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Stanley Cup Odds
Free LCS 1997-98
Reader Hockey Pool
Connecticut an AHL Hotbed
by Tricia McMillan, AHL Correspondent
Last season, there were no AHL teams in the State of Connecticut. This season, there are two teams less than 30 miles apart and acquired under completely different means yet intricately related circumstances.
First a review of events; there will be a quiz later. The chain of events which brought both teams to Connecticut began with everybody's favorite man to hate, Peter Karmanos, and his decision to move the Hartford Whalers to North Carolina. The first domino that toppled? The 'Mall' needed a new tenant and began courting suitors, including the IHL, the Pittsburgh Penguins and their perpetually in limbo AHL franchise, and the New York Rangers, who were interested in having their farm team closer than Binghamton.
The Rangers won out on this one by sheer means of money, buying out the Binghamton franchise and winning the bid to rent the Mall and put their AHL franchise there. They then rammed their feet down their throats by naming the team the WolfPack - the same nickname as UNC, the primary college in the Whalers' new home. But we'll get back to that.
Although the Whale beached in North Carolina, their intended home in Raleigh won't be ready for at least two years. That left the newly renamed Hurricanes looking for a building to call home. The only building really amenable to use as an NHL facility was the Greensboro Coliseum, but that arena was already in use by the AHL's Carolina Monarchs, a Panthers affiliate. No problem for the Hurricanes - they booted out the Monarchs without a hint of guilt.
Now the Monarchs needed a home - and quick. They had less than two months to find a suitable AHL city and building, but there wasn't a place available. However, New Haven had lost their most recent AHL franchise some five years ago and had been pleading with the AHL for some time to give them another chance. Upon review of the New Haven Coliseum, it was deemed suitable provided certain amenities were added prior to the start of the season. So, the AHL decreed New Haven a probationary AHL city - they have exactly two years (the amount of time the Hurricanes will displace the Monarchs) to prove they're up to the task of hosting an AHL team. So the Monarchs moved in - eventually, as the building renovations took most of October.
One last problem. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes and Phoenix Coyotes were sharing an affiliate in Springfield, Massachusetts, just up the road from Hartford. But Springfield was disenchanted with the players provided by Carolina and the Falcons opted to cancel the Hurricanes' half of the affiliation, going strictly with Phoenix. Now the Hurricanes needed an AHL farm club...and found themselves apologizing to the Monarchs and asking pretty please to share the New Haven franchise. Thus became the Beast of New Haven. Everybody follow all of that?
Whew. So now Connecticut has two AHL teams competing directly with each other (and Springfield, for that matter.) So how's it all working out anyway?
The Hartford Wolfpack are managing just fine, actually, despite the naming fiasco. (The team claims they were only thinking with regard to the local submarine construction facility and nearby Naval maneuvers utilizing said subs. Right.) As the Binghamton Rangers the team had not exactly been stellar of late, but the Rangers invested in a few journeymen and voila! The Wolfpack are leading the pack, with one of the AHL's best records and a tight divisional race.
"I was skeptical at first. Because of the North Carolina connection, with NCAA basketball, we thought that was bad judgment," says new fan Mitchell Page, who brought sons Jonathan, 2, and Benjamin, 5, up to the nosebleed seats for an alternate view of the game.
"But now that we've been here, it's great hockey," he continues. "We've seen some fantastic hockey and it's a good value. We're on a tight budget, we're working class people and it's a great deal."
The kids seem to like the new team too. "They're playing pretty good, better than the Wolfpack, I mean the Whalers," pipes Benjamin. "And I really like their defense!"
The Page family are precisely the fans the Wolfpack are trying to bring to the building, and the plan would appear to be working. "I think that we're going to recapture a lot of the fans that might have been a little cynical about the Whalers leaving," says Hartford head coach EJ Maguire. "This is good, solid hockey."
The Wolfpack started their season with a five-digit draw on opening night, then went slow at the box office for the next month. But now their average attendance is rising steadily and on Thanksgiving night against divisional rivals Providence, the 'Pack pulled in nearly 7,000 people.
"Tonight we had seven thousand and it was a good game, an exciting game," says Hartford assistant coach Mike Busniuk. "On Thanksgiving Day when a lot of people are supposed to be home eating turkey, they came out today. So I think it's going good here."
"I was impressed with the crowd tonight on a holiday, a non-traditional hockey night in Hartford," remarks Maguire. And the Wolfpack hope to continue their non-traditional tradition: the team has requested the league schedule them at home on New Year's Eve and the day after Christmas as well. Optimism is reigning in Hartford and this time, that isn't a joke.
While hope is springing eternal up I-91, New Haven is approaching their task with a little more caution. This is a city which has already lost two AHL teams, the last to an owner with as much public appeal as Karmanos, and the fact that the team is strictly probationary hasn't been lost on anybody. Knowing your team may well be gone in two years is not usually an ingredient for success and having the team on the road for the first month of its existence doesn't help either.
But New Haven, like Hartford, has seen a steady rise in attendance since the Coliseum reopened on October 24th. The revamped arena is more than adequate for fans and players alike and the Beast have shown their own sign of optimism with the neon, color shifting hockey player posted on the Coliseum roof and visible from the interstates. Yes, the Beast is here - and within, if you listen to the PA announcer..
"The people are starting to come back," says longtime New Haven fan Joe Kenyon. "I think it's just a matter of time, there was a lot of hard feelings from the last time we had a team. There was a lot of animosity towards the old owner and wounds have to heal. I think if people keep seeing a good media push, constantly see it in the paper and see it on TV...I've noticed the last couple of games I'm starting to see a lot more people I recognize from four or five years ago."
Indeed, the number of Blades and Knighthawks souvenirs sighted around the arena does seem to indicate bygones are becoming bygones for many area hockey fans. There are a lot of bygones to overcome; Kenyon tells of the previous owner informing some 1,000 fans who attended a game during a blizzard that they were the worst hockey fans in the country. Ouch.
But hockey fans are hockey fans and can't resist the Beast. "It's a dream come true, I've been waiting four years since we lost the team and it was a just a dream come true," Kenyon says almost mistily.
For as much trepidation as the fans are bringing to the arena, the Beast themselves are not immune. Besides being a new, dual affiliation, the Beast didn't play at home for a month and spent that month wearing practice jerseys for every game - the real ones had yet to be delivered. And the Beast have countered an excellent road record with a barely mediocre home record. But now that the team has moved in, things are rapidly becoming normal.
"I think it's going very, very well, fans are coming out," says goaltender Mike Fountain, well on his way to becoming a fan favorite. "We're playing some pretty decent hockey, but we want it to pick up a bit more and hopefully get some more support soon."
The Beast have held up their end, recovering from a limping start to nightly competitiveness behind Fountain's veteran goaltending. Attendance has risen as the team's position in the division rises.
So if you're in Connecticut, acknowledge the Beast within and howl like a Wolf. You'll feel good for it.
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