Die Hard: The Short Rise and Long Fall of Pro Sports in New Haven
The chipped teeth, flying pucks, and frequent fights that are the hallmarks of minor league hockey filled the New Haven Coliseum during the New Haven Nighthawks twenty-year stint in the city. The fans didn’t. Despite winning an American Hockey League regular season title and several division titles, their cavernous arena was rarely filled to more than forty percent of its capacity. In its later years, the team was lucky to draw more than 3,500 people to an arena meant to seat 11,000. New Haven is and always has been a city that loves hockey – but New Haveners have never fully committed to a professional team.
The city has a history of flirting with minor league sports teams that stretches all the way back to 1875, when a minor league team named the Elm Citys played at Howard Field for a single season. Since those days, a parade of teams – baseball, football, soccer, and hockey – has come and gone, staying anywhere from a few months to a few decades. The teams that have lasted for more than a season have never existed on solid fiscal footing, and have constantly had to compete with more successful college teams for the attention of the city’s relatively small fan base.
Minor league hockey, the most constant presence in New Haven’s professional sports scene, first came to the city in 1926 with the New Haven Eagles. The team shared the New Haven Arena, a newly constructed 4,000 person stadium on Grove Street, with the Yale Bulldogs hockey team. The Eagles, a founding team of the newly formed Canadian-American League, attracted people and profit to the arena on nights when the Bulldogs weren’t playing.
“New Haven was a college sports town to begin with,” said Rich Hanley, historian and professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University, in an interview with The Politic. “The professional sports relationship was really based on a need for the private owner of the New Haven Arena to fill his building to make a dollar.”
The Eagles went 18-14-0 in their first season and won the Can-Am Championship. When the Can-Am League merged with the International-American Hockey League (later the American Hockey League, or AHL) ten years later, the Eagles were inaugural members.
But the team’s success didn’t last. After jumping from league to league every few years, shutting down during World War II, and briefly relocating to Brooklyn, the Eagles withdrew from the AHL midway through the 1950-51 season. They had posted a dreadful 5-23-0 record and lost what little of their fan base remained. The franchise was dead.
The Eagles folded their wings, but other franchises tried to fill the perceived void of minor league hockey in the city. The New Haven Blades, part of the newly formed Eastern Hockey League, began playing in the New Haven Arena in 1954, two years after the Eagles left. The Blades ushered in what Heather Bernardi and Kevin Tennyson, authors of Hockey in New Haven, dubbed “the golden age of New Haven hockey.”
The Blades filled the New Haven Arena each night. They garnered such a loyal fan base that the arena wrote a letter to season ticket reservation holders during the 1969-1970 season warning that if deposits for season tickets were not on time, ticket holders risked losing their spots. The franchise won a championship in 1956 and consistently made the EHL playoffs. During the 1950s and 1960s, the New Haven Arena was one of the busiest spots in town, regularly hosting hockey games, concerts, and family skating events. For those twenty years, it seemed that New Haven had found a way to sustain a vibrant sports scene at every level.
But the Blades were not immune to the instability of minor league sports.
“Minor league hockey is hard to establish,” said Hanley. “Players cycle and continuity is fractured – that makes it hard for minor league hockey anywhere.” The Blades franchise didn’t dissolve because of a lack of local support. In 1972, the Eastern Hockey League itself collapsed, and without a conference to play in, the Blades also hung up their skates, leaving a nearly-empty New Haven Arena behind.
The New Haven Arena, a long a staple of Elm City hockey, suddenly found itself without any teams to take the ice. The Yale team had moved to Ingalls Rink, an arena constructed specifically to house the Bulldogs, in 1958. Now that the Blades were gone – and no teams were rushing to take their place – the Arena’s biggest attraction was gone.
Adding to the Arena’s woes, a new state-of-the-art stadium was being constructed across town. The New Haven Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum aimed to house the concerts and sporting events that had kept the New Haven Arena in business for nearly fifty years, but on a much bigger scale. It was a behemoth of an arena squeezed onto 4.5 acres of land near the Oak Street Connector, which connected New Haven with the suburbs. Part of then-mayor Richard Lee’s urban redevelopment strategy, the arena could hold over 11,000 spectators. The large parking garage on top of the building – accessible only by quarter-mile-long ramps – was intended to allow suburbanites a convenient place to park when they (and their money) visited the Coliseum for events.
The New Haven Arena found itself without tenants, without the ability to attract headlining bands, and with a deteriorating building. Effectively replaced by the newer building, it was demolished in 1974. The New Haven offices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation now sits in its place.
Like the New Haven Arena, the Coliseum hosted everything from rock and roll concerts to WWE fights, and housed several minor league hockey teams including the Nighthawks, the most popular New Haven minor league team in recent memory. But even the brand new, 11,000-seat arena couldn’t generate enough fan support to comfortably maintain a team. The city was just too small, and the team eventually too mediocre. Although the Nighthawks played in the Coliseum for twenty years, many of their players didn’t stick around for more than a season or two, making it hard to build a sense of familiarity between the city and the team.
