Going back five years ago the Connecticut Whale was in their first three weeks under the new brand with Whaler Sports and Entertainment. Led by Howard Baldwin Sr., W.S.E. had bought the rights to market the New York Rangers top minor league affiliate and he proposed to run the team like it was in an NHL market.
Baldwin worked on that concept and just a few months later he presented a remodel for the XL Center to the public. The plan appeared to fall on deaf ears with politicians and the media but Baldwin had clearly predicted that the arena would work as a remodel concept. While on an interview on Whaler Brigade TV he simply put it: “The bones of the building are strong.” Turns out those bones are strong — today the XL Center is looking at remodel that will make it a first tier arena with 18,000 seats. Baldwin’s initial plan was just four years after a study was done that suggested only a new arena would meet NHL standards. Turns out that study was wrong.
For a long time the community was convinced in Hartford that the XL Center was either an ancient relic or just good enough for AHL hockey but no one believed that it could be transformed into an arena that would have the same financial impact as a new NHL arena. It’s not certain if Baldwin owns a crystal ball, but he was absolutely right in promoting the XL Center as an arena worth saving. The bones are strong enough to add a second concourse, and the original footprint was found to be larger than Madison Square Garden and TD Bank North in Boston. That will mean more than enough event space for big attractions.
Baldwin looked like a Hartford Hockey Soothsayer again when it was announced that a Hard Rock Hotel Hartford was bound for the Capital city as of last week. Just five years ago Baldwin had renderings of his XL Center remodel and in it was displayed a Hard Rock Hotel Hartford likeness on Trumbull Street. If you told anyone five years ago there would be a Hard Rock Hotel Hartford in downtown, it would be a hard sell to anyone’s ear. Is it just a coincidence that Hard Rock restaurants can be found in over 20 NHL cities?
The Hard Rock Hotel Hartford will be more than a restaurant. A brand this large showing up in Hartford is actually quite surprising; you could say Hartford is the least notable place on their list of locations. However, it’s apparent that Hartford is on the rise, finally, and it’s impressive for the city to attract a national brand of this magnitude. They aren’t here just for AA Yard Goat baseball; it is now public knowledge that residential occupancy is up, and UConn is drawing record Hockey East attendance. UConn Basketball in a new arena can host NCAA tournament rounds, and Spectra, who runs the arena, will be able to lure top of the line shows and entertainers. An NHL tenant sure wouldn’t hurt Hard Rock Café chances of making it in Hartford either.
Howard Baldwin has probably ridden off into the sunset on Hartford, as of now his parting words were to make Hartford a solution to an NHL problem. Five years later, Hartford is becoming that solution but a team still has to want to come here. Baldwin may be done with Hartford but if he is he’ll still be the first face you’ll see on the Mount Rushmore of Hartford Hockey.