Connecticut sports fans felt like hosers after its beloved Hartford Whalers skated down south to Raleigh, North Carolina — renamed the Hurricanes — in 1997. In the nearly 30 years since, the prospects of another professional hockey franchise making Hartford home have been slim.
But Gov. Ned Lamont wants to ‘light the lamp’ by luring the Arizona Coyotes from the desert to the Constitution State.
“This is a great hockey state and a great hockey town,” Lamont told an Associated Press reporter on May 19. “It’s evidenced by the passion we have for the Whalers going back years — still one of the best-selling jerseys. I think we can guarantee them a very strong market right here, and a government that’s ready to come and be their partner.”
Meanwhile, the Coyotes are, more than likely, in the market for a new home. The team suffered many losses this past season (finishing near the bottom of the NHL), but last week, the franchise may have faced its largest setback when Tempe voters — in near-record turnout numbers — rejected a $2.1 billion project to develop a new complex that included a new arena, 2,000 apartments and an entertainment district. Tempe residents were largely concerned over the “economic merits, to the tax breaks included,” according to the Arizona Republic.
In the vote’s aftermath, team president Xavier Gutierrez stated, “What is next for the franchise will be evaluated by our owners and the National Hockey League over the coming weeks,” while NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league is “terribly disappointed by the results of the public referenda.”
Almost immediately, other cities — like Atlanta, Milwaukee and Kansas City — began throwing their hats in the rink, competing for the Coyotes’ relocation. The bidding has not deterred Gov. Lamont as he still plans to meet with Bettman, but he recognized that the Coyotes will “need a grade-A NHL-quality center to play at, and that means a real upgrade of the XL Center.”
However, the XL Center — home to the Hartford Wolf Pack — needs at least $107 million in upgrades, according to a News 12 report. But who will foot the bill? And isn’t this bid a case of déjà vu?
A History of CT ‘Dropping the Puck’
The only major franchises currently in Connecticut are the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun and the United Soccer League Championship’s Hartford Athletic. Yet hockey dates back to 1974 when the Whalers franchise moved from Boston to Hartford. After the 1979 NHL-WHA (World Hockey Association) merger, professional hockey finally called Connecticut home.
At the time, Hartford was one of the smallest American markets, nestled between New York and Boston, which had more winning and storied franchises with ‘Original Six’ teams like the Rangers and Bruins. Additionally, the Whalers had a limited 11,000 seating capacity for hockey games at the Hartford Civic Center in the late 1970s, though that capacity grew to more than 15,000 after renovations in the early 1980s.
The Whalers had limited success in the city with a 0.438 winning percentage, reaching the Division Finals in the Stanley Cup playoffs once in 18 seasons. And attendance rates didn’t fare any better, slipping from a peak of 14,574 in the 1987-88 season to 10,407 in 1993-94, just a year prior to the team being sold to Peter Karmanos, chief executive officer of Compuware, a software company, for $47.5 million.
Two years under Karmanos’ leadership, season ticket purchases remained low — so much so the impatient owner threatened that if the Whalers couldn’t sell 11,000 season tickets for the 1996-97 season, he would move the team out of Connecticut. Fans banded for a “Save the Whale” campaign and despite the elimination of small ticket packages as well as rising prices (reportedly by 20%), sales exceeded Karmanos’ bet.
Karmanos’ critics suggest he was a “man hellbent on moving his franchise” — which may be fair because outside the rink, he unsuccessfully negotiated with then-Gov. John Rowland for Connecticut taxpayers to foot a new $147.5 million arena. The failed talks were the death nail in the Whalers’ time in the state, as the team left town.
In the aftermath, Rowland had his eye on reeling in a bigger prospect that had more recent success: the New England Patriots. Any anxieties about taxpayers’ bottom line flew out the window as the state prepared to spend “upwards of $1 billion on the stadium, infrastructure upgrades, and guaranteed revenue to persuade the Patriots to move from Massachusetts.”
