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Opinion: Why the Whalers Left Connecticut, and Why It's Important Now

As rumors fly about a possible return of an NHL team to Connecticut, a state senator says a few questions should be answered first.

The following is an op-ed from state Sen. Kevin Witkos (R-8):

Could the NHL be heading back to Connecticut? 

Last month, Governor Malloy said that the state was in touch with groups interested in bringing an NHL franchise to our state. That got me thinking. 

Why did the Whalers, Hartford’s home hockey team for over 20 years, leave Connecticut to begin with? 

Let’s take a look back at the history of Connecticut’s NHL team. 

The Whalers did not originally play in Connecticut, but they did spend most of their existence in Hartford. The team started as the New England Whalers in Boston, where they played at the Boston Arena and Boston Garden. The Whalers struggled to schedule games at the Garden, an arena they shared with rival Boston Bruins. 

In 1974 they decided to relocate to Connecticut, where there were no competitor teams. The team got its own arena at the Hartford Civic Center Coliseum in 1975. In 1979 they left the World Hockey Association and joined the National Hockey League, which they played in while in Hartford for the next18 years. 

The team had its highs and lows. In 1994, the Connecticut Development Authority sold the team for $47.5 million to Peter Karmanos, CEO of the Michigan based software company Compuware. 

The new owner had high hopes for bringing the team to victory and promised to keep the team in the state for the next four years. That promise was not kept for long. 

In 1996, attendance was low and the team was struggling. Karmanos said if the team could not sell at least 11,000 season tickets, he would move them out of Connecticut. Ticket sales were slow at first, especially when smaller season ticket packages were eliminated, but fans gathered together to “Save the Whale” and the Whalers announced they would remain in Connecticut until at least 1997.

Another controversy gripped the team in 1997. The Whalers wanted a new arena in Hartford, but many people did not support using taxpayer dollars to fund the new project. Negotiations between Karmanos and Governor Rowland over the $147.5 million arena eventually fell apart. 

The Whalers left Hartford after the 1997 season and headed to North Carolina. With a new name (the Carolina Hurricanes) and a new home, the Whalers were done with Connecticut. 

So today, with rumors that major professional hockey might be on its way, we have to answer a few questions first. 

Is there enough of a demand for hockey today? Are there still fans in Connecticut? Is the investment worth it? 

If the NHL comes back to Connecticut, we need to understand what we should do differently to make sure our team does not slip away again.

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