It has been almost 20 years since the Hartford Whalers of the National Hockey League, Connecticut’s only professional sports franchise, fled south to North Carolina. But Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin and Gov. Dannel Malloy are making a bid to make Hartford the new home of the NHL’s New York Islanders.
Bronin and Malloy sent a letter on Feb. 3 to the Islanders’ management asking it to consider moving the franchise to Hartford, which is less than an hour north of New Haven. The governor and mayor made several arguments for the city’s viability as a future home for the team, among them that 35 percent of households within an hour’s drive from Hartford make more than $100,000 a year, meaning potential new fans would have ample money to spend on tickets and apparel. The two also noted that Hartford has a large number of Fortune 500 companies, more than several other cities with NHL teams — such as Raleigh, North Carolina; Columbus, Ohio; and Buffalo, New York — and that the city is close to Bridgeport, the home of the Islanders’ minor-league affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
Malloy and Bronin emphasized Hartford fans’ devotion to their old team, the Whalers, whose merchandise many continue to purchase almost 20 years after the team’s departure.
“This is a ready market anxious for an NHL team eager to fill seats, buy merchandise and support your team,” Bronin and Malloy wrote in the letter.
In a statement also released on Feb. 3, the Islanders did not make clear whether they were considering the Hartford offer. The team’s administration wrote only that it was “thrilled to be playing this season in front of our passionate New York Islanders fan base at the Barclays Center,” and that they “look forward to another great year … at the Barclay’s Center next season.”
The team is under contract to play in Brooklyn for the next two seasons after the current deal ends in June, but if it decides not to stick with the current arrangement, the team will have until Jan. 1, 2018, to renegotiate the terms of the deal or to opt out and move to a new location, according to The New York Times.
The Islanders moved to the Barclays Center from the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, at the start of the 2015–16 NHL season, but the arena was designed as a basketball stadium and in many ways is unsuitable for a hockey team. There were immediate complaints about poor ice quality and the fact that views from some seats offer an obstructed view of the rink.
Connecticut’s last and only NHL team, the Whalers, enjoyed little success during its 18 seasons in Connecticut, which began with the 1979–80 season. The team had one of the worst records in the NHL over that span, going 534–709–177, and never advanced past the second round of the playoffs. As a result, the franchise struggled from the outset to draw people to its games. Only twice in franchise history did the Whalers average more than 14,000 fans per game in a season, and by the 1990s, that number had dwindled to between 10,000 to 11,000 attendees per game. After the team failed to sell 11,000 season ticket packages during the 1996–97 season, the Whalers’ owner relocated the team to Raleigh, North Carolina, where it rebranded itself as the Carolina Hurricanes.
Hockey has long flourished in New England, where teams like the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins are wildly popular, averaging more than 17,000 fans per game, so the Whalers’ lack of financial success might be attributed more to the team’s poor performance than a lack of passionate fans. The Islanders, however, might face a similar problem: the team has only made the playoffs nine times since 1992 and has the second-lowest fan attendance on average in the NHL at only 12,787.
The Islanders also have several other options aside from Hartford. According to USA Today, there has been talk of building a new stadium in Queens near the New York Mets’ arena, or moving back to the newly renovated Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders’ first home, where management is open to the idea of welcoming the team back, according to CBS New York. Furthermore, as suggested by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman at a recent press conference at the NHL All-Star Game, the Islanders could also work to improve their current situation rather than leave behind a brand-new stadium after only a few seasons.
“The owners are … committed to New York and the great fan base that has followed the Islanders,” Bettman said. “There are some issues about playing in Barclays that may be fundamental as to the ice system, and that’s not something that can be fixed in the short term.”
Still, Bloomberg recently reported that Barclays’ owner and Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov himself might be considering dropping the team. A financial projection showed the Islanders would not bring in any revenue after its 2018–19 season.
Malloy and Bronin offered the XL Center to the team should they move to Hartford. The arena is the home of the Hartford Wolf Pack, the New York Rangers’ minor-league affiliate, and has a capacity of just over 16,000. In comparison, the Islanders’ current stadium holds just over 18,000, and the Nassau Coliseum, the team’s 43-year home before their move to Brooklyn, holds about 17,500. Additionally, new ice floors and dasher boards are currently being installed at the XL Center with plans for more substantial renovations, according to the letter.
In the letter, Malloy and Bronin also noted that 3.1 million people live within 60 minutes of the stadium, giving a Hartford team a sizable potential fan base despite the city’s relatively small population of 125,017. New Haven is within this range.
Yale men’s hockey team captain and Connecticut native John Hayden ’17, who was drafted by the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks in 2013, said he liked the idea of an NHL team coming to his home state.
“I don’t know how realistic it is, but Connecticut has become an established hockey state, and there would definitely be a significant fan base,” Hayden said.
The total revenue of the NHL market in North America was over $67 billion in 2016.