At first, the Patriots’ move felt like a tangible possibility, with owner Robert Kraft giving Hartford exclusive negotiating rights as well as the pomp and circumstance of an elaborate press conference; even after the whole circus, however, Kraft still had concerns with the stadium’s site on an old steam plant. Additionally, forces in Massachusetts and the NFL top brass — worried about losing the Boston TV market — moved heaven and earth to convince Kraft with a new stadium in Foxborough.
Ultimately, nearly 25 years and an NFL dynasty later, the Patriots are quite comfortable in Massachusetts.
But Connecticut’s wooing of other franchises has faced similar, though less dramatic, outcomes. In 2017, then-Gov. Dannel Malloy flirted with the New York Islanders, sending a letter to them about calling Hartford home; however, talks went no further with the team moving to the UBS Arena in Elmont, N.Y., which cost $1.5 billion (though the Islanders’ minor league affiliate remains in Bridgeport).
What Would Be the Price Tag?
SmartAsset, a financial technology company, once claimed Hartford was the 8th most deserving city to have a major sports franchise based on its population and mean household income. Yet, as detailed above, the state’s history and even limited TV market when compared to New York and Boston beg to differ.
Meanwhile, more than likely, the XL Center would serve as a temporary home if a franchise moved to Connecticut — and the arena needs more than $100 million in repairs to house an NHL team. So what would a new home cost? Clearly, the Coyotes desired billions of dollars from Arizona taxpayers for a new complex, not only an arena. But a new, state-of-the-art rink could cost hundreds of millions. In fact, the construction of the Seattle Kraken’s home (the newest NHL arena) “soared to $850 million — $250 million more than initially expected.”
Now an $850 million price tag may be an extreme example; but in other corners of the United States, professional franchises are expecting taxpayers to foot half-a-billion-dollar deals, including the Oakland Athletics (who are anticipated to move to Las Vegas). But, more locally, construction costs can exceed initial predictions: like Dunkin’ Donuts Park in downtown Hartford. Taxpayers were estimated to fund a $56 million project, but it quickly went over budget (exceeding $71 million) and over schedule — so much so the FBI launched a probe into the park’s construction.
And while Dunkin’ Donuts Park is popular (being named the best Double-A ballpark multiple times by Ballpark Digest), are Connecticut residents ready to pay for a project that could cost more than estimated? Or divert funds from other state programs?
Some groups don’t think so. Gov. Lamont has received criticism from leftist organizations like the Black Lives Matter (BLM) chapter in Connecticut, which tweeted the governor “is cutting free school meals & mental health services. We cannot afford tax abatements to bring [the Coyotes].”
Connecticut tax credits for other industries have also proven to be unsuccessful, like the film industry — into which the state poured $614 million. And what was the return on investment? The state lost more than half a billion dollars. Rather than obsessing about a sports franchise, state leaders should be focused on why Connecticut has become the most expensive state in which to own a car; why it’s typically in the top for most expensive electricity prices; why it ranks the bottom of the barrel in every tax category; and why it’s one of the least popular states to move to.
Ultimately, reeling in an NHL franchise is dangling a shiny object to distract from the stark financial realities state residents face. And there are no guarantees that within five or 10 years, if somehow the Coyotes move to Hartford, they will still be in the Constitution State (i.e. would the state be able to afford the team owner’s future demands). Plus, Connecticut sports fans are already rooting for other franchises — how a new team will crack through the market is still an unanswered question. Also, let’s face it: the Coyotes stink and have a sub-.500 winning percentage throughout their franchise history — will people flock to see a lackluster team? Losing seasons didn’t pan out so well for the beloved Whalers.
(Or maybe, the near-last-place Coyotes might fit in well with the state…)
Bottom line, Gov. Lamont is heading down a similar path former Connecticut governors treaded in his efforts to convince a sports franchise to make the state home. As the Constitution State resident Mark Twain once reputedly stated, “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.”
So don’t bet on the Coyotes — or any franchise — skating back to Connecticut anytime soon.