Last Monday, I got a chance to sit down with Howard Baldwin at the Hartford offices of Whalers Sports & Entertainment, to talk about how NHL hockey first came to Connecticut and how it might once again.
Timo Seppa: Your roots go back to the WHA, and bringing the Whalers here to Connecticut. How did that all get started, and what are your reflections of those early years?
Howard Baldwin: They were pioneer days here for hockey. We moved the team down from Boston. We started in 1975, in January. We played the first part of the year in Springfield. The WHA was what I call "The Wild West", but it was a good fun league, too. We didn't have a lot of WHA games here because of the roof collapse. The first two years we played in Boston. The first half of third year, we played in Springfield, and then the last two years of the WHA we played in Springfield because of the roof collapse. We had a long history there in Springfield. Once we got here to Hartford, it really took off in 1985-86 when the Ron Francis, Kevin Dineen, Ulfie [Samuelsson], Davey Tippett team just caught fire.
Seppa: You had some very competitive years in the late 80s.
Baldwin: Really, the best season we had was 1986-87. We won the Adams Division. Then we lost the first round of the playoffs, but we were a good team. Those were good years.
Seppa: What made you decide to move on from Hartford?
Baldwin: Me, personally? In 1988, the team was really profitable. I was only a small ownership component. It was the corporations that owned it. The decision was made at that time to sell it to individuals. My wife was starting acting. I had a film production company. And we were spending some time in L.A. then, so we didn't fight it. And supported it. I got them the highest price ever in the NHL
at that time [laughs]. And then we moved on to Los Angeles.
Seppa: The team went through some rough years after that, with some unpopular trades.
Seppa: Moving on to speaking about trying to get NHL hockey back to Hartford, there might be some perception that Hartford isn't a good hockey market. I looked at the attendance of the Whalers from the 80s and 90s; it correlated with the team's average record over the previous 2-3 years [See chart]. Part of the reason why you saw an attendance that on the surface didn't look so great is because the team struggled a lot of the time [The only season where the team finished higher than 4th in their division was 1986-87 when they had a .581 point percentage]. When the team was at its best, people came.
Baldwin: Yes, but the test of a market is when a team is not doing well. You take Anaheim, you take Carolina: they both had great years when they won the Stanley Cup. And if you can't have a great year when you win the Stanley Cup, you better get out of Dodge. [We] proved it, in this market, [when] we got into the NHL in 1979. The first season was 1979-80, and we had a good year. We made the playoffs, but then lost to Montreal in three straight games. Then, we had five years of futility on the ice. Attendance never dropped below 74-75% paid. Never. And then we got good and the attendance went up. Even the year they elected to movewhich was Peter Karmanos in 1997they had a season ticket base of 9,000-10,000. They never should have left here. It was just one of the great crimes. My expression is "The grass is always greener, until you smoke it." So you go to Carolina and you lose a lot of money, or you go to Phoenix from Winnipeg and you lose a lot of money. This is a good market. We're proving it.
Seppa: You had 11,000 people at the game on Saturday night [January 28].
Seppa: That's a big number for an AHL game, at least in my head.
Baldwin: In everybody's head. Last year, when we switched over from Wolfpack to Whale on Saturday night November 27, we had a higher number, 13,000. You will see numbers closer to 11,000 as the norm on Saturday nights for the balance of this year. The next Saturday game is February 18, and I think we'll have a number like that. We should do 10,000 or 11,000 people every Saturday night. But it's hard, because in the American Hockey League, the schedule is a little weird. It's not their fault, but when you play Friday and Saturday night, you almost force the average fan to choose one or the other. And they're going to choose Saturday over Friday. I don't know about you, but for me, Friday night, my wife and I just like to hang out. In March, every weekend is a Friday and Saturday. This last weekend was a Friday and Saturday. So on Friday night, this last weekend, we did 4,500 people. Saturday night, we did 11,100. But the average is about 7,500. That's pretty good.
Seppa: What's your vision now? You're looking to make your case that NHL hockey can work in Hartford.
