My Trip To Hartford: Taking in a Hartford Wolfpack Game, Whalers, Disappointing Dylan, Tanner “F’N” Glass, What Fans There Say About The Team, The XL Arena & More

I don’t know if the XL Arena in Hartford lights up Howe’s number on purpose, but it made for a cool visual.

What’s up everyone and welcome to the first of three blogs on this Presidential Election Tuesday. I’ll save you the gotta vote, rock the vote, blah blah blah speech. You’re a grown up, do what you want. However, if you want to complain about politics, it does help your argument when you in fact, have voted. Just like when talking the Rangers & hockey, it does help if you watch other Ranger players besides Lundqvist & other goalies besides Lundqvist too! Gives you a better perspective on things, if you know what I’m saying.

After Talbot vs Lundqvist I in MSG on Thursday night, I groggily woke up Friday morning to embark on my weekend getaway trip. This past weekend I hit up two New England cities. I went to Hartford to take in a Wolfpack game on Friday night. After the Wolfpack game, we shot up north for 90 minutes and arrived in Boston, where we watched an Original 6 match-up between the Rangers and the Bruins on Saturday. Due to the handy WAZE app, I was in my own bed before Giants kickoff on Sunday morning. It was really a great and easy trip.

I usually go on and on with these 5000+ word blogs and several readers have asked me to break these things up. I guess the longer the blog, the longer it takes to load on a cell phone. I don’t care about website hits. That’s why I don’t break things up and do the multiple page things, because this is just a hobby, not a business. However, if it makes easier reading, I’ll try to break up the subjects better when posting future entries.

Since I don’t want to leave anything out, this blog will be about the Hartford Wolfpack game. The next blog will be about Boston and the TD Gardens. The third blog will be about the current 5 Goals-A-Game NY Rangers. I’m also not going to talk too much about what happened on-ice, as I really want to talk about the experience. I don’t see myself going back to Hartford or Boston this season, so I think these blogs have more value for people looking for ideas on where to visit, rather than a blog with a soon-to-be-dated score.

You hear that HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWWWWWL? Let’s talk Pack Puck! (That sentence was corny as fuck.)

It was RIVALRY NIGHT in Hartford – The Pack vs the Islanders AHL team, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

Thursday night was a long night for me. After engaging in several cocktails at the Rangers/Oilers game, I had a few more pops when I did my Ranger/Oilers blog. At 10AM in the morning, my good friend Tommy, who lives in the same condominium as me, was ready to go. I was not, but he was driving, so out of the bed, into the shower and out the door I went.

Using Tommy’s WAZE app, we got to Hartford in a little over 2 hours. In all my days traveling to the Mohegan Sun or Boston, I’ve always taken I-95. In fact, we left early so we wouldn’t hit any traffic. This WAZE app had us all over the place in Connecticut. I didn’t know where we were half the time, but we flew down the road while listening to the phone telling us where to go. The drive was a breeze. In fact, our second leg of the drive, to Boston and our third leg, Boston to Long Island, were smooth sailing too. I have no money or skin in the game when it comes to WAZE, but I’d recommend it to any traveler.

When we arrived to East Hartford, it seemed like a weird little city. Not a bad weird. Just weird. It seems that all major roads in Connecticut lead to Hartford, but no one lives there. There were just office buildings all over the place. Even in New York City you see apartments. It was hard to tell if anyone lived there, outside of the homeless people sleeping outside of the church.

There were also “BLACK LIVES MATTER” signs all over the town, including a huge banner near a church. I’m surprised a church would promote a hate group. I always keep it real on these blogs and in person, so I don’t care if you’re offended here, but what’s with all these hockey cities in predominantly black areas? The Rock in Newark, while an excellent venue to watch a game, let’s be real – Newark isn’t HockeyTown, USA. You got the Islanders located in between the projects & yuppie sections of Brooklyn and they can’t draw flies. Here, we had a former NHL arena in another ghetto-ish looking area. And some wonder why league attendance is down?

There’s one thing to be a racist, another to be a realist. Just examine the data. African-Americans make up a very tiny minority of the NHL audience. They are even a smaller percentage when it comes to NHL ticket buyers. I mean half the black fans I see at Ranger games are Giant and Jet players! I just don’t get why these arenas are in locations where the fans are not. It’s just examining your data, your population, your economy, your stats & a slew of other figures. Where I think football and baseball attract a healthy mix of fans from all races and ethnic groups, hockey usually skews to white people. Basketball obviously skews better with black people, although you see a lot of white people at games, because of the corporate Jews that run these buildings & own the best seats.

