The XL Center has been home to hockey in Hartford for nearly fourty years, and while the common thought is that the building is outdated, the sightlines for the general hockey fan are terrific, and the arena suits the AHL well. It all started back in 1975, when the New England Whalers of the WHA moved to Hartford and started playing in the new Civic Center. Only three years later, the building’s roof collapsed due to heavy snow, and a complete rebuild was needed. As the WHA was absorbed into the NHL, the renamed Hartford Whalers had to start a portion of their first NHL season in Springfield before the Civic Center renovations were complete.
After 18 seasons in Hartford, owner Peter Karmanos moved the team to Carolina after failed attempts at a new arena and a relatively low attendance in their current one (despite the hardcore group of fans that can be seen to this day still wearing apparel with the famed Whaler logo). After the move, the Hartford Wolf Pack of the AHL took over, and as an affiliate of the New York Rangers, they have done quite well on the ice, with frequent playoff appearances and a Calder Cup in 2000.
In 2010, original Whaler owner Howard Baldwin took over operations of the AHL team and wanted to significantly re-brand with the Whalers in mind. Making the transition at a strange time during the season, the team became the Connecticut Whale and nearly sold out their arena the night of the change. Baldwin’s other questionable business decisions and mounting debt led to his firing, and to distance themselves from him, the team went back to the Hartford Wolf Pack in 2013. While there certainly is a hockey passion in Connecticut, fans haven’t really seemed to connect with the AHL squad, and many games are played in a sparsely-attended arena. Regardless, the XL Center is still a fine facility and a very good place to watch hockey.
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The food at the XL Center is decent, with several options to compliment the typical sports venue offerings. Most items are served in baskets that include chips or fries, and these baskets include cheesesteak ($10), sausage ($9) or barbecue chicken ($8). The cheeseburger basket ($9) is likely the best option, with onion rings to go along with a loaded burger. New England is represented with the clam chowder ($5) and lobster rolls ($5), while Dunkin' Donuts has a couple of their own stands. Given how unusually cold it is inside the arena, their hot chocolate or coffee almost becomes necessary. Alternately, the chili offered can do the trick.
Only about two-thirds of the concession stands are open, leaving one to wonder about other possible choices (like the "Pies & Pints" stand that was closed when I attended). There is a restaurant in the facility, as the Comcast Coliseum Club opens to the public two hours before game time. Access is separated from the arena, as elevators in the main lobby lead to the Club. The arena falls short in the beer category, namely because of price. $9 for a draft beer at an AHL game is quite expensive. Coors and Miller products are the most available, while separate stands offer Guinness and Sam Adams. Pepsi is the soda provider.
Inside, the arena is designed beautifully for hockey, and while it does not have all the bells and whistles that local officials desire, this place is excellent for the general hockey fan. The seat pitch is steep, and even in the lower bowl, fans are right on top of the action as they sit in blue seats that are both wide and comfortable. While the 200-level seats are closed off during Wolf Pack games, there is not much separation between the lower and upper bowls, which helps to bring all seats closer to the ice. Additionally, luxury suites are perched way up at the top of the arena.
The center scoreboard is four-sided and features video that is clear, though not of perfect quality. Also looking up to the rafters, fans see many banners. With one side displaying the success of UConn basketball, the other side is proudly all about Hartford hockey. Behind the Wolf Pack banners are several displays for the Whalers, including retired numbers. One can really get a sense of the building's history by looking up to the banners. While the Wolf Pack atmosphere generally lacks energy, there is one thing missing after goals that needs to be brought back...Brass Bonanza! The hugely popular (and personal favorite) goal song has stopped playing at the XL Center, and let's hope that gets rectified.
While Hartford may not resonate as a tourist destination, the XL Center is in an excellent spot downtown that has a surprisingly vibrant surrounding area. With Allen Street on one side and the cobblestoned Pratt Street on the other, the arena sits in the middle of two streets that provide plenty of food and drink options for both pre and post-game. I stopped at Vaughan's Public House, a small Irish pub that featured great food, beers and atmosphere. Other decent places include The Russian Lady and The Russell Restaurant.
Hartford is the state capital of Connecticut, and along with visiting the actual building, the previous home to State Government still stands and is open for visitors. Just a short walk from the XL Center, the Old State House not only includes a visit to the historic rooms inside, but there is also a nice little section in the lower level that features Hartford history. This is well worth a visit, and is only $3 for AAA members. Also downtown is the CT Science Center, for those that are bringing kids to the game.
