Hartford prepares for outdoor hockey festival
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.
“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.