Hartford's Own Team Player

April 11, 2006 -- Jeff Jacobs -- Hartford Courant

It is an uphill battle.

Those are Larry Gottesdiener's words.

Not Gary Bettman's words. Not Charles Dolan's words. Not Harry Sinden's words. Not Mario Lemieux's. Not Jodi Rell's. Not Howard Baldwin's. Not Eddie Perez's words.

And not mine.

"It's an uphill battle," Gottesdiener, the head of Northland Investment Corp., said Monday, "but we've shown we're more than willing to fight uphill battles."

Larry Gottesdiener is being realistic. And he's itching to fight for Hartford.

That's a good start.

He has the money.

That's an even better start.

Gottesdiener is already out there trying to buy an NHL team. He hasn't hidden his pursuit from the public. First up are the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has said he's willing to buy them and keep them in Pittsburgh if possible. And if it isn't, he wants to buy them and bring them to Hartford - if that's possible.

He'll be foraging for other NHL teams and, if hockey proves to be a dead end, for NBA teams.

He has also had his nose slapped for being too public in his pursuit and he's honest enough to say that, too, although the nose-slappers will go unnamed. Everybody has a price and that price is best negotiated in private.

"But I've also got another agenda, and that's to build enthusiasm," Gottesdiener said. "I want to spur debate."

He calls himself a catalyst for urban revitalization.

Those who dream of a return of major league sports to Hartford would call him something else if he ever pulls this off.

They'd call him a savior. They'd call him God-esdiener.

But first we must recognize him for what he is.

He is the man who is calling everyone's bluff.

In the end, he'll even have to call his own.

And that's the kind of man who's needed right now.

He's calling Pittsburgh's and the Penguins' bluff. He's going to find out if they are willing to keep the team on the three rivers or if they can be had.

He's going to call the NHL's bluff to see if Bettman is willing to support and the league's owners are willing to approve a franchise returning to a secondary American market.

He's going to call the Rangers' and Bruins' bluff to see if they will put up any sort of fight over geographic boundaries. Remember, Madison Square Garden, which manages the Civic Center, already is on record as saying it would move the Wolf Pack in favor of an NHL team.

He's going to call the bluff of politicians who support a new arena, to see if they can weather the criticism of constituents against spending public money.

He's going to call the bluff of politicians who are against a new arena, to see if they can weather the criticism of constituents who are for a new arena.

He's going to call the bluff of the corporations who say they want something special for the area and for their employees but might balk at buying luxury boxes.

He's going to call UConn's bluff to see if it will join forces with him as a co-tenant and maybe a co-conspirator in a regional sports network.

He's going to call the bluff of you and me and all the folks who say, yeah, it would be great for Connecticut to be a major league state - and then make every excuse from the Red Sox to the Yankees to the Bruins and Celtics to not buy tickets.

"I'm willing to put it on the table," Gottesdiener said.

Northland invested money in downtown Hartford when lots of other developers wouldn't dare. Northland has a half-billion dollars in downtown. He is Hartford's biggest landlord. But do you know how many Courant articles have mentioned his name?

Twelve.

Geno Auriemma and Jim Calhoun get their name in 12 articles a week.

He once told our Pat Seremet that his investment strategy is "contrarian."

"We try to go where others aren't," he said.

And that's where, in the end, he'll be calling his own bluff, too.

He has buildings to fill. Offices and apartments to fill. It is in his financial interest for Hartford to be vibrant. In the end, he needs a new arena as much as a new arena eventually will be needed for the capital city.

So how much is he willing to put into the arena?

And how much can be publicly financed?

That's a huge question.

Back in December, he threw out $25 million as an opening salvo and he knows that's not nearly enough for his share.

"There are two reasons why we decided to go after a team," Gottesdiener said, rather than try to build an arena first. "I am convinced the political will to fund the amount needed for a new arena isn't there without a team. If you have a team with, say, 45 dates and 15 each for the UConn men and women, now we've got a great anchor. That's exciting energy. Hartford is coming back as a major league city and now we need a major league sports team.

"I'm also convinced that the Civic Center is a dysfunctional facility and not salvageable. It will be cheaper in the long run to build a new arena. Trying to keep the Civic Center is putting lipstick on a pig. And I think the state's consultants will end up agreeing with me as well."

So Gottesdiener heads today for Minnesota, the cradle of American hockey.

He will meet with Wild officials during the next couple of days. He has much to learn and he admits it.

"They lost a team and got it back," Gottesdiener said. "They built a brand new facility. They're ranked the No.2 fan friendly team in professional sports. Their corporate boxes are full. They're selling out every night. And that's a team not in the playoffs. They've done just about everything right. They're a template for Hartford.

"Northland has not been affiliated with professional sports and we're going out there to learn. We're doing due diligence."

Gottesdiener grew up in New London as a Whalers fan and attended some games. He got his undergraduate degree at Penn. He got his law degree at BU. He left law for real estate development, got rich, lives in Wellesley, Mass., and well, here we are.

"To get Larry to do something," he told Seremet in 1999, "is to tell him he can't."

Biases and presumptions can only go so far. Dreams and cynicism eventually become the outer rail. At some point we need someone to get us concrete answers.

Nine years after the Whalers left Hartford, there is no shortage of folks who would tell him he'll never be able to bring an NHL team to Hartford.

Let's see what Larry Gottesdiener can do.