It is nights like last night in Hartford Hockey where I know the XL Center is never just a concrete hulk. Hockey nights like last night go along way towards joining the hockey market into one. Nearly 10,000 people came out last night to see a few rarities in Hartford.
A Wolf Pack win against the Ice Caps. The St. John’s Ice Caps are in their fifth season and they are 7-1 at the XL Center. You could have made an argument that the Wolf Pack’s kryptonite was ‘O’Canada’. But not last night, a 4-1 win for the Wolf Pack whom responded well to the poor performance the previous night. I am sure they didn’t want to see an upset Coach Gernander two nights in a row. Chad Nehring led the way with a pair of goals, Ryan Bourque had two assists and a rock ’em sock ’em robot fight broke out during the game. Hartford Hockey fan Jim Searle said it best, “Shades of Whale versus Montreal tonight”. And he’s right what made the Whaler versus Montreal games so great at the XL Center was the playoff races. Last night the Wolf Pack win pushed them one point ahead of St. John’s and into the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. If the season ended today the Wolf Pack would be going to the playoffs and St. Johns would not. It doesn’t end today though and you can see the Pack next on February 12 after the All Star break against the division leading Wilkes Barre Penguins.
Another rarity is having a member of the Hartford Hockey 400 Club member in the building. He wore #13 for one season and #8 for the rest of the 439 games, 351 points, and 189 goals he scored playing for the Hartford Whalers. Geoff Sanderson’s visit back to the XL Center brought lines of fans that extended from section 108 to 120 around the concourse. Outside the building that is a line from Allyn St. And Ann St. Intersection and down Church St.
Sanderson didn’t just sign photos. He signed a glove that he tossed into the crowd on April 13 1997 brought in by Mark Rankin. It was Mark’s #13 jersey that Sanderson wore to drop the puck at the ceremonial face off, his jersey he wore his rookie year. I asked Sanderson what was the reason for the change from #13 to #8? He said that being in his first game Whaler coach Rick Ley threw a jersey at him and said, “Here, put this on.” The next season Sanderson decided he wanted to pick his own number and he choose #8. Ironic because Sanderson is 8th in games played as a Hartford Whaler and is one of 11 Whalers to have played at least 400 games for Hartford. He is in great company with the number 8 because in the rafters already is 9, 10, and 11. Sanderson was a rookie but he was a great offensive threat for a team in a city that was just fleeced of all it’s Hartford hockey heroes. Sanderson’s popularity really showed tonight and at the end of the night when he had some time alone in one of the suites upstairs, he sat down put his elbows on his knees and watched the rest of the game. He had mentioned that he wanted to watch the game and he did just that after being involved in thousands of autographs, handshakes and photos.
It also is rare to see the melting pot of fandom that is Hartford Hockey enjoying a game all together and remembering a great player of Hartford Hockey’s past. In that line around the concourse were the jerseys of many teams of many designs but all from fans in the Hartford market. Hartford is always going to be a small market but it is a formidable market and it shows best when the sum of its parts come together.
There always is a moment in a season when it is apparent there are some players you should not drop your gloves with and for Josiah Didler that player was Nick Tarnasky.
Magnus Hellberg got well deserved rest after going 8-1 in his last 9 starts in net. Jeff Malcolm took over and played well stopping 21 of 22 shots for the win.
Geoff Sanderson still keeps in touch with his former Captain. When Sanderson first stepped back into the XL Center from his playing days he say #11 hanging from the rafters. He said he immediately texted Kevin Dineen and asked him if he got his number retired? He got a response that said: “Yes!”. Something for consideration, is Sanderson Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame worthy?