Putting an NHL arena in some of these arenas is like opening up an “All-You-Eat-Bacon” store in an area primarily made up of  Hasidic Jews. While it sounds like a good idea, it isn’t the best idea economically. Would you open up/invest in a top of the line steakhouse in an area where the median income is $15,000 a year? Would you open up a Ralph’s Italian Ices in Alaska? Under the same line of thinking, the NHL is a business and after seeing this Hartford area, it’s no wonder the Whalers never had a shot.

This bar is right outside the XL Arena. It offers 99 bottles of beer. When we got inside, it turns out they offer 16. Talk about false advertising. Even the waiter laughed about the false advertising and said “What can you do about it?” I’d love to get in contact with Jon Taffer and let him straighten these fuckers out!

Like most arenas, there are several pubs around the venue to offer fans some pre-gaming opportunities. The Tavern and another bar, called “Agave” seemed to have the most action. Mexican bars/restaurants seem to be a huge hit these days. Very rarely do you see a dead Mexican bar. We wound up walking by several bars/restaurants in Hartford and none were as packed/busy as “Agave” in Hartford. It was the only place that had a waiting list too.

Since Tommy was the wheelman for the trip, I was drinking for two. I didn’t want to get too crazy, because the XL Arena was offering $2 beer night. I planned to get my monies worth out of that!  After discussing how small the town felt (I mean, they even have a baseball team called “The Yard Goats”), we headed towards the arena.

Please be advised, I don’t want to come off like I’m trashing Hartford. I was only there for 7 hours, and three hours were inside of the XL Arena. It obviously was much smaller than NYC. I just wonder if this town was like this when the Whalers were there. You had one of three top hockey players of all time there for three years, in Gordie Howe. (Orr & Gretzky being the other two.)

The Whalers, then known as the New England Whalers, were the first team to win the Avco Cup, the WHA’s version of the NHL’s Stanley Cup. Granted, the Whalers played their first season in Boston, before relocating to Hartford, so the city of Hartford didn’t experience the championship team. The Whalers did experience success early. They would acquire Howe and his sons, which would make you think it would translate to box office success. Unfortunately for Hartford, that always wasn’t the case.

Howe & his sons, after leaving Houston, would play two seasons for the Whalers, as WHA hockey players. In the 1979-1980 season, Gordie Howe would finish his NHL playing career, as a Whaler. The Whaler’s first NHL season would be Howe’s last NHL season. Using the name of Gordie Howe would help the Whalers market themselves and they still use the Howe brand in Hartford to this day.

I am a huge fan of American history. I’m starting to learn more about Canadian history. What better sport than hockey to get the best of both worlds? Walking into the building where Howe called home was something else. I tried to envision what Hartford was like in 1980. Were fans pumped for games?  Was it tough to be a fan when the NHL tried to strip and break down the entering WHA teams?

The biggest question I had to myself is why did the Whalers fail in Hartford? I mean, the black and white of it is that the new owners wanted a new arena. The Hartford tax payers weren’t going for that. Even after a season ticket drive to keep the Whalers around surpassed the 11,000 tickets goal, the Whalers became the Hurricanes after 1997. However, if the fan support was always there, a new arena would’ve been built. The fact is, people weren’t going to the games, so it made no sense for the residents to pay for a new arena, if the current arena wasn’t generating an economic boost for Hartford. What politician is going to raise taxes, in a grand fashion, when more than half of his voters don’t care about the Whalers?

To me, as an outsider looking in, I’m assuming that fans in Connecticut were already Ranger or Bruin fans, similar to how fans in Connecticut today are either Patriots/Giants (Connecticut people are too smart to root for the Jets) or root for the Yankees/Red Sox. (Again, Connecticut people are too smart to root for the Mets!) Jokes aside, the reason the Yankees/Giants get more love than the Mets/Jets is because the Yankees/Giants are older teams and were simply around first. In that same vain, the Bruins & Rangers were around first, (Nearly 55 years before the Whalers joined the NHL) so I don’t think people in 1980 were going to toss their red/white/blue or black/gold jerseys for these new fangled blue/green colors.

In their 18 years in the NHL, the Whalers were either bounced out in the second round of the playoffs or were a bottom of the barrel team. Success breeds money and the Whalers didn’t have much of it. The demographics around Hartford today would make me think that an NHL team in Hartford would fail miserably. I don’t know what Hartford was like from 1980-1997, but between fans already having their allegiances set and a small ghetto area around the arena, it would just be tough today.

Enough of the history lessons and obituaries, let’s look at the Pack!

A combination of $2 beer night, Tommy’s horrible picture taking skills and doing the stupid nWo Wolfpack sign led to this picture!

