hockey event in New England every year,” Baldwin said. “I think it puts Hartford on the map again as a great hockey market. In the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s, we were there. And then it faded.”

Perhaps it’s on its way back.