Outdoor hockey is all the rage right now. Hoping to capitalize on the growing trend of hosting hockey games outdoors, one former NHL owner is staging an outdoor hockey festival this February in East Hartford. His hope is that this festival will help revive an effort to bring a second NHL franchise to New England.
But first, a few words on outdoor hockey.
The recent trend to play hockey outdoors started back in 2001, when the University of Michigan and Michigan State University decided to move one of their regular-season games from East Lansing's Munn Ice Arena to the much larger Spartan Stadium. The Wolverines and Spartans set a world record for the largest crowd to see a hockey game, with 74,544.
The NHL quickly followed Michigan and Michigan State's lead when, two years later, the Edmonton Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens played in the league's first regular season outdoor game in its history. The game took place at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium, where a crowd of 57,167 braved temperatures of -22 degrees Fahrenheit to watch the Oilers top the Canadiens 4-3.
The 2003 Heritage Classic between the Oilers and Canadiens would serve as the blueprint for what we know today as the NHL's Winter Classic. In 2008, the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins faced off in front of a crowd of 71,217 at Ralph Wilson Stadium in the NHL's first ever Winter Classic. That event in Orchard Park, N.Y., has been successfully followed up by outdoor games at Chicago's Wrigley Field and Boston's Fenway Park. The Winter Classic has been a television ratings bonanza, and the popularity of the event likely has made it a permanent fixture on the schedule for years to come.
The NHL has scheduled two outdoor games for 2011. The Winter Classic will be played on Jan. 1 between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field. In addition to the next installment of the Winter Classic, the NHL will be bringing the outdoor game back to Canada, where Calgary and Montreal will play in the Heritage Classic on Feb. 20 at McMahon Stadium.
Since setting off an outdoor hockey trend in 2001, college hockey has been no stranger to staging outdoor games, either. College hockey has been played outdoors at Lambeau Field, Fenway and Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium. This December, the two teams that set this trend -- Michigan and Michigan State -- will meet again. Billed as the "The Big Chill at the Big House," the two schools have already sold over 100,000 tickets and are poised to reset the world record for largest hockey crowd.
Hoping to capitalize on the growing popularity of outdoor hockey, the former owner of the Hartford Whalers, Howard Baldwin, launched a marketing campaign last week to bring the Whalers name and an NHL franchise back to Connecticut. Baldwin hopes that a 10-day outdoor hockey festival in February will get people once again talking about hockey.
The 10-day "Whalers Hockey Fest" is expected to feature 20 minor league, college, high school and youth hockey games at a rink to be built at UConn's Rentschler Field. The University of Connecticut's men's and women's ice hockey teams have already signed up to play and are set for a doubleheader on Feb. 13. The men's game will pit the Huskies against fellow Atlantic Hockey member Sacred Heart, while the women will play Providence. Even though the outdoor games featuring the UConn hockey programs won't break any hockey attendance records, Baldwin, UConn men's coach Bruce Marshall and women's coach Heather Linstad hope the games will help increase the exposure and raise awareness of Connecticut Huskies ice hockey.
In addition to the two games featuring the UConn men's and women's teams, another game will feature Hartford Whalers alumni and former members of the Boston Bruins. Baldwin also plans on staging a game between a team of Hollywood stars and NHL legends.
"We want this to be the go-to event for hockey in New England," he said.
While Baldwin's announcement has fans again excited about the possibility of the NHL returning to Connecticut, he faces an uphill battle.
The Whalers left town in 1997 after negotiations between owner Peter Karmanos and Connecticut governor John Rowland to build the team a new arena broke down. After announcing that the team would be leaving Hartford, Karmanos next announced the team would move to Raleigh, N.C., as the Carolina Hurricanes.
Thirteen years later, the primary factors that caused the Whalers to leave town -- a viable market and lack of modern playing facilities -- are still present. When the Whalers were in town, Hartford was the smallest market in the NHL. As Hartford straddles both the New York and Boston markets, their marketability was severely limited by geography. In addition, Hartford still doesn't have a new hockey arena. The city's XL Center is 35 years old and there are no plans to build a new arena. The AHL's Hartford Wolf Pack ranks only 18th in the AHL in attendance, drawing a little over 4,000 fans a night.
Hartford's limited appeal as a viable NHL market isn't the city's only hurdle to overcome. Today, the city faces increased competition from cities like Kansas City, Winnipeg, Quebec and Hamilton, all vying for their own NHL franchise. Despite these obstacles, however, Baldwin remains positive and upbeat about his chances.
"The NHL is a different bird today than it was before," Baldwin said. "They are very careful, as they should be, about who gets in the league and who doesn't, and there's a lot of criteria that goes into it. But if we do a great job here, they'll come to us."
While Baldwin's chances of bringing an NHL franchise back to Hartford seem slim, you can't fault him for lack of effort. If nothing else, the "Whalers Hockey Fest" will help raise the awareness and exposure for the University of Connecticut and college hockey in general, as well as give New England fans more opportunities to experience hockey outdoors.