XL's Bedfellows Bring Puzzling Name Change

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Thoughts and some juicy Connecticut building speculation while we await the American Athletic Conference to announce its move of the annual UConn women's basketball tournament from the XL Center to the Mohegan Sun.

There is a great reason to change the name of Hartford's AHL affiliate from the Connecticut Whale back to the Hartford Wolf Pack. There is a stellar idea.

For the life of me, I just can't figure out what it is.

The last full season as the Wolf Pack — 2009-2010 — they averaged a franchise-record low 4,188 fans. When Howard Baldwin took over marketing control, the Wolf Pack had about 350 season ticketholders. That number grew to 1,000 equivalent season tickets under the Whale banner. Corporate sponsorship rose. For all his financial screwups, Baldwin did breathe some life into the building.

So why return to the moribund?

The AHL approved the name change early last week. Frank Russo of Global Spectrum, which is taking over management of the XL Center, spoke openly of it. Michael Freimuth of the Capital Region Development Authority wrote openly of it in an email. They said the decision rested with MSG and did not stand in the way.

That's why I sought comment from MSG. To reconfirm that the Rangers own the rights to the AHL name and to explain why they initiated the change.

"MSG will not be making any comment at this time," was the answer.

There will be a press conference at some point, Russo said, to unveil the new/old name.

In the meantime, we are left to wonder.

Are the Rangers sick of all things Whale and Whalers? Does the very sight of Pucky make them gag? Are they actually doing us all a great service by mercy-killing any lingering delusions that the NHL will ever return to Connecticut? Are they reminding us Hartford is and will always be minor league?

Some truth slipped out upon Baldwin's ouster last season when AEG and the hockey team immediately stopped playing "Brass Bonanza" after goals. That mistake was quickly rectified. "Brass Bonanza," at this point, has a life of its own, beyond Blaine Stoughton and Mike Liut.

Or maybe the Rangers and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a big hockey fan, are doing everything they can to erase Baldwin's memory? Folks involved said the blood ran out of the MSG corporate faces when they found out how much Baldwin owed people. MSG stood to be embarrassed, especially with a huge bill with Reebok. Baldwin has long ties to Russo and Comcast Spectacor chairman Ed Snider. (Funny, the Flyers' parent company is involved with the Rangers' affiliate.) Yet with that pool of red ink, I am told that the governor and MSG wanted nothing more to do with Baldwin.

That is understandable.

Yet as Global Spectrum enters the stage, I am unconvinced that ditching all things green is going to bring more green into the building's coffers and spike interest in any way. Tradition, you say? C'mon, Wolf Pack tradition dates only to 1997 and it had nearly flatlined by 2010.

Maybe you read all this and go, "Who cares?" After so much infighting between Wolf Pack and Whalers fans, I admit I had enough, too. My tongue-in-cheek response had been to have a vote at a game. If 3,000 AHL diehards showed up, Wolf Pack would probably win. If 10,000 showed up, Whale likely would.

What mitigates the "who cares" crowd, however, is how much state government clearly cared. The CRDA mandated that Global Spectrum not get the management bid if it did not come to an agreement for an AHL franchise by April 1. With no time to waste, a deal was struck to pay MSG an annual fee starting at $1.4 million — if not an AHL record, it's close. The state gave a disproportionate amount of importance to the AHL in setting the XL Center management bar, but, hey, it's their bar to set.

The CRDA is the one essentially guaranteeing the $1.4 million under the building's financial umbrella. Operating at a net income of $2 million in recent years, any losses suffered by the Wolf Pack would come from that purse. Global is guaranteed $360,000 to manage the first year. It would receive no revenue, although there are incentives to receive 10 percent of the XL net operating income above $1 million and 20 percent above $2 million.

In short, with the state on the hook and holding the cards in the negotiations, the Rangers cashed in, turned around and told Connecticut we don't want your stinking Whale.

Good deal for them.

My question remains: Why is it a good deal for anybody else?

More succinctly, with Global Spectrum coming in with a new set of ideas and ambitions, why muddle their attempts with a move that appears divisive?

Before word of the change, Russo said the feedback was running about 50 percent to keep the Whale name, 40 percent for the Wolf Pack and 10 percent otherwise. He said he has since been hit by many angry emails.

Russo is also confident in the Global Spectrum game plan. It involves aggressive ticket sales, easier-accessed tickets, better food and beverage, hospitality in the lower bowl. Some folks have expressed optimism that after years of impasse with Northlands the mall area can be developed inside and outside for family entertainment. Russo's plan is to keep Brass Bonanza and some nights pay homage Hartford's hockey history.

"We are hoping the name change is secondary to the live experience," Russo said.

He wants to average 5,000 starting out with a goal of 7,000. Look, there is a great myth that snubbed by the NHL, Hartford rejected the AHL. The team drew 7,017, 7,221, 6,243, 7,099 and 6,714 its first five seasons. Strong for the AHL. It wasn't until 2004 that the club dipped below the AHL average. The erosion continued until 2010. The team peaked at 5,695 under Baldwin, including the outdoor game, and held at 4,533 and 4,540 the past two seasons.

If the Rangers think the market is best served by knowing its minor league place, why don't they name the team the Connecticut or Hartford Rangers? You know, the Baby Blueshirts. The Bruins are the most popular NHL team east of the river, but the Rangers are the most popular in the state. Why not lend their Original Six brand to Hartford? Why not bring part of their training camp and annual exhibition game here? Why not make a dedicated push to stimulate the market with their brand? If this is so important to Malloy and the XL Center, why bank on a minor league name that already had gone moribund?

Color the team blue again. Just color me baffled.

And with the XL bidding process completed without any major building reconstruction of at least $100 million, color the building uncertain long term.

UConn has an agreement with Hockey East for a campus facility plan by February 2016. There could be a new facility with 5,000 seats. UConn also has hired architects for a feasibility study. One possibility is a major renovation of Gampel Pavilion to put in a rink and luxury seats, etc. That's all in the exploratory stage, but if major bucks go into Storrs, why wouldn't the basketball and hockey teams play so many more games there?

While we're in the speculation business, we've heard whispers about potential investors looking long term about the possibility of a new, smaller arena, maybe 12,000 seats or so, at a Hartford site not directly downtown. LAZ, which lost out in the bid for the XL Center, immediately springs to mind, but that's conjecture.

I'd be stunned at this point if Mohegan Sun doesn't get the American's first women's basketball tournament. That's a blow to the XL Center. Mark Blaudschun reported on his Jersey Guy website that the league was considering the Palestra [8,722 seats] in Philadelphia for the men and commissioner Mike Aresco would prefer a smaller arena at the start to create more demand for tickets. That would seem to put Mohegan, which has also made a bid for the men, into play. Free parking, low rental, self-contained dining and lodging, one-stop shopping for two weeks for the league, it has some strong advantages. With Memphis, Tampa, Louisville, Cincinnati and the XL Center all possibilities the first year, Aresco has said he wanted to rotate sites in the early going. You'd have to think Connecticut would get one of the first three years, if not the first.

The XL Center needs some wins, folks. I'm not sure kicking off Global Spectrum's run with an announcement of a return to the Wolf Pack is the answer. But maybe I'm missing something.

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