The relocation experiment (pt. 1)

Here’s my hypothesis: there are several NHL teams that, if lifted from their home markets today and plopped in Hartford tomorrow (with the caveat of XL Center renovations being done in time for the start of play, the NHL would probably never even consider another Hartford experiment without that) would instantly become more profitable franchises.

That’s it. They don’t need to do anything much: just relocate to Hartford, slap on the old iconic logo, take the ice, and voila! they’re a greater financial success.

Now, the above is an article of faith for most die-hard Whaler fans who’ve never left the team since the team left. But a) I don’t know that NHL fans understand how obviously true this point is (witness some of the “Hartford struggled financially!” in my mentions) and b) I think it’s a point that bears almost constant repeating and yes, demonstration.

Luckily, we don’t need to make this discussion a mere armchair conversation. There exists a powerful-enough-for-our-purposes simulator that can give us a clear answer of what would happen if the Hartford Whalers truly came back to life: Franchise Hockey Manager.

This ain’t “‘Chel,” but it’s a really great way to simulate alternate reality.

How we’re gonna do this:

For those unfamiliar with FHM: it’s a game for the ultimate hockey nerd. The player is placed in the seat of an NHL GM for any team from the league’s inaugural season in 1917–’18 to the present. It’s just a simulator: you’ll find no 3D graphics, no skill stick, and no Be-a-Player here. Still, there are a few features of the game that make it especially appealing for our experiment.

One: the game simulates relocation and expansion with a fine level of detail. If we want to recreate the Hartford Whalers, we want to place them in the real Hartford, Connecticut and see how it goes. FHM allows us to do that. If we want to recreate the Hartford Whalers, we want to make sure they play in the real (if somewhat refurbished) XL Center and see how that goes. FHM allows us to do that too.

Finally and crucially, FHM allows us to view the financial performance of the team to some level of detail. We can see how much the team made at the gate, how much the TV deal made for the team, how much revenue the jerseys brought in, and so forth. It still doesn’t model corporate sponsorships, but those may be included in a future iteration of the game. Either way, we’re getting an apples-to-apples comparison of how our Whalers did financially compared to other teams. That allows us to say “yep, we’re making more money than the Coyotes.”

Now, in the interest of full transparency & in case any other fellow FHM players hop on here, the parameters you set for an expansion / relocated franchise do matter.

Here are the assumptions I will make for our relocated Whalers:

  1. The XL Center has been substantially renovated and is now an 18,500 seat arena of a modern quality. I don’t think there’s any way around this one for the NuWhalers. An NHL-quality arena is a precondition for a new team, so let’s assume they got one. I’ve added more luxury boxes, upgraded the arena’s quality (the game rates it as a 3/5, I’ll take that up to a full 5) and expanded the capacity enormously. It’s worth noting that even the $250 million renovation proposed six years ago would not take the arena to this size. This arena would be the result of a very ambitious group of investors (and the state) deciding to put serious money behind the arena.
  2. The size of the Hartford market is comparable to its league peers. As I’ve demonstrated elsewhere, the Hartford-New Haven DMA is comparable in size (larger, actually) than Columbus, Vegas, and Buffalo. The game rates Columbus as an “average” sized market, and Columbus clocks in one spot behind Hartford on the Nielsen DMA list. I’ve decided to call Hartford an “average” sized market for the game’s purposes here.
  3. Any return of the Hartford Whalers would inspire a serious outpouring of loyalty from New England sports fans. The Winnipeg Jets are our guidepost, here. While it’s not exactly the same, the feel-good story of the Whalers’ return in a post-COVID world would almost certainly inspire levels of devotion unlike anything the first iteration of the franchise saw. Remember, it wasn’t unheard of to see the Whalers outdraw the Jets when both teams were still in the league. I’ll dial the fan loyalty way up to “fanatic” for this one. As we’ll see, the game really puts downward pressure on every team’s attendance from 2021–2029 for reasons I still don’t totally understand anyway, so our results won’t be too warped.
Imagine…okay, even this would be a little smaller than my 18k-seater, but still. (Source: Richsportstalk.com)

From there, we (well, I. Sorry, fans. Hope I do better than Eddie Johnston) will take control of the team, making only legal roster moves Now, who are we relocating?

The Florida Panthers head north.

As a Whalers fan, I obviously find relocation a sad thing. Every team (even the Atlanta Thrashers) had its share of die-hard fans, and every team has at least one kid whose first experience with professional sports was watching their local pros. Tearing that loyalty and those memories from anybody just feels awful, so I want to do it to as few people as possible.

Hence the Florida Panthers.

With an arena close to forty miles from the center of downtown Miami, which isn’t a place exactly known for fanatical hockey fandom anyways, and a team that’s (with rare exception) been pretty terrible for the past 25 years, the Florida Panthers haven’t been the picture of success. They admitted to losing an estimated $157 million from 1997-’98 to 2014–’15 and needed an $86 million bailout from Broward County to keep playing. They’re slated to stay in their current location until about the end of this decade, but that agreement contains a helpful opt-out for 2023–’24, so the team could technically leave sooner.

What’s exciting about the Florida Panthers:

They’re moving in a good direction. They’re carrying an absurdly overpriced contract for a former Vezina goalie in Sergei Boborovsky, but the core of Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander “Sasha” Barkov, Aaron Ekblad and Patric Hornqvist certainly forms the makings of a playoff team. They’ve added some depth in free agency, most notably with my personal favorite Anthony Duclair. They have two of the top goaltending prospects in hockey right now in Devon Levi and Spencer Knight, the Canadian and U.S. goalies at the World Junior Championships respectively. This is a team that can win right away, and with a few tweaks, it could be a big success.

Their coaching staff would excite die-hard Hartford fans overnight. Just imagine Joel Quenneville and Ulf Samuelsson behind the bench for the Whalers. Not only is Coach Q a legend of the game, he’d be a fan favorite from day one.

The name “Tippett” would be on the back of a Whaler jersey again. No, he’s not related to Dave (much to everyone’s chagrin, neither are Cam and Kevin Dineen) but Owen Tippett is going to be a pretty darn solid NHL player. It’d be the first time Hartford fans saw the name “Tippett” on the back of an active player’s jersey since 1990. We need this.

Tippett + Whalers = nice.

With that, I give you…the 2020–21 Hartford Whalers. Crack a cold beverage of your choice, sit back, turn on the Bonanza, read the starting roster and see what you think.

The starting roster of the Hartford Whalers.

Where the Bonanza never stops blaring.