Next season will mark 18 years since the Hartford Whalers departed their Connecticut home for the greener pastures of Raleigh, N.C., but a report prepared by SCI Architects and other groups for the Capital Region Development Authority in Hartford could give Whalers fans a glimmer of hope.
The 98-page report outlines changes that could be made to the existing XL Center, formerly the Hartford Civic Center, including three options for the CRDA to consider going forward, one of which would include demolishing the arena and rebuilding from the ground up.
Regarding changes, SCI outlined two different options. The first option shows what changes would need to be made for the building to continue operating with an AHL team as the hockey tenant, while the other outlines what the facelift would need to include in order for it to be able to entice the NHL and land a team via relocation or expansion. Of the changes suggested, increasing the capacity from 14,750 to 17,000, the inclusion of more premium seating and boxes, event level seating and VIP areas are among those that are most suited to drawing the league’s interest in placing a team back in Hartford. In addition, however, SCI also suggests the new XL Center should include a 12,000 sq. ft. locker room and more club seats and boxes if it’s the NHL that the CRDA is after.
Of course, with all these proposed changes comes a hefty price tag. SCI’s ‘Option 1,’ the brand new arena built on an expanded XL Center site, would run in the range of $450-$500 million and require three years time. Transforming the arena into a state of the art facility would cost roughly $250 million. The third option, which is essentially giving the current arena a facelift without expanding, has no cost listed, but SCI reports this option wouldn’t allow for it to be possible, “to realize a quality state-of-the-art mutli-use spectator arena.” Reading between the lines, that means simply upgrading on the existing site without adding to the arena’s footprint would mean no NHL team. None of the projected costs factor in the price of acquiring the land necessary to expand the site. Interestingly, SCI also notes that with any expansion that meets the CRDA’s objectives – which, presumably, is to land a professional sports franchise to revitalize downtown Hartford – the “smallest facility” possible would house 16,000 fans for hockey, almost 1,000 more seats than Winnipeg’s MTS Centre holds. However, with all proposed arenas and teams, the matter of ticket sales will come to forefront in any attempt Hartford makes at putting a team in the XL Center. As we’ve seen with Winnipeg’s successful 13,000-seat season ticket drive and Las Vegas’ ongoing push for 10,000 season ticket sales, the NHL is now gauging fan interest before pursuing markets. What could help Hartford, though, is the number of big businesses within Connecticut. In the report, Stanford Sports, LLC notes that Hartford has more Fortune 500 companies in the immediate area, six, than each of Columbus (5), Raleigh (1), Nashville (2) and Buffalo (0). That would aid Hartford not only in the sale of private boxes and suites, but also likely help increase ticket sales and provide ever-important sponsorship dollars to the arena and potential team. Stanford Sports also points out there are 16 Fortune 500 companies spread throughout Connecticut. In the nearly 18 years since the Whalers have been gone from Hartford, fan interest and passion in the Whalers has never left. Though the official booster club’s numbers have dwindled –
they’re now down to 34 people from their high of 1,000 in the 1980s – that doesn’t mean they’re any less passionate. And in Hartford, the AHL Wolfpack may not be selling out the arena on a nightly basis, but they still draw. Last season, the Wolfpack, the New York Rangers’ AHL affiliate, drew an average of 4,071 fans per game, totaling 154,680 over the course of the season. It was the 21st best attendance in the league, but they placed ahead of longer-standing franchises such as the Springfield Falcons and Portland Pirates. Hartford has been off the radar for nearly two decades, but that doesn’t make the city any less feasible. Things have changed in the capital of Connecticut, and if the CRDA puts money on the table and builds a new barn, the city could be that much more viable for the NHL in the future.