XL Center – Hartford Wolf Pack
Photos by PaukBaker, Stadium Journey
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.43
XL Center 1 Civic Center Plaza Hartford, CT 06103
Year Opened: 1975
Running With the Pack
The XL Center, formerly known as the Hartford Civic Center, is the largest arena in the state of Connecticut. It was originally built in 1974 as part of a downtown project that included an adjacent mall, convention center, office space, hotel and parking garage. Some people still refer to the XL Center as “The Mall,” even though the mall portion of the complex was demolished in 2004 and replaced with a 36-story residential tower.
The original hockey tenants of the facility were the New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association, who were re-christened as the Hartford Whalers when the franchise joined the National Hockey League in 1979. When the Whalers left town in 1997 to become the Carolina Hurricanes, the New York Rangers placed their top farm team in Hartford. Aside from a brief rebranding as the Connecticut Whale, the Wolf Pack have called the XL Center home since.
In addition to serving as home to the Wolf Pack, the XL Center serves as the occasional home of the UConn Huskies men’s and women’s basketball team, as well as the UConn men’s hockey team.
The franchise that eventually became the Hartford Wolf Pack began its existence as the Providence Reds, one of the charter members of the Canadian-American Hockey League. The Reds played in Providence until the 1976 season, when they moved to Binghamton, New York, where they played as the Dusters, Whalers, and Rangers. In their various incarnations, the Wolf Pack is the oldest continuously operating minor league hockey team in North America. Only the National Hockey League’s Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Boston Bruins have been in existence longer.
Food & Beverage 5
The XL Center offers a menu that balances traditional ballpark fare with local flavor. Depending on your appetite, you can visit Chicken Fry Fry (featuring, you guessed it, chicken tenders and fries), Fresh Classics (sausage and pepper sandwiches and nachos), Grill Masters (burgers), or hot dog nation (yep, hot dogs). Chick-fil-A operates a cart selling their legendary sandwiches. Dunkin’ Donuts operates a pair of stands featuring their signature coffee and baked goods. Pepsi products are featured at the XL Center.
Visiting fans looking for a bit of local flavor should seek out Ted’s Cheeseburgers, which features gourmet burgers cooked in a style unique to Central Connecticut: they are steamed. Steaming the burgers creates a very juicy burger with a taste you won’t find anywhere else. Also, local favorite Bear’s Barbeque operates a small stand selling brisket, pulled pork and their popular mac and cheese.
Fans looking for an adult beverage will be pleased to find stands dedicated specifically to alcohol sales. In addition to national brands including Sam Adams, Budweiser, Coors Light and Blue Moon, several local craft brands are featured at the XL Center. Brews from City Steam, Two Roads and Thomas Hooker Brewery are sold throughout the arena.
On Friday and Saturday nights the Wolf Pack offer “Hockey Happy Hour,” where fans can hang out in the Coliseum Club for two hours before face off. For a five dollar fee, fans can enjoy an appetizer buffet and two dollar beers. During the game, the XL Lounge, which overlooks the ice from atop sections 120-123, is open for fans to watch the game while they enjoy draft beer and food specials.
The Wolf Pack offer the standard minor league hockey experience. This includes a sound system turned way up during play stoppages, a large video board put to good use throughout the game with fan shots, game highlights and sponsor opportunities, an MC roaming the crowd conducting giveaways and pumping up the crowd, and a mascot posing for pictures and signing autographs. Minor league staples, including Chuck-a-Puck and a 50/50 raffle, are present in Hartford.
Fans looking for Wolf Pack souvenirs will find two souvenir stands located at opposite corners of the concourse. Unfortunately, one stand is located right at the arena entrance, which bottles up traffic in the area.
Hartford is rarely thought of as a destination city, but the XL Center’s location in downtown Hartford is a definite advantage. The area around the arena features numerous restaurants and shops, and is filled with people, even on the weekends. Pratt Street, located directly across the street from the XL Center, is lined with many excellent pubs and restaurants. City Steam Tap Room is located a block away from the XL Center on Main Street, and features a legendary craft beer lineup. Black-Eyed Sally’s on Asylum Street features live music and excellent barbeque. Hartford suffers from a bad reputation, but the area around the XL Center is safe and walkable.
