March 24, 2010

Danbury franchise embraces Whalers' legacy

By Roger Brown

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

When it comes to hockey towns, Danbury, Conn., is like a boxer who keeps coming back for more no matter how many times he gets hit.

Danbury has been the home of four minor professional hockey franchises in the last six years. The Danbury Whalers, the latest team to call Danbury home, will begin play in November as a member of the fledgling Federal Hockey League (FHL).

Before the Whalers were formed, the Danbury Trashers survived two years in the United Hockey League; the New England Storm spent one season in the North East Professional Hockey League; and the Danbury Mad Hatters played one season in the Eastern Professional Hockey League.

The Trashers, Storm and Mad Hatters were each a victim of poor management or a lack of funds, according to Chris Firriolo, Danbury’s head coach and director of hockey operations. Attendance and fan interest, Firriolo said, have never been a problem.

“Danbury, traditionally, is one of the best minor league hockey markets in North America,” Firriolo said. “I’ve been in a lot of places, and the passion in Danbury is second to none. The fans truly embrace the team like it’s their own.  It’s one of those communities that lives and breathes hockey.

“I can’t speak for the other organizations that were here because I wasn’t a part of them, but I can say that their problems had nothing to do with Danbury, the community or support. Some ownership groups may not be as strong as others.

“When the Federal Hockey League came about, people saw Danbury as the anchor of the league.”

The Trashers made the UHL playoffs in each of their two seasons and averaged nearly 2,000 fans per home game, but suspended operations in 2006 − one month after they lost to the Kalamazoo Wings in the Colonial Cup finals – after team owner James Galante was arrested by federal authorities. In 2008, Galante pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the IRS and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

The Stars and Mad Hatters each lasted one season, but neither team was as successful at the gate as the Trashers, a tough, in-your-face team that led the UHL in penalty minutes.

In addition to Danbury, the FHL includes franchises in Rome, N.Y.; Ottawa; and Alexandria Bay, N.Y. Firriolo said he expects the league to have at least six teams for its inaugural season, which is scheduled to begin in November. Player payroll for each team cannot exceed $6,000 per month.

“We want to make sure the teams that are here in Year 1 are gonna be here in Year 3 or 4,” Firriolo said.

“If we get six teams I would be blown away, but it’s about getting to the finish line,” added Danbury CEO Herm Sorcher. “I like where we’re starting out. You have to crawl before you can walk.”

The team’s biggest obstacle, Sorcher said, is convincing fans that the Whalers will have lengthy stay in Danbury, a city of roughly 80,000 that is also home to Western Connecticut State University and the Danbury Westerners of the New England Collegiate Baseball League.

“Danbury lost of little bit of faith because of what’s gone on there in the past – and rightfully so,” said Sorcher.  “We need to restore that faith in Danbury and the surrounding community. We want to provide an affordable entertainment option and just give them the highest level of customer service.”

The team made an obvious attempt to build a bridge between the Danburyfranchise and the Hartford Whalers, who played in the NHL from 1979 to 1997 but left Connecticutfor Carolina after the 1997 season.

Danbury’s uniforms will be blue and green (Hartford’s colors) and will have a logo similar to the one used by the Hartford Whalers. Danbury will also play “Brass Bonanza” – Hartford’s team song – at home games.

Sorcher, who began his professional career with the Hartford Whalers in 1989, even reached out to the Hartford Whalers booster club. Booster club president Al Victor attended Danbury’s introductory press conference.

“Whalers fans have been looking for a place to go to wear their colors, cheer for a team and feel welcome,” Victor said. “This is a good thing and we will support it.”

“There are a lot of Hartford Whalers fans here,” Firriolo said. “We want to feed off that fan base.”

The Whalers will play their home games in the Danbury Arena, which has a capacity of 2,114 for hockey. The team will hold a tryout camp in June and training camp will begin in October.

Tickets will be priced at $8 (children 12 and under), $12 (second-level seats) and $14 (first-level seats). A season ticket for a 30-game home schedule can be purchased for $300.

Firriolo described the FHL as “Class A minor league hockey” that will serve, to some degree, as a feeder system for the ECHL and the American Hockey League.

“There will be lots of players right out of the NCAA Division 1 level,” Firriolo explained. “A lot of guys who need to get bigger and stronger. There will also be players from some high-end Division 3 programs, as well as major junior players. A good portion of the players will be guys who have played a couple years of pro hockey.

“A Single-A pro league is needed."

Why will the Danbury Whalers survive in a location where other teams haven’t?

“We took our time and really looked at what mistakes were made when other leagues tried to enter this market,” Firriolo said. “I think the organization is doing everything the right way. We just have to convince people that we’re gonna be here for a long time.”

Roger Brown can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.