Pulling up to the XL Center in Hartford, there is an electric hum as the fans make their way inside. The first home game of the season for any sport always draws people in, but UConn Men’s ice hockey brings something more than just the crowd. The walk to the downtown arena is short, and everywhere you turn there is someone in a Husky jersey or shirt buzzing about how the team will do tonight. Between the parking lots, bars, and restaurants, like the Tavern Downtown on Ann Uccello Street, they display their Husky pride. Stepping out of the frigid October night and into the slightly warmer XL Center, fans are greeted by old, enlarged photos of the Hartford Whalers. To many, the sight is either endearing or a punch to the gut.
The smell of sweet and spicy barbecue checks fans as they glide their way through the mass of diehards, students, and first-timers, to their seats. They are greeted by the cold rush coming off the ice. At first the arena is lit, but soon it dims as a countdown to the team’s arrival is put on the jumbotron. A small boy in a UConn jersey looks up, bouncing up and down in anticipation.
3…2…1… the lights flash and then the players hit the ice in their white and blue jerseys while AC/DC blares around the arena. Down at the other end of the ice, their opponents, the Maine Black Bears, don’t look intimidated by the plethora of screaming UConn supporters. The first lines for both teams head to center ice for the faceoff, staring each other down. Players take their positions and tap sticks. The referee drops the puck, the music shuts off, and the game begins.
Hockey has been in Connecticut since 1974 when a World Hockey Association (WHA) team called the New England Whalers needed a new home. Owners Howard Baldwin, John Coburn, W. Godfrey Wood, and William Edward Barnes settled the team in Hartford and then renamed the franchise the Hartford Whalers. They joined the NHL in just five years. Though the Whalers never won a Stanley Cup, the ultimate prize in the NHL, the former Civic Center was packed every game. Connecticut hockey fans were thrilled to have a professional team playing in Hartford, but it did not last. The Whalers played their final game on April 13, 1997, after negotiations failed between then Connecticut Governor John G. Rowland and Whalers owner Peter Karmanos over a new arena and forty-five million to cover losses over the three years the arena would need to be built. What followed was a period of mourning and false hopes for fans across Connecticut. All campaigns to bring back the Whalers have failed, and although Connecticut has a minor league hockey team, the Hartford Wolf Pack, nothing has filled the hole the Whalers left behind, until UConn decided to come to the XL Center.
UConn hockey started as a club team on campus and now competes at the Division I level, playing in the competitive Hockey East conference. “I think it peaked in the first year,” Assistant Director of Communications for UConn hockey William Peterson said about attendance. “We’re still around the five thousand number when bringing in bigger schools. Sometimes we get around seven thousand. The fan base in that area is especially great.” The Hartford Wolf Pack averages 4,440 fans and that includes fans of the opposing team’s supporters.
UConn’s seven thousand hockey fans bring their wallets with their enthusiasm. Having a competitive team back in Hartford has been a huge boon to the economy. With tickets going for twelve dollars each, seven thousand fans bring in eighty-four thousand dollars in a single night, not to mention the merchandise and concessions both inside and outside the arena.
Amidst the revelry going on among Hartford hockey fans, there are rumors that another hockey team is leaving Hartford. UConn is building a new arena on their Storrs campus and many feared that it would be the end of hockey in Connecticut’s capital again. The new arena will have twenty-five hundred seats with the potential to be expanded to four thousand, along with new coaches’ rooms. When asked if the men’s team would play at the new arena, Peterson commented that the majority of the games will still be played at the XL Center. The new arena on campus will be helpful for scheduling conflicts with the Hartford Wolf Pack, and the women’s hockey team will play all of their games at the new arena. It looks like Connecticut hockey fans may have a permanent team, at least until the XL Center falls to dust from the lack of $250 million to renovate it.
The XL Center is currently for sale, with only a few private companies interested in rebuilding it. No one knows of its fate, but Hartford fans are holding their breath hoping their hockey dream will be going into OT.
Early in the first period, Maine is up one to zero, but the Huskies are setting up an offensive rush in their own zone. The crowd chants, “Let’s go Huskies!!!” to the beat of a drum in the pep band. Just about four minutes into the game, Junior Alexander Payusov flies down the ice and finds the back of the net. The fans rocket to their feet and scream themselves hoarse. Over the arena speakers, the old Whalers song Brass Bonanza trumpets. The Husky players surround Payusov and high five down the bench, but not as much as their devoted fanbase. The game would turn out to be a five to two, victory for UConn.
The small boy walks out of the arena with a gleam in his eyes. He tells his father he needs more practice if he’s going to be a Husky someday. They pass the Whaler and UConn jerseys hanging side by side on the walls and leave, already craving the next game. The Huskies are due for a break out season.
Headline photo courtesy of UConn Men’s Hockey