Hartford is A Changin’–On and Off the Ice

Since 1997, the Rangers’ AHL affiliate has been in Hartford. First named the Hartford Wolf Pack, there was a brief interlude where the team was called the Connecticut Whale, and now back to the original moniker. The team plays at what was once called the Hartford Civic Center and is now known as the XL Center.

In case you have not followed it, said hockey team just completed their worst season in its history (24-46-4). If you can believe that it is possible, the team was actually worse than its record. So, to many, it comes as no surprise that today the Head Coach, Kenny Gernander (known as “G”), was let go by the Rangers. The firing has been in the air for awhile, and, although it was announced today, Gernander was actually told on Friday. Gernander, who spent 10 years as the Pack’s head coach and two more as an assistant has been offered another position within the organization, but is weighing his options.

A career AHLer, G was a grinding hockey player, who was at his best coaching players who played a two-way game. He played old-time hockey and was a favorite of Jim Schoenfeld, who, until today, was the GM of the Wolf Pack. Over the years, Gernander was less spectacular with players who were more offensively talented, and one has to wonder if certain European players had been coached differently in the AHL whether or not they would have made a career in New York (instead of running back to Europe at top speed). There are at least a half dozen players that were signed as free agents that wound up back in Europe at least in part because of the style required in Hartford.

That is not to say that the problems in Hartford this past season were all or even mostly G’s fault. He had one of the more talentless Wolf Pack teams that I have seen in a long time (the four-year lack of early round draft picks has really started to show up at the AHL level). And as the season went on, Rangers Assistant GM Chris Drury started to take a more and more active role in discussing issues with Gernander and with roster members. On break up day, it was Drury there in Hartford for the exit interviews.

Today, Drury was named GM of the Wolf Pack, and it is likely that he will pick the next head coach. Drury has had a meteoric rise within the Rangers organization. First, as director of player development in 2015, then assistant GM in 2016, and now taking on the additional role of Wolf Pack GM. Also indicative of how highly thought of he is, late last month there were rumors that the Rangers declined to allow Drury to interview for the recently open GM spot in Buffalo (eventually filled by Jason Botterill). It is not clear at all that the Rangers flat out declined to let Drury speak to Buffalo; instead, it likely was a mutual decision, with promises of this additional role on the close horizon. Either way, look for Jeff Gorton and Drury to become a tandem ala Glen Sather and Schoenfeld in the coming years.

The change in hockey management is not the only thing going on in Hartford hockey, though. Other events are threatening the team’s very existence. It has long been known that the facility, i.e., the XL Center, needs many expensive repairs. According to reports, a total of $250 million said to be needed for renovating of the 42-year-old building. But, because the State of Connecticut is in very bad financial condition (the estimated deficit has escalated to a projected $2.3 billion in 2018 and $2.8 billion in 2019), instead of requesting $250 million, half that number was sought. About two weeks ago, a key legislative committee for the state legislature that approves large scale capital development projects–the finance, revenue and bonding committee–made a recommendation to approve just $70 million over the next two years ($40 million in 2018 and $30 million in 2019).

This procedural vote still must go to the full General Assembly for approval. Currently, the State has no budget in place, and the current negotiations not surprisingly have gotten acrimonious and have broken down. Some estimates have the state budget shortfall for the current fiscal year at $389.5 million, reflecting a sharp and declining revenue for the State. With the current budget year ending June 30th, and the legislative session set to expire in less than a month, on June 7th, something has to be done quickly.

Why is this all so important to the Rangers and their fans? The Rangers start their 21st year in Hartford in the fall, which will be their final year of a five-year contract. That contract will be paying the Rangers $1.5 million next season as its affiliation fee–the highest affiliation fee in the AHL. There are rumors that the Rangers are negotiating with facility management to stay in the XL Center, but if the needed repairs are not made (and a very favorable affiliation fee is not paid), it is hard to see how the team will remain in Hartford.

Remember, although many of the Rangers’ front office personnel live in or very close to Connecticut, it is only a little longer to drive to Albany (where the Times Union Center has been vacated by the Albany Devils).

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