Baldwin: Our primary focus now is getting the attendance level up to 7,000 or 10,000 people per game. The day to day operations are handled by my son, Howard Jr. My primary focus now is getting our lease extended from 2013 onin other words, having a real 10-year business plan here. I'm wrapping up a long-term deal with the Rangers, getting a good lease, and at the same time putting this market in a position where it can go NHL. I think your window for the NHL is the next three to four years. Somebody could say "Why not after that?" I'll tell you why: because they have to get their economics squared away, and the economics in these leagues are driven not by the big markets, but by the small markets. That's the tail that wags the dog, and there are more small markets than big markets. So now you're going to have another impasse this summer. In other words, the collective marketing agreement is up. And they'll tinker with it, and they'll make it better for ownership, because it has to be, because too many teams are losing money. So I'm taking a long-winded way to explain to you that as the 30 franchises get solidified, there becomes less of an opportunity for an Atlanta to Winnipeg, because they're resolving their problems. I feel the way Hartford is going to get a teamif it is to get oneis to be a solution to a problem.
Seppa: Back when it looked like the NHL was going with the unbalanced seven and eight team conferences, our Ryan Wagman suggested that the door might be open for expansion of two additional teams. Part of his thinking was that for the next collective bargaining agreement, the players would have 50 more NHL jobs to offset any concessions at the bargaining table. Have you considered the possibility of getting a franchise through expansion, versus a franchise moving to Hartford?
Baldwin: It isn't up to me, but I would be really surprised if they expanded, because they've got markets now that are suffering.
Seppa: There are other places that seem to be mentioned more than Hartford: Quebec City, Hamilton, Toronto, Kansas City, Seattle. I don't know if those are all realistic locations or if it's just journalists throwing out names that they're familiar with.
Baldwin: Look, there's only a few reasons why to expand. We expanded when I sat on the board with the Penguins. We expanded in the 90s because we thought it would be great to get a better electronic blanket over North America. That's why we went to the southern markets, and some of the other markets we went to, for television. It didn't work. Now, everybody likes their cut of the expansion feewho's kidding whobut stop and think about it: let's say you have $250 million per team. For two teams, that's $500 million. And you divide that by 30, it's about $15 million [per team].
Seppa: Not an immense number.
Baldwin: So you would either expand because you have an economic need for a $15 million check, or for television, or as you saygood pointcreate more jobs for players, thereby doing a good thing for the players union. Personally, the only markets that I'd be even thinking about expanding to would be Seattle, Quebec [and Hartford]. I know we're on their radar. I don't know how high up we are, but we're on their radar. This is a better market than Kansas City, I can assure you of that.
Seppa: The thought of the NHL moving to Kansas City has always seemed kind of bizarre to me.
Baldwin: Yep, it's a better market than Kansas City. Quebec is a great market and they've got a great ownership group there. They put together Quebecor. I know those guys; they're great. Quebec would be great. I frankly think Seattle would be great, because it's the Northwest. There aren't too many more.
Seppa: So if two teams move to those markets, is there a third team that moves to Hartford?
Baldwin: First of all, for a team to move, you've got to have an ownership group. From everything I know, you don't have that in Seattle. Second of all, you've got to have a building. From everything I know, they don't have what you need in Seattle. That's why the Supersonics moved. Quebec, their building is way more difficult than ours, but they can build a new one there. That's two or three years away, but they can do that. Quebec to me is a good candidate.
Seppa: Seems to be the top one.
Baldwin: Hamilton isn't. It's in Buffalo's territoriesyour old home town [LeRoy, NY]and it's in Toronto's, so you have a double indemnity there.
Seppa: Would the Maple Leafs allow another team in Toronto?
Baldwin: I don't know why they would. So you have to ask "Why bring a team in, unless it provides long-term economic value?" Bringing Hartford in, believe it or not, would if it's replacing Phoenix. You know right now, the NHL teamslike my friend in Philly, Eddie Snider, and guys like thathave to write out revenue-sharing checks, to support certain teams. You could take that off the table. So you bring Hartford in. You've got to have all the components: 12,000 season tickets, that's really the biggest thing, and a solid ownership group. And you say to the league that you don't have any more revenue share for Team X. Like Atlanta, they don't have to cut any more checks for Atlanta. Believe me, they were cutting checks for Atlanta.
