In the midst of the war of words between unrelenting fans of the former Hartford Whalers (joined by Governor Malloy) and the Raleigh News & Observer, which has aimed a cease and desist order at Hartford, it may be worthwhile to delve into the data. It prove to be a distinction without a difference, however.
Gov. Malloy’s February 8 letter to Thomas Dundon, a Dallas businessman and new owner of the Carolina Hurricanes, urged that the team return to the Nutmeg State for a regular season game at Rentschler Field or the XL Center so the team could be “embraced by a grateful fan base.” Doing so, Malloy pointed out, “would make clear that Hartford is a far more viable long-term home for the team than Raleigh.”
When asked days ago by The Sporting News about the ‘Canes future in Raleigh, Dundon said: “As long as I’m involved, this is where we’re going to be. One of the best things about this is the people. They’re just nice people here. They care. There’s no reason to be anywhere else.”
In an editorial, the Raleigh newspaper added that if a game were to be played in Hartford, it would be preseason, not regular season, and only because it would be “a chance to hoover some money out of the pockets of long-suffering Whalers fans desperate to see NHL hockey again… But that’s not going to happen.”
Last season, the Hurricanes had the league’s lowest attendance, averaging 11,776 per home game. It was their second consecutive season at the bottom of the league in attendance. In the 2015-16 season, average attendance was 12,203. Midway through this season, after 27 home games, the Hurricanes are averaging 13,039, 29th out of 31 teams in the league.
In the Whalers’ final season in Hartford, 1996-97, attendance at the Hartford Civic Center had grown to 87 percent of capacity, with an average attendance of 13,680 per game. Published reports suggest that the average attendance was, in reality, higher than 14,000 per game by 1996-97, but Whalers ownership did not count the skyboxes and coliseum club seating because the revenue streams went to the state, rather than the team.
Attendance increased for four consecutive years before management moved the team from Hartford. (To 10,407 in 1993-94, 11,835 in 1994-95, 11,983 in 1995-96 and 13,680 in 1996-97.) During the team’s tenure in Hartford, average attendance exceeded 14,000 twice – in 1987-88 and 1986-87, when the team ranked 13th in the league in attendance in both seasons.
During the 15 years prior to the past two seasons at the bottom, Carolina has been among the league’s bottom-third in average attendance eight times, and the bottom-half every season but one.
The Sporting News has reported that Dundon purchased a 61 percent stake in the franchise last month, with Peter Karmanos, who relocated the Whalers to North Carolina in 1997, retaining a 39 percent minority stake. Dundon reportedly has an option to purchase the remainder in three years. He is a New York native, and lived in New Jersey and Houston before Dallas.
The arena’s lease in Raleigh expires in 2024. The team’s current playoff drought is the longest of any team in the NHL – nearly a decade.
In the interview, Dundon pointed out “We have a really passionate, loyal season ticket base. The number is just smaller than you’d like it to be, but you have one. Every year that’ll grow. So the only challenge is just the amount of people that you have to touch. It’s inevitable that we’re going to touch them all and we’re going to get them.”