September 21, 2010
The old Howard Baldwin probably would have fought this fight. In those days, the 30-year-old blond WHA rebel would be told he shouldn't do something by the hockey establishment, do the opposite and then dare the old codgers to do something about it.
The rebel's long gone. Howard's a lover now. And he loves hockey far too much, loves Hartford far too much to win a battle over two letters and lose a war.
You put it all on the line for the letters "rs" after "Whale" and before you know it those letters stand for "really stupid."
"I'm too old to move," Baldwin said Monday after the formal announcement that he would assume control of the business operations of Hartford's AHL franchise. "We've got to make this work."
The Hartford Wolf Pack's name will be changed to the Connecticut Whale sometime before the end of 2010. There will be a new logo. There will be a new uniform. The plan is for everybody to call it the Whale. To read all that and conclude Howard must have buckled to extreme legal pressure from the NHL not to rename the team the Whalers … well, that would underestimate Baldwin.
"Somebody telling us we can't use Whalers? That's not true," Baldwin said. "Everybody refers to the team as the Whale, the Whale, the Whale. It's a new era. Let's start with a new brand close to the old brand. It gives everybody a chance to rally around something new. That's it. Straight scoop."
Even straighter is what Jim Schoenfeld said.
"Howard's a big thinker," said the Rangers' assistant general manager and the man who oversees the Wolf Pack's hockey operations. "He has big thoughts. He pulls them off."
And the big thought on the name change was for Baldwin to finally, finally close a deal with AEG Management and Madison Square Garden that will run through 2013. Rangers president Glen Sather called it the longest negotiation he'd ever been involved in. Baldwin said it was easier to negotiate the 1979 merger between the NHL and WHA. Yet this intricate three-way deal had to be done before Baldwin could get to work on the business of rebuilding the Hartford hockey market.
You see, that's Baldwin's big plan. That's the big dream. The Whalers name will be there if he one day completes the greatest move of his long career and brings the NHL back to Hartford.
A few months ago there were some snipes that Baldwin was only interested in cashing in on memories, only looking for a nostalgia rush. Well, taking over an AHL franchise with flagging attendance is scarcely a flight of fancy. It's hard reality.
"We've got to do the grunt work now," Baldwin said.
Baldwin believes the only way for the NHL to sit up and take notice of Hartford is for Hartford to sit up and take notice of itself. Nearly 5,000 people responded by showing up at a Fan Fest in August at Rentschler Field. He has been working for months on a two-week Winter Fest at Rentschler Field. And now he rolls up his sleeves and goes to work on an AHL team he wants to average 7,000-10,000 fans by the end of the 2011-2012 season. How?
"Market, market, market,' Baldwin said. "There's some magic to it, but not a lot."
And when will the marketing start?
"Right now," he said. "It's started."
He looks around the XL Center and the old mall. He wants a major gift store. He wants a big sports and entertainment bar with media facilities. He wants a state television presence. He talks about stretching the market, stretching the 50-mile radius for AHL teams. Always big thoughts.
"There's no sense kidding each other, there's a little bit of angst between [Wolf Pack and Whalers fans]," Baldwin said. "Everybody has got to get over it. It's hockey. We're talking about hockey in Hartford whether it's Wolf Pack, Whale, Whaler, whatever it is. Just come and have a good time."
Are there some NHL legal eagles who believe the Whalers' name, logo and trademark belong to the league? Evidently.
And exactly who owns those rights?
"It depends on who you ask," Baldwin said.
I was in the room in 1997 when the Connecticut Development Authority announced that it had control of all those Whalers rights after Pete Karmanos decided to leave. And earlier this year, CDA president Marie O'Brien insisted to the Waterbury Republican-American the agency had "exclusive, irrevocable" rights. However, the NHL has been cashing in on vintage merchandise and Whalers stuff has been selling big. We're going to have to get to the bottom of this.
It appears entirely unfair to assert the NHL directly threatened Baldwin. In fact, he says he's extremely happy with the Whale name.
"Nobody has busted me," Baldwin said. "The NHL has been great to work with. They made it clear they prefer not using the logo, but I went to the Whale because I thought it was the right thing to do. Save the Whaler for whatever happens in the future. Everything with the NHL is cool.
"Let's create something that makes everybody happy. If somebody said you can't use this, now, you'd say wait a minute. Nobody said that at all. The NHL has been very supportive."
The NHL has lent its support on the Winter Fest. The NHL and Baldwin have put together another marketing venture. Baldwin is an old friend of the NHL. Would he win a licensing battle with the NHL? The question probably should be would the CDA win a battle? Good chance they would.
And how exactly would taking on the NHL face-to-face help get Baldwin get into the NHL? It wouldn't.
Four decades in the sport have taught the rebel this much. Don't win a fight over two letters and lose the war. The Whale will do just fine.
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