East Hartford, Connecticut – The scene Friday night at Rentschler Field, just a few miles from downtown Hartford: a 60-degree temperature that made little sense in the midst of a harsh Hartford winter, light rain, and a raucous crowd of a few hundred enjoying a heated game between teams from two local high schools.
It was one of the many games taking place from February 10th through 18th as part of the 2011 Whalers Hockey Fest leading up to Saturday, February 19th, in preparation for what was expected to be the biggest hockey day in the state’s history.
The activities of the 19th, summated as The Whale Bowl, included a D1 hockey game between Army and AIC, an alumni game featuring Whalers and Bruins legends, and the marquee matchup between the AHL Connecticut Whale and the Providence Bruins.
With a reported 28,000 tickets for the big day sold or distributed and another 10,000 showing up at the gate considered to be a real possibility, the biggest concern was how the ice would react to another day of sunshine, if that were to occur. Attendance was not a worry.
At 6:30 PM on Saturday night, as the Whale and Bruins warmed up, the temperature was in the 20s and dropping steadily. Suffocating wind was gusting up to 50 miles-per-hour, cars were rapidly leaving the parking lot, and a crowd of roughly eight thousand brave souls was bundled up from head-to-toe, chattering en masse.
Attendance was announced at an AHL-record-breaking 15,234, a touch more than half the 28,000 predicted, and even further from the 38,000 capacity. The number may have been accurate, but the crowd worked in shifts. Groups came and went during the alumni game, either to their cars to warm up or home for good, establishing a pattern that continued throughout the night.
"The cold weather was a major, major factor," said Howard Baldwin, who orchestrated the event with his son, Howard Baldwin, Jr. The Baldwin family is currently leading the charge to bring NHL hockey back to Hartford. "It made it really tough for people that bought tickets to actually go and even harder to stay."
It’s difficult to communicate just how painfully bitter of a night it was. Some fans that purchased tickets were so put off by the prospect of having their beers frozen and fusing with the icy bleachers that they decided to avoid the event entirely.
"My unused Whale Bowl tickets are nice and warm on the kitchen counter," one fan Tweeted after the game.
"This is the coldest weather I’ve ever been in. It’s negative wind-chill, for sure," said fan Jessica Walker, decked out in Whalers garb with her family, when asked why she was leaving before the AHL game. "I brought my two boys here today. As a mother, I don’t think it’s right for us to stay."
The Whale, with a purposefully cartoonish logo and a primarily community-based promotional campaign, have marketed heavily to Connecticut families, but Saturday’s conditions were anything but family friendly.
By 6:45 PM, reporters in the press-box who had already started work on their ‘Whale outdoor game breaks record stories, were starting from scratch, instead running with the ‘Whale outdoor game disappoints’ angle.
Then, something beautiful happened. The mob which had walked nearly a half mile together from the overflow parking lot, half of whom waited an hour to park and half of whom were waiting in their cars until the last possible moment, converged on Rentschler, overwhelming the gate staff and packing the concourse.
By 7:10, just before the game started, the entire half of the stadium closest to the rink was packed with fans trying to stay warm and chanting "Lets go Whalers".
"It’s incredible to me that we actually had almost 16,000 people come," Baldwin said proudly.
Those who were willing and able to stick it out, or lucky enough to be sitting indoors, were treated to an on-ice product worthy of the atmosphere.
"The quality [of play] was great," Baldwin said. "The players really went at it and there was the added excitement of going into overtime and then a shootout."
A fireworks display opened a game that included a spirited scrap, eight goals, a couple of lead changes, and plenty of rough, high-tempo action throughout. Providence eventually won the game 5-4 after a five round shootout.
Rangers’ prospect Evgeny Grachev was buzzing the whole night for the Whale and ended up with an assist to his name. Veterans Tim Kennedy, who finished as the game’s first star, and Wade Redden also stood out for Connecticut.
Jamie Arniel was the top producer for Providence, scoring a goal and adding two assists. 21-year-old forward Maxime Sauve also had a nice night for the Baby Bruins, potting a goal in regulation and scoring the deciding marker in the shootout. Jordan Caron, sporting a black hood under his helmet to keep warm, played a spirited game, but finished pointless. Third-year forward Zach Hamill had two assists.
"The event was great. I couldn’t be more pleased with anything and everything to do with the Winter Fest," Baldwin said, but one has to think that had the stars aligned the right way for Saturday night, it would have been a much bigger step in the right direction.
When asked what he would change next year, Baldwin couldn’t find much to complain about.
"Saturday’s cold weather," he quipped, before pausing and answering more seriously. "I would make sure that in the future that we don’t play it at night."
His answer implies the possibility of a second episode of outdoor hockey in Connecticut, and maybe that game will meet or exceed the expectations of everyone involved in the way that this event should and could have.
Such is the risk with outdoor hockey: that the weather becomes the focus, rather than the event itself. It’s hard to blame anybody for being scared off by the cold, but it’s a shame when you think about what could have been.