Home Crowd Cheers Goal
With Baldwin Absent, Rally Is Gottesdiener's Show
April 14, 2006 -- Paul Doyle -- Hartford Courant

With a few hundred of the most loyal hockey fans in Connecticut gathered before him, the president of the Hartford Whalers Booster Club made an appeal to his group's dream maker.

"It is my hope, and I would hope everyone's hope, that Larry Gottesdiener and Howard Baldwin can find some common ground," Al Victor said, turning and nodding at Gottesdiener.

The man who is trying to bring the NHL back to Hartford smiled and continued to stare at the crowd. Sitting in one of the shiny new buildings his company has developed in downtown Hartford, Gottesdiener wasn't about to forge a public partnership with the man who first brought hockey to Hartford more than 30 years ago.

Baldwin wasn't at the ninth annual Whalers Fanniversary Rally Thursday night in the atrium of the Hartford 21 tower, but his presence was felt. Fans who have been aching for an NHL team since the Whalers left in 1997 invested hope in Baldwin and his plan to rebuild the market's fan base before delivering the NHL.

But Baldwin's plea for patience has been trumped by Gottesdiener's plan to bring an NHL team to Hartford and develop a downtown arena. Before Gottesdiener took the stage Thursday, the chants of "Let's go Whalers" were morphing into "Larry, Larry."

And Gottesdiener stoked the passion with some fiery words.

"I'm the champion of lost causes," he said.

Gottesdiener also pointed out that his Northland Investment Corp. broke into the Hartford market weeks after the Whalers left town. Nine years later, they are the city's biggest investor.

"I'm still here and I'm not going anywhere," Gottesdiener told the crowd.

His point to the region's hockey fans: he is sincere.

Gottesdiener was speaking to a receptive audience at the rally, a crowd sprinkled with Whalers shirts from multiple eras.

The rally lasted about 40 minutes and Baldwin wasn't the only absent dignitary. Mayor Eddie Perez, who accompanied Gottesdiener on a fact-finding mission to Minnesota Tuesday, was unable to attend. Gov. M. Jodi Rell was in Colorado with her daughter and newborn grandson, although a staff member read a letter from Rell.

But it was Baldwin who provided the most curiosity. Baldwin had committed to attend, but he said in a letter to Perez Monday that he would skip the event out of "a respect for the process."

Baldwin said in the letter he would continue to work for the return of the NHL to Hartford and he pointed out he has "been hard at work on this effort for five years now." He also said he is committed to keeping the process under the radar of the media.

Gottesdiener and Baldwin have met, but they disagreed on how to pursue a franchise. Baldwin has offered to run an AHL franchise in the city, proving the market can support hockey before pursuing an NHL team for a renovated Civic Center. Gottesdiener has proposed buying a franchise, then building a facility.

Speaking to the crowd at the rally, Victor said his club isn't choosy.

"The booster club is for whoever is going to make it happen," Victor said. "We want to put our support behind anyone who is going to bring the NHL back to Hartford."

Gottesdiener was asked after the rally if he would consider partnering with Baldwin, who has extensive NHL experience.

"Aligning ourselves with hockey talent is absolutely a natural, be it Howard or others," Gottesdiener said. "There's a lot of other hockey talent out there."

Gottesdiener has identified the Pittsburgh Penguins as a team he is pursuing, but the Penguins could be unmovable if an arena plan is adopted in Pittsburgh. There are no other teams for sale, so the process could be lengthy. House Speaker James Amann, who said there is political support for Gottesdiener's plan, said the rally was the start of a journey.

"Let's do the math for a second," Gottesdiener said. "There are 30 professional hockey teams. Only a small number of those teams will be available for sale and portable. So the odds are heavily stacked against us. All we can do is try. We'll never succeed without trying. That's what we started tonight."