Two Men, Two Ways To NHL

April 15, 2006 -- Stan Simpson -- Hartford Courant

One guy is a former president of Connecticut's largest bank, and plans to open his own financial institution next month. The other guy made his money in health care and once owned a minor league basketball team in Hartford.

Chandler Howard and Brian Foley know about crunching numbers and what it takes to execute a business plan. As Massachusetts developer Larry Gottesdiener steps up his efforts to lure a National Hockey League team to Hartford, Howard's and Foley's conflicting perspectives on what it would take to reclaim an NHL team are worth assessing.

Both stressed that corporate support for the hockey team would be critical to Gottesdiener, who is gobbling up Hartford real estate quicker than a kid on an Easter egg hunt. But Howard, the former Bank of America co-president, said Gottesdiener can't just bank on the support of corporate giants in the region that are already stretched thin.

"I think there is enough corporate money to make this happen," said Howard, who plans to open a New Haven community bank. "The question is whether there is the corporate will. How many different venues can a small group of corporations support? To make the Whalers, if they do come back, work, you have to get a broader base of support than just a handful of corporations that everyone goes after all the time."

Howard sees the corporate money, but wonders about the depth of support from smaller firms. He also sees the political will to recapture a team, although he doubts that the state dollars will be there.

"We've got a [budget] surplus. This is a good year," he said. "But that surplus has many, many competing demands for it - and an arena is not one of them. I think a $150 million public subsidy would be very tough to swallow any time soon."

Foley, the Apple Healthcare magnate and former owner of the Connecticut Pride, said that lining up Connecticut's corporate elite - Aetna, UTC, Bank of America, etc. - is a must for the needed marketing and momentum.

"Probably the worst thing you can do is say I've got a team, I'm buying it, and then go look for corporate support," Foley said. "You've got to get the big guys first, or else you've gotta question if you want to go further."

If Gottesdiener, for starters, can get a commitment from three or four corporations to purchase luxury boxes and 4,000 season tickets, that, Foley said, could reignite the old Whalers season ticket base and make Gottesdiener a more competitive buyer. Although Larry G. started out as the Lone Ranger in his ambitious bid, the reality is he's going to need a lot of help.

This is an enormous undertaking. It's not going to happen anytime soon, folks.

Building an arena alone takes at least two years. To date, no site has been approved, no plans rendered or cost estimates prepared. Gottesdiener, who is willing to buy a team and put $25 million toward an arena, either has to purchase a team without a state commitment, or the legislature will have to approve funding for an arena, contingent on his purchase.

This all sounds like a 5- to 10-year plan, not one that can be cobbled together in 30 months.

Gottesdiener, despite his sense of urgency, surely understands this. After all, he has about a half-billion invested in Hartford. The man knows patience. Gottesdiener likes it when people tell him he can't do something. This Whaler thing? He can do.

It's just going to take a long time.