Seppa: Some of the expansion worked, right? Like the California teams, and Dallas?
Baldwin: San Jose. I did that deal for the league, San Jose. I loved San Jose. Dallas, yep. The team went bankrupt, but net-net, it's a good market. Phoenix is not a good market. Florida's not a good market. Carolina will always be marginal, I think. Anaheim, I think, eventually will be a problem. And if they ever go NBA, which they'd really like to, then it'll be a bigger problem.
Seppa: Why would that be a bigger problem? Because people who aren't hardcore will go to one or the other?
Baldwin: You bet. They'll be fighting over dates at the building. I'm trying to think of where else. St. Louis is marginal, but they've always been marginal. It's fascinating, St. Louis. From the day they came into the NHL, I bet you they've had more ownership changes than any team.
Seppa: They're working on another one right now.
Baldwin: I know, I know. You're right, I know. Columbus. I thought Columbus would really be good. Again, I was on the board. I was so in favor of Columbus, because it reminded me of Hartford. Same as San Jose, you're the only show in town. If you want to go to a major league attraction, you better go to the Columbus
Blue Jackets. They could have come up with a better name, though!
Seppa: With Columbus, you were saying before that the "true test" is how a team does in attendance when they're not doing well on the ice. They're certainly a team that hasn't done well on the ice. So I suppose that they haven't passed the "true test", but you would like to see what the Blue Jackets could do if the team actually got decent at some point.
Baldwin: Yeah, a lot of markets are condemned by inadequate ownership and management. Columbus, I don't even think they've ever made the playoffs, or if they have it was an aberration.
Seppa: They did once, and they got swept in four games, and it was an aberration.
Baldwin: Yeah, so in fairness to those poor people
Seppa: It's a shame. And I don't think Florida was ever a good idea. That's a market like Atlanta, where people's attention is everywhere other than on hockey. They don't even have a fair shot, if the team's always out of the playoffs.
Baldwin: Totally right, particularly in a warm weather market, like L.A. We lived in L.A. for 22 years. We still go back there a lot. L.A. is a really funny market, because there's so many things to do there. So if you're going to bill yourself as a major league team, you better be good. What turned L.A. around was Gretzky. What Bruce [McNall] did there, bringing Gretzky in there, all of a sudden that opened up all of hockey on the West Coast.
Seppa: So circling back to Hartford, if the window is three or four years, you said step number one is getting the attendance up.
Baldwin: We are getting the attendance up.
Seppa: How do you do it? Is that magic? Is it advertising?
Baldwin: It's not magic. It's hard selling work, promoting, advertising. Some people think it's just turning on a switch and people are all of a sudden going to flock back. It took a long time to get this market to go in the wrong direction. To bring it back, it's going to take a little bit of time, but it'll come back. It's already coming back. But it takes time, it takes work.
Seppa: What sorts of things are you doing to bring that about?
Baldwin: Group sales, working with amateur hockey, all kinds of promotions, making game night experience lots of fun. You can see that people have fun. It amazes me because I always said that the one thing I want people to be is angry or upset when you lose and happy when you win, but they seem happy, win or lose [laughs]. Which is a compliment to the kids here, because they give them a good time, but I also want people to get pissed. Maybe not at us.
Seppa: When we lived in Western New York, my dad took me out to a bunch of Amerks games. So I grew up with AHL hockey. For the price, and being closer to where we lived, it was a good product. The fights were a big part of the AHL experience. It was "at least one fight per game or your money back", basically.
Baldwin: They fight a lot, but they used to fight more. AHL hockey's good. One of the fun things is that everybody on that team is playing not to be on that team.
Seppa: Is that rough on you guys? You don't even control the roster. You lose Hagelin, Erixon's up and down, whoever it is, the guys that are doing good. It impacts your wins and losses, and I assume at least to some level, it impacts your attendance.