It is hard to judge the fans of Hartford, because there is an ardent and passionate base that still loves the Whalers and desperately wants the team back. However, when solely talking about the Wolf Pack, the team just does not seem to resonate well with the city. After a surge in attendance and interest after the rebrand to the Connecticut Whale, the novelty wore off and it seems fan interest has, too. The first season after the switch back to the Wolf Pack, the team fell towards the bottom of the league for attendance. The Friday night game I attended only had a couple thousand in the stands, and it looks worse inside an arena that seats over 15,000. While the Hartford market certainly deserves hockey of some form, they have been nowhere near as successful as other NHL cities that lost their franchises (the Quebec Remparts have done very well and draw big crowds, as did the Manitoba Moose before the Jets returned).
For most of the game I attended in fall 2013, the crowd was generally quiet, and there wasn't much noise in the building until the home team made a comeback in the third period. This brought up the energy level, and those in attendance did a nice job of cheering on the team as the comeback win was completed.
All roads seemingly lead to Hartford, but during the evening rush hour, those roads get quite clogged as downtown workers head out to the suburbs. Give yourself extra time for those 7:00 PM games during the week. Both I-84 and I-91 provide access into the city, and while the downtown street grid is not completely straightforward, it is not bad to navigate. There are a ton of parking garages and surface lots within walking distance, and it is advantageous to look at the parking map on the team's website beforehand to find the best spot for exiting quickly after the game. Free parking on the streets is also doable, as the meters do not run on weekends and after 6 PM on weekdays.
Inside the arena, the surrounding concourse is expectedly small, and food lines can block traffic at intermission. However, for generally small crowds, there is no real issue with navigation. Bathrooms are certainly small and number too few.
There are four main pricing levels for Wolf Pack games, starting at $15 and finishing at $30 for the two sections between the blue lines. Overall, it is not terrible, but a minimum price of $25 for a seat between the goals is a bit expensive. Seats near the glass cost $45. Most of the parking lots are $7 - $10, so if you are apt at finding street parking, it is a good idea.
An interesting feature of the downtown facility is that the arena used to be part of the Civic Center Mall. Fans could buy a pair of new shoes and see a hockey game all in one place! Truly a unique setting, it is hard to envision the shopping mall in the current main foyer now, but there used to be stores next to and above the main doors to the "Veterans Memorial Coliseum" entrance. In 2004, the mall was removed and reconstruction of the area, highlighted by "Hartford 21" that features office space and residential apartments, helps bring in both people and business into the city.
Back to the main entrance of the arena, there is a wall simply titled "Hartford Hockey" and it is here that wonderful pictures take the fan through a small sampling of those that have played in Hartford.
Hartford's XL Center is a building that still remains quite busy, thanks to the Hartford Wolf Pack and UConn Huskies. While the facility will always be known as the home of the Whalers, it is still a very serviceable arena to this day. The XL Center is built very well for watching hockey, and though it may not be filled with fans, the old Civic Center continues to be a decent place to check out a game.
Though Connecticut is not exactly known for its professional sports scene, the state possesses several minor league sports teams that the locals rally around. One of those teams is the Connecticut Whale, who calls the XL Center in Hartford home. For years, Hartford was home to the NHL's Hartford Whalers, but they moved in 1997 to become the Carolina Hurricanes. In a way, the new Whale is a re-creation of the old Whalers.
The XL Center, originally known as the Hartford Civic Center, was built in January 1975, and seats 15,683 fans for hockey games. The arena was renamed in December 2007. In addition to serving as the home of the Whale, the XL Center is a multipurpose venue. The arena consists of a lower bowl, upper level seating, and skyboxes that span the entire stadium's roof. There's a great view from virtually anywhere inside. The arena is run by AEG and thus hosts big-name concerts and shows quite often. Located just 20 minutes from the University of Connecticut, the arena also plays home to a portion of the UCONN men and women's basketball teams' home games.
The Whale became the Whale in November 2010, after coming into existence as the Hartford Wolf Pack in the 1997-98 season. The Whale is the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate of the New York Rangers. They play in the Northeast division. Many current and former New York Rangers including Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Sean Avery, Darius Kasparaitis, and Marc Savard suited up for the Wolf Pack. The team won its only championship during the 1999-2000 season.
59 Pratt St
Hartford, CT 06103
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