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Hoping for a spectacle and instead getting empty seats

East Hartford - Full disclosure: I was annoyed Saturday night. There was plenty on the sports menu throughout the state on Saturday. But the idea of witnessing history - an outdoor hockey game at Rentschler Field, potentially huge crowd, "Brass Bonanza," and more momentum when and if an opportunity to rediscover the National Hockey League in Hartford arises - was what was most appetizing.

And then you got thousands and thousands of empty seats.

Connecticut Whale officials can spin this any way they want. Free country. They can say they scanned 15,234 tickets between a legends game and the American Hockey League game between Connecticut and Providence.

But when you trumpeted 28,600 tickets distributed, you expected to see butts in the seats all over The Rent.

I know what I saw.

Empty seats.

"If you're asking whether I'm disappointed," said Howard Baldwin, chairman of Whalers Sports & Entertainment, "I can look all of you in the eye and say 'hell, no.'"

Baldwin was talking more globally, about the 45 outdoor hockey games in seven days. But what everyone wanted to see Saturday - a spectacle - turned into a dud.

It would have been a considerable leap - perilous, perhaps - to suggest that a massive crowd would have sent ripples of hysteria through NHL offices trumpeting Hartford's candidacy. Most of the patrons who bought tickets for the Whale Bowl were more interested, you figure, in the novelty.

And to be fair, novelty isn't so novel when weighed against 25-degree temperatures, an unforgiving wind and the potential of marrying your keister to metal bleachers.

But when 28,600 tickets are out and the eye test scans empty rows upon empty rows, your head spins a little. What does it all mean?

Does it mean there's an honest-to-goodness interest in a hockey renaissance, based on 28,600 tickets out?

Does it mean we're not very hearty here, the way they would have been in Moose Jaw or Minnesota?

Was it just a case of practicality, people more interested in warmth than the outcome of an American Hockey League game in February?

Probably a little of all.

I was never sure what to make of the thing from the start. Is it smart business practice to hype an outdoor event in the middle of February? An event on which you will be judged, fairly or not? An event that features two minor league teams?

I understand that there has to be some test to gauge Hartford's legitimacy to get the NHL back. But is the best gauge a minor league game with the wind blowing in February? If nobody shows up to watch minor league hockey in freezing temperatures, does that necessarily mean they wouldn't show up for the NHL?

I mean, it's minor league hockey. Norm Crosby, not Sidney. How many people do you know who honestly give a fiddler's damn whether the Connecticut Whale beats Providence? Or could name one player? On either team?

That was part of the problem. No one ever doubted the great core of hockey fans in Connecticut. But they are the few, the proud. For this to succeed, the Whale needed the fringe fans to show up. Fringe fans are always going to choose warmth over being colder than Minsk. The odds the weather would be rotten in mid February were pretty high.

Baldwin estimated that 35 percent of the people who either bought or purchased the advance tickets had never seen the Whale play before. They see more season tickets and more interest in the future. Maybe that turns out to be true.

But you just can't hype something like this, see nobody in the stands and not expect negative backlash.

It's good news that 28,600 tickets were out. It's a safe bet that the presale represented a decent cross section of the state. In the old days, most ticket-buyers for the Whalers resided north of Middletown. It's hard to imagine all 28,600 patrons came from Avon, Simsbury and West Hartford.

The Whale Bowl, ironically, offered a blueprint for how a potential NHL team would succeed. It's got to be an all-Connecticut thing. If it's like the old days, when the fans came from only a few of the state's fiefdoms, there's no hope.

For now, let's hope the 28,600 who had the tickets keep showing up at the XL Center. Because they sure didn't show Saturday.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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