Walking into the XL arena, it was nicer than I thought it would be. It’s an older building, kinda like the Nassau Coliseum. However, unlike the former Coliseum, the XL arena is clean and immaculate. You could tell the arena was old when you went inside and when you saw a lack of escalators around the place, but it didn’t look like a pile of shit like the Nassau Coliseum was in its last years.

I know this was an AHL game, so I’m not really expecting the glitz and glamour of a finished NHL product, but the attendance was kind of alarming. There were about 1500 people there, similar to an Islander game. However, I spent $25 for my third row ticket. To put that in perspective, for $4.99 more, I could’ve got an Emerson Etem autographed puck! For $22 less, I could’ve got an Islander/Lightning ticket! (No joke, Bolts/Islander tickets last Tuesday were going for $3, $6 for tix just rows away from the ice.)

The entire top half of the arena was tarped off, I guess for TV purposes or because the WWE was just there and they don’t draw what they used to these days either!

I have a friend who works in minor league baseball.  I’ve seen a bunch of minor league baseball parks, while watching him do his thing. One of those places was in Northwest Arkansas. Whether it be Arkansas, Binghamton or Hartford, the minor league experience is usually the same – cheap tickets and a good family product. That’s what this game was. There were money making things all over the arena, whether it be raffles, boosters for the local youth teams, etc. You had the $2 beers and $1 hotdogs. You got a great seat in a former NHL arena to boot. I bought some merchandise, had a great seat and partook in some beer drinking and all it cost me was about $80. I really had a great time and experience taking in a game.

What is unfortunate is that if you’re out of town, you have to drive there. I wouldn’t mind going again, but it wouldn’t be for a while. If I could take a train that got me there and that I could take after a game, it would be different. There are no trains out of town after 8PM, so you won’t get any Ranger fan tourists coming in by rail for a game, unless they want to hotel it up. You have to be a nutbag to watch your favorite team’s farm system anyway, but that mode of travel is out, for those wondering.

I was right behind alternate captain Tanner Fucking Glass all night!

The Wolfpack lost the game I went to, losing 5-4 in overtime. It’s tough to really analyze a minor league game, because players are constantly in and out & new things are being experimented with. Sometimes the big club tells the little club how to dole out ice time to players. It’s not like head coach Ken Gernander is the end-all voice of the organization.

Couple of observations about what I saw, followed by a mini-picture gallery:

  • Going to this game, I wanted to see three guys play. Those players were Tanner Glass, Dylan McIlrath & Mackenzie Skapski. Skapski did not play, as Magnus Hellberg got the start.
  • I thought Hellberg looked awful. Must be something about Swedish goalies!  He’s a big kid but obviously not polished like a Ben Bishop. He was aggressive out there, sometimes too much for his own good. The Wolfpack defense was horrible during this game and it led to many easy looks for the Sound Tigers. That said, Hellberg did nothing extraordinary to make you think he’s ready for the NHL.
  • Nick Jensen was the Wolfpack star of the game, scoring two nice goals. I know the Rangers have high hopes for him. However, for Jensen and really any Wolfpack or Swamp Rabbit roster member, no one has a shot of making the Rangers, RIGHT NOW. The Rangers are scoring 5 goals a game. You’re not cracking into this Rangers roster until the big team cools off or someone gets hurt.
  • I’m an “Undertaker” Dylan McIlrath fan. Unfortunately, he had a horrible game. You guys know me as the Talbot guy, but McIlrath is another one of those players I root for. However, this was the worst game I’ve ever seen him in. Some guy, who either was a scout or a reporter, and I think a scout by the way he was taking notes, remarked to someone next to him, “That’s why he’s here” after McIlrath turned over the puck, got burnt and Hellberg got beat on a breakaway.
  • I think McIlrath finished with a -3 and could’ve been blamed for two goals. He was also much larger and bigger than every one on the ice. Some of these guys looked like kids next to him. I think every McIlrath shift finished with 5 hits, a turnover and a few f-words as he skated towards the bench. The guy looked like a possessed spirit, kinda like something out of “American Horror Story: Roanoke”.
  • Oh and as advertised, the big goon got into a silly fight, where he kicked some ass. I have a soft spot for the enforcers and want them back, but it’s not going to help Dylan’s cause. Talk about being in the wrong era. I feel bad for the guy.
  • I did a huge blog about Tanner Glass before this season. I talked about his leadership in that blog. While he was a locker room leader, rather than an on-ice leader for the Rangers, he was a leader on ice for the Pack. Many Pack players sat underneath the Glass learning tree in between shifts. As an alternate captain, Glass also jawed with the refs.
  • Glass was one of the better players in the game. He’s above this. He should be in the NHL somewhere. Watching him behind the bench and showing guys things all day, tells me he has a future in coaching or on TV as an analyst. Can’t be worse than Pierre or Milbury!
  • After driving around and out of Hartford, I can’t imagine how a guy with the NHL experience Glass deals with living in Hartford. At least after the weekend, I was able to go back to New York. Slumming it up at a $30 Econolodge in East Hartford is nothing like living in NY, no offense to the Econolodge of East Hartford.
  • The diehard fans of the Pack, like any diehard fan of a minor league team, are something else. In a good way.
  • The $2 Miller Lights were fresher and better tasting than any beer I’ve had at MSG in the last 10 years.

