It was 1989 and Todd Krygier, a little-known NHL newcomer, was sitting among a handful of Canadian teammates on the Whalers team bus. They wanted to know where he was from, so the American kid told them.
"UConn," Krygier said.
They thought he meant Yukon and started going on about how cold it must have been growing up near the North Pole. After Krygier corrected their geography, he regaled his new teammates with stories about playing in an open-air arena, navigating the dynamics of the wind and practicing in sunglasses. They loved it.
Krygier was the guy from the outback, and the outback turned out to be only 30 miles from downtown Hartford in Storrs.
"Sitting back in the warming hut, Bruce Marshall [now UConn coach] and I were teammates, and we had two dreams." said Krygier, whose daughter Natalie will play soccer at UConn in 2013. "One dream was to enclose the hockey rink. The second was getting into Hockey East."
The first dream was realized when Mark Freitas' donation led to the completion of a 2,000-seat ice forum in 1998. The second dream was realized Friday at the XL Center atrium in a "Welcome To Hockey East" celebration and press conference — heavy emphasis on celebration.
It was, to be sure, a pep rally, marking how far hockey at UConn has come, complete with pep band and Jonathan the Husky. Yet there was something much more to this day. Gov. Dannel Malloy was there. State Senate Minority Leader John McKinney was there. So was Mayor Pedro Segarra. There were all sorts of local politicos and UConn officials and supporters. If the NHL was returning to Hartford it wouldn't have gotten any bigger treatment.
"This is about elevating UConn hockey to where it should be and quite frankly where it should have been for a long time," Malloy said. "We are producing top hockey players in our state yet our flagship university did not have a program for them. It didn't make a whole lot of sense.
"But it's also important for Hartford. It's an economic driver in all this. We have to justify spending some money on this facility to modernize, but without a proper array of offerings that will book it a substantial number of days over the next 10 years, it's hard to justify that level of expense."
XL general manager Chuck Steedman stressed that intensive work was done on a potential schedule for a 2014-2015 season — UConn's first year in Hockey East. He said contrary to any speculation, there would be no problem fitting in the AHL Whale and UConn.
"Not that I'm aware of," Steedman said. "We're focusing on the coming season."
AEG and MSG are in the final stages of a process of deciding how the AHL team will be operated next season, Steedman said, and a joint announcement is expected shortly. He said there will be some explanation of Howard Baldwin's termination.
AEG, according to Steedman, has been talking with state and city officials about the building lease that expires in 2013.
"I'm confident we'll be here," he said. "It's just a matter of nailing it down.
"I think this announcement is the classic example of a rising tide lifts all boats. I honestly believe this is great for hockey in Hartford, pro, college and amateur, that it will elevate the sport."
So, yes, this is about building a program. But it's also about a program building momentum for downtown and the future of the XL Center. There was an undeniable symbiosis between hockey and commerce on this hot June day. One that will be heralded if it works in the years to come. And if doesn't? The critics who say UConn shouldn't invest in an expensive sport that doesn't often run in the black … the ones who insist Hartford is a dead hockey town … the ones who say half this much support should have been generated for the AHL franchise … the ones who say UConn hockey will never draw big or challenge the likes of Boston College … well, they will have a field day.
But not on this day.
In a lot of ways this is Malloy's baby. He's a Boston College guy. He's a hockey guy. His son played, getting as high as Danbury in the Federal Hockey League. It's amazing how fast things happen when someone with clout is involved. Former UConn athletic director Lew Perkins made it sound as if Jonathan the Husky would be skating on the moon before UConn played in Hockey East. As late as a year ago, his successor, Jeff Hathaway, made it sound as if the athletic department had grown too big and too far along to pull it off.
"I had the opportunity over the last 14 years to meet with all the presidents at UConn and the two predecessors looked at me cross-eyed when I said why don't we get UConn men's hockey where it ought to be?" McKinney said.