Baldwin: I don't know that it does. The star factor, particularly in hockey, is no longer there. There's a superstar, and then there's favorite players. Superstars are people like Crosby or Ovechkin. They're the only two I can think of, who you would buy a ticket for, if they came to your building. But if you look at the NFL, NHL, you look at the team picture five years ago and you look at the team picture today, the turnover's almost 80%. And because of free agency, what's really is selling isyou root for the sweater that they wear. It's true in college; it's becoming more and more true in the pros. These players now come and go, so you root for the sweater. And very rarely do you get a guy that will be there more than four or five years. It's true. What do they talk about on the Yankees? The Core Four, and now it's down to two. You have a pretty good turnover in hockey. Take a snapshot of the Rangers five years ago and today. Particularly with the salary cap, you say okay, I'm going to keeplike on the Red Wings, Nicklas Lidstrom. You're going to keep your star player, and the rest are rotating pieces. That's the way it is. And so what happens is that you just root for that sweater, who's ever wearing that sweater. You hope to God you get a superstar, and then you make damn sure you keep him.
Seppa: Then there's the flip side of that, potentially the negative for Hartford, that people have been used to rooting for the Rangers sweater and the Bruins sweater for a long time. Is it a problem being here in Connecticut where there are plenty of Bruins fans and plenty of Rangers fans?
Baldwin: We've got plenty of Whaler fans. The Whaler brand is the 11th-best selling brand in the National Hockey League, whether you know it or not. We're not even in the league.
Seppa: How do you explain that? Is it a good looking jersey? Is it the nostalgia?
Baldwin: It's all of the above, but it became a cult team. We really immersed ourselves into the community, and we're doing that again. Emile Francis would always say that Hartford has always been the Green Bay of hockey. And that's what it was, and is, and will become again, I hope.
Seppa: Are you a bit handicapped? Can you not advertise in all areas of the state because of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers? Is there some kind of dividing line?
Baldwin: Yeah, but that's no big deal. We get along just fine. I like Howard Saffan. He's a good guy and we get along just fine. He's got his territory; we have ours. I frankly think it's silly. I don't give a damn if he puts ads right out on Trumbull Street.
Seppa: Do you wish you could market to Fairfield County, for instance?
Baldwin: No, not really. Even with the NHL we didn't really. Just as I was leaving in '88, we started to tap in there.
Seppa: So you think you have enough fanbase for attendance here, closer to Hartford?
Baldwin: Yes. Yes, absolutely. The income per capita here is high. "Why wouldn't we?" is the first question to ask. We did before. I think that if you plunked an NHL team down here, it would do as well as 10-12 other NHL markets today, and then how much better you do is dependent on how creative you are.
Seppa: I think it would be very intriguing if there was a team here in Connecticut. If there's a Phoenix moving this summer, you would figure that it might move to Quebec. And then the question is, what would the next one be?
Baldwin: Who knows? It's up to us, to get all dressed up and ready, like they did in Winnipeg. The Winnipeg model was a great model.
Seppa: It is Canada, though, and Canadians are crazy for their hockey.
Baldwin: I hear that, and agree with that. But I don't know what that means. Winnipeg left, Quebec left. That was Canada then.
Seppa: Wasn't that partially the exchange rate, though? Didn't that play into it?
Baldwin: Of course, but you don't think that could happen again? Sure it could. Stuff happens, man.
Seppa: Could happen the other way around too, where things get even better for Canada.
Baldwin: It absolutely could, and I hope it does for them, but the fact is, you go into whatever you think the most stable hockey markets are. You try to put yourselves in a position where there is the least chance of failure and the best chance of success. Don't kid yourself: revenues in hockey are predominantly gate receipts. So you better go into a building or into an environment where you can get good gates receipts. You better. And then everything else comes after that.
One more perspective
In a recent conversation, Brian Burke, Whalers general manager from May 1992 to September 1993 (following the disastrous tenure of Eddie Johnston) was "cautiously optimistic" about the prospects of NHL hockey returning to Hartford, recalling the "hardcore base" of 8,000-10,000 knowledgeable fans.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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