Picture Time:

The iconic rafters of the XL Arena!

This was taken 6 minutes before the National Anthem. Another sold out night in East Hartford!

 

Glass & McIlrath were on ice for the first Sound Tigers goal. It’s a long hard road out of Hartford!

McIlrath doing McIlrath things

Getting low before hitting high!

Hellberg has become the number 1 starter in Hartford.

As I was doing this blog today, the following was announced by the Rangers & Wolfpack:

Wolf Pack general manager Jim Schoenfeld today announced that the parent New York Rangers have reassigned goaltender Brandon Halverson to the Wolf Pack from its ECHL affiliate, the Greenville Swamp Rabbits, and that fellow netminder Mackenzie Skapski has been reassigned from the Wolf Pack to the Swamp Rabbits.

Halverson, a 20-year-old rookie out of the Ontario Hockey League, is 3-1-0 in his first four pro appearances for Greenville, with a 1.70 goals-against average, which currently ranks fifth in the ECHL, a 94.3% save percentage and one shutout.  Last year with the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, the 6-4, 208-pound Halverson was 20-17-4 with a 3.00 GAA and a 90.7% save percentage.

A native of Traverse City, MI, Halverson was the Rangers’ top pick in the 2014 NHL draft, selected in the second round, 59th overall.  In 112 career OHL games over three seasons with the Greyhounds, he compiled a record of 72-28-7, along with a 2.83 GAA, a 90.9% save percentage and eight shutouts.

Skapski has seen action in five Wolf Pack games this season, going 0-4-0 with a 5.17 GAA and an 84.8% save percentage.

Halverson has once been anointed as the next Rangers starting goalie. Granted, I wish that distinction went to Cam Talbot, but those days are gone. It’s been a rough season for Skapski in Hartford. I am rooting for the kid and I hope he sees NHL ice again. This is just one of these things he’ll have to get through.

Skapski doesn’t have the best numbers, but from what I read, heard from fans in Hartford and saw with my own eyes, the Wolfpack’s defense is pretty shitty. You know how I feel about Lundqvist. Any one can win if the team is scoring 5 goals a game for you! Who knows how even a Carey Price would fit in with this Wolfpack defense!

In the limited preseason games I’ve seen of Hellberg (two seasons worth) and his game tonight vs the 2 NHL games and this year’s preseason games I’ve seen of Skapski, I think Skapski is better. I guess the Rangers have an infatuation with Swedish goalies. At least Halverson is an American, which may help the Rangers if Donald Trump becomes President and deports Lundqvist!

Another night at the XL Arena!

All in all, I enjoyed my time in Hartford. I’ve watched/followed games over the years on the internet, but obviously, it’s not the same in person. It was a fun experience and while I wouldn’t go back anytime soon (I hate long car rides and had to take a vacation day to do this trip), I would do this once a season. Too bad the trains don’t go back to NY after games, but I understand why. You can’t run a train for 3-5 people who would be interested in doing this from NY!

After seeing this all up close, I have a greater appreciation of what these players have to put up with to make it to the NHL. I can’t imagine how Greenville is. Poor Skapski. For a guy like Tanner Glass, it really says something about him as a person that he stays so engaged and willing to help his teammates.

I also have seen with my eyes why Hartford will never make it as an NHL city. The sad reality is that a Friday night, in a dead town, the game didn’t produce a rabid or big crowd. It’s tough being a fan of a minor league team because your best guys can be plucked from the team at any time. It’s a weird relationship to be a diehard fan of a minor league team.

I respect all the fans that attend these games and support the future Rangers.

Well it’s time to “pack” it in (Har, Har, Har!)

One blog down, two to go! Next up: the Boston leg of my trip.

(And leave it to me to do 4000 words on the Wolfpack!)

HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWL

Sean McCaffrey

BULLSMC@aol.com

@NYCTHEMIC on twitter (More pics of my trip are there)

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