“New Haven became a victim of geography and technology after the launch of [the Nighthawks] in the 1970s,” said Hanley. “The idea that you had to go into a building to watch good hockey became an anachronism when you could watch at home. The New Haven fanbase, which was never big, shrunk to a few thousand. That’s not enough to sustain a team.”
Mayor Lee and his administration had hoped that the Coliseum, easily accessible from the interstate, would drive suburban traffic into the city past the stadium and into a newly built downtown shopping center. The influx of people and money from the Coliseum and the department stores, it was thought, would drive economic development outside of the downtown area. Increased tax revenues would allow the city government to better serve a growing city.
The economic benefits the Coliseum meant to bring to the city never came. Not only was the hockey team unable to attract more than the most loyal fans, the arena did not attract shoppers and tourists into the rest of New Haven as the Lee administration had hoped it would. Moreover, a thriving entertainment district in the blocks surrounding the Coliseum never sprung up – an element that the Coliseum’s architect, Kevin Roche, had said from its conception would be crucial to its success.
“Even with a hockey team, you still have 200 nights when it’s dark. You need to put a symphony and restaurants there. Roche understood that the Coliseum had to be part of a bigger arts district. When that didn’t happen, the Coliseum was just a foreboding hulk that deadened the neighborhood,” said Hanley.
“The problem with the Coliseum is that it was built for suburban people to come in, go up the ramp, watch an event, and leave the city. In terms of bringing people downtown, it didn’t work. You had people going to events and not parking on city streets,” said Hanley. And as entertainment venues sprung up all over Connecticut, from Wallingford to Bridgeport, fewer people were going to the Coliseum.
“You were left with what was the oldest arena in the state costing the city two million dollars a year,” said former New Haven mayor John DeStefano, who ordered the Coliseum closed in 2002 and demolished five years later. “We never generated any economic development around the building, and we couldn’t justify giving the aging facility a complete rebuild.” The deteriorating structure had become more and more expensive to maintain. Although the New Haven Knights still played hockey games in the arena, they drew few fans. The Coliseum itself struggled to draw outside events.
After closing structurally unstable parts of the building, the city finally abandoned what little hope they had that the Coliseum could be beneficial to the urban economy. One final event, a WWE professional wrestling show, left the sounds of body slams and jeering crowds echoing in the monstrous, empty stadium. Five years later, in 2007, the Coliseum was imploded. It had become too cumbersome of an investment for a city that was now looking to diversify its economic development strategy.
“New Haven specifically has a stronger set of confident assets in the arts, and it does a good job of that,” said DeStefano in an interview with The Politic. “As an economic development strategy, the things that were more interesting were commercialization of science and research out of the medical school, and support of entrepreneurial activity and programs aimed at improving the competitiveness of our workforce.”
And so, when the city’s last minor league hockey team, the New Haven Knights, packed its bags and left New Haven in 2002, it was with an air of finality. Mayor DeStefano was not interested in attracting more minor league teams to the city. The only professional sporting event left in New Haven was the Connecticut Open, an annual week-long professional tennis tournament held at the Cullman-Heyman Tennis Center.
New Haven’s die-hard hockey fans still had games to attend. Most went back to cheering for local college teams. At the end of the 2000s, New Haven had become a hotbed for top-level college hockey. Two of the top teams in the NCAA – the Yale Bulldogs and the Quinnipiac Bobcats, just fifteen minutes apart from each other – developed a fierce conference rivalry. Tickets for games between the schools sell out almost immediately, and the fans maintain a bitter rivalry – particularly after the two schools faced off for the 2013 national championship, which Yale won. Both the Bulldogs and the Bobcats consistently make the NCAA Tournament, and few players leave before their four year eligibility is up – providing a player recognition that never existed for New Haven’s minor league teams. And each college team plays in its own dedicated 3,500 seat arena that is not dependent upon fan support or ticket sales to remain in business, but is nonetheless able to fill the majority of its seats more often than not.
Said Hanley, “There’s an affiliation with the institution [for college sports], and you don’t need to identify with the players as you do at the professional level. New Haven really just works better with college sports than it does with minor league sports, which just kind of bounce around. That’s just the nature of minor league professional sports. Colleges are institutions – they’re here forever.”
New Haven’s century-long affair with minor league sports seems to be over for the foreseeable future. With no guaranteed fan base, no local government interest, and – most importantly – no arena to play in, New Haven is no longer an attractive market for a professional sports team. The city’s economic investment interests have focused elsewhere: on revitalizing individual neighborhoods, improving local job prospects, and cultivating the local arts scene. The brutish sport of minor league hockey seems a relic of decades past, out of place in the new New Haven.