EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – Saturday may have been a Hartford Whalers nostalgia fest, but the idea is that it's supposed to symbolize so much more.
The Whalers Reunion and Fan Fest – held at Rentschler Field, the home of UConn Huskies football – celebrated the memories of a team that left town 13 years ago.
Kevin Dineen and Stanley Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville were on hand, as was – for a little while – Ron Francis.
Oh, and Gordie Howe showed up, too.
Brass Bonanza blared over and over on a slightly hot but overall quite pleasant Saturday. Fans bought stuff, vendors sold stuff, and roughly two dozen ex-players and coaches signed stuff and talked about how they enjoyed their time in Hartford.
Their time. That means anywhere from 13 to more than 30 years ago.
Thing is, Whalers fans (including this one), for better or worse, seemingly refuse to give up hope that someday, somehow, the NHL will return to the Nutmeg State.
And that's what team founder/former team owner Howard Baldwin is counting on.
Baldwin has moved back to Hartford and brought the Whalers name and brand back to the forefront. He hired a staff and opened offices for his Whalers Sports & Entertainment venture. There have been booster club events, various website and online shop launches and other proclamations around reinvigorating this hockey market.
But bigger steps are being taken.
The weekend began with the Whalers Golf Classic and was followed by an Arthritis Foundation Dinner, both of which gave fans the opportunity to hang with former players and coaches. The price tags were high for these events, but Saturday's Fan Fest was just $5 admission (donated to charity), plus various fees for some autographs (there also were free autographs available from all but Howe).
Publicly, Baldwin said he'd be satisfied with 1,000 attendees, but that he was hoping for 2,000 or 3,000.
He got upwards of 4,500. Baldwin and wife/business partner Karen were beyond pleased as they observed the events around the concourse.
But the buzz began even before the gates opened at 11 a.m. ET.
"All these people lined up at 10 a.m. on an August morning," one fan said of the lengthy queue of fans waiting to get in. "Someone should email a pic of this to Bettman."
That, of course, would be NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman – persona non grata around these parts – who helped move the franchise in 1997.
No, 4,500 fans at a player reunion in August doesn't earn a town a franchise, not by any stretch. And to be frank, Hartford still faces long odds.
But a dismal showing Saturday could have destroyed any remote hope. Instead, from an attendance and interest perspective, this was a rousing success, confirming Baldwin's instinct that a passionate fan base remains here; a fan base starved for something tangible – as the brisk and heavy sales of Whalers merchandise, new and old, displayed.
Baldwin doesn't plan to stop here. He is negotiating to take over the marketing of the New York Rangers' AHL franchise – the Hartford Wolf Pack – and rename it the Connecticut Whalers. He plans to have this sort of fan fest annually.
And he has organized the Whalers Hockey Fest for February 2011, featuring 10 days of outdoor hockey games – amateur, college and minor league games will fill much of the schedule, but the headliners are a Whalers-Boston Bruins alumni game and a Hockey Legends vs. Mystery, Alaska, Hollywood team (Baldwin produced the "Mystery, Alaska," film).
Now before Whalers fans start clamoring for Jean Sebastien Giguere to come back and don the blue and green again (yes, he was drafted by Hartford and played all of eight games for the team – and fans could make it happen via EA Sports' NHL 11), there are a couple of little issues.
Mainly, a franchise. Sure, some are in trouble, but nobody's packing the trucks just yet – well, maybe in Phoenix. And even if/when they do, there will be competition from the likes of Kansas City, Mo., and Hamilton, Ontario.
Also needed is an arena and arena deal much sweeter and more modern than the XL/Hartford Civic Center.
Both are extraordinarily tall orders. Bettman's concerns around arena feasibility and a deal lucrative enough for potential ownership are legitimate – and perhaps even more on point in a down economy. Indeed, the arena issue was one of the primary factors – more so than any questions around attendance – that led to the franchise bolting town.
And there's no shiny new arena sitting downtown. At least not right now.
So as of this moment, the NHL doesn't think Hartford is worthy, that the city can show it deserves another shot.
Baldwin is out to prove them wrong.
"[Saturday showed] that spiritually, this franchise never left," Baldwin told the Hartford Courant. "I want to stress this to everyone who will listen: We ain't going away."
So while Saturday's event indeed was a nostalgia fest, at least it was something. And that's far more than Whalers fans have had in a long, long time.
Maybe Saturday's Fan Fest success really will be the start of some fairy tale-like re-beginning, or maybe it won't amount to much more than a celebration of the past.
But for now, Whalers fans, call it a major win. And hope it's just the first.