For fans interested in exploring the downtown area, there are some attractions nearby worth mentioning. The Old State House is located a few blocks from the XL Center, and contains exhibits on Hartford history. Tours are discounted for AAA members, and will cost history buffs a mere $3. The State Capitol and Bushnell Park are popular attractions located nearby. The Mark Twain House and Museum and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center are both located just a short drive from the downtown area. Dunkin’ Donuts Park, home of the Hartford Yard Goats, is a short walk away.
Attendance for the Wolf Pack consistently averages around 4,000 fans per game, which places them in the bottom quarter of the annual American Hockey League rankings. After a bump in attendance after the last round of arena renovations in 2014, attendance has declined every year since.
A Wolf Pack crowd will look very familiar to veteran minor league fans. It’s full of groups, families and youth hockey teams mixed in with the casual and hard core hockey fan. The state of Connecticut is a growing hockey market that has produced some noteworthy NHL stars. Fans here know their hockey, and Hartford’s proximity to New York ensures that the fans here follow the prospects closely.
The XL Center is located in downtown Hartford, and is easy to reach via either Interstate 84 or 91. The arena is only a few blocks away from either highway. Traffic in the city is often difficult to navigate, particularly for weekday games. Be sure to give yourself extra time to arrive, as both highways back up regularly around rush hour and beyond.
There are close to 50 parking lots and garages in the downtown area, all within walking distance of the XL Center. If you want to plan ahead, the Wolf Pack’s website has a link to the downtown map here. In addition to these paid spots, on-street parking is readily available around the XL Center. Meters shut off at 6PM.
Once inside the XL Center, fans will enter into a spacious lobby. This area was once part of Civic Center Mall, but is mostly empty space now. The Wolf Pack ticket office is located here, as well as access to the attached parking garage and the Coliseum Club on the second level. There is a nice display in this area featuring jerseys from every high school hockey program in Connecticut, as well as a display featuring photos from Hartford’s hockey history.
All seats in the Veterans Memorial Coliseum consist of folding stadium chairs. The seating bowl at the XL Center is very steeply pitched, ensuring great sight lines no matter where you sit. Tickets in the upper levels are not sold, meaning that even when a big crowd is in attendance much of the arena is still empty.
Despite numerous renovations over the years, the Veterans Memorial Coliseum maintains its cramped and narrow concourses. Luckily, since the typical Wolf Pack crowd only fills a fraction of the XL Center, getting around is usually not too difficult. When lines form at the concession and merchandise stands it can make passage tough. Rest rooms are clean and spacious enough for the typical Wolf Pack crowd, but lines do form during intermission. Plan your trips wisely, particularly if there’s a big crowd in attendance.
Return on Investment 4
Tickets to Wolf Pack games are fairly affordable, and split into three levels. End zone seats cost $20, attacking zone tickets cost $25 and center ice tickets $30. Youth tickets are discounted by ten dollars across the board. Premium seats right on the glass cost $45.
Parking in the garages around the XL Center ranges in price from $10-$20. Frugal fans will search the neighborhood for free on-street parking. Concessions, while on the high side, are in line with other venues in the area.
If you like banners, you will love the XL Center. Banners honoring the University of Connecticut basketball champion teams (9 women’s, 4 men’s) hang from rafters on one end of the arena. Not to be outdone, there are banners honoring the Wolf Pack, including their 1999-2000 American Hockey League championship. Throw in banners for every Hockey East team and American Athletic Conference Basketball team, as well as banners honoring basketball Hall of Famers Jim Calhoun and Gino Auriemma, and you have a lot to look at in Hartford.
The XL Center celebrates its past as the home of the Hartford Whalers. Hanging from the rafters are banners for the 6 players who had their Whaler numbers retired, another honoring the Howe family, who all played together in Hartford and banners which commemorate the Whalers’ division championships, one in the WHA, and one in the NHL. In addition, the lobby contains a display of some of the highlights of Hartford’s professional hockey history.
The XL Center has more than its share of critics, and opinions on the viability and future of the facility continue to spark much debate in Connecticut’s capital city. New plans for what to do with the facility seemingly pop up every few months.
As a minor league hockey facility, the XL Center is a good place to catch a game, with excellent sight lines and plenty going on to satisfy both the casual and diehard fan. Unfortunately, the XL Center is just too big, too empty and too old for the Wolf Pack. Face it, Hartford, the Whalers aren’t coming back. Start running with the Pack!