Minor League baseball is known as a quaint and affordable right of passage in America. In most communities it is a fun way to pass a few hours and get a good feel for the game, especially with little kids. Minor league hockey has often sought to be the winter alternative, and in some markets it has succeeded, but the lack of sunshine, and in many cases state of the art facilities, has really made the minors in hockey still more about player development and hard hits than a rite of passage for families. At the lowest rung of minor league hockey in the Northeast is the Federal League. Now going into its second year, the league (named after the minor league in the legendary movie “Slapshot,” but without the Charlestown Chiefs of the late Paul Newman) plays to small crowds in a handful of outposts in and around Connecticut and upstate New York, as well as in Brooklyn, where the Aviators try and fill the beautiful but small and isolated Aviator Arena near the Brooklyn/Queens border with just over 1,000 fans. It is an only stop for some and a last stop for others trying to hold on to a dream of professional hockey.
One franchise that has tried to take the minor league baseball approach and has succeeded to some extent, is the Danbury (Ct.) Whalers. The Whalers, tucked away in a corner of the state hard by the New York border, have filled their arena on many nights with quality entertainment and OK hockey, and work as hard as any team to engage the community and the local businesses. They pulled their name from the Whalers of NHL/WHA fame a year before former NHL owner Howard Baldwin bought the Hartford minor league team, renamed the Wolfpack the Connecticut Whale, and began his quest again to bring NHL hockey back to The Nutmeg State. That confusion in the marketplace hasn’t slowed the Whalers in their Federal league quest for success. This past week the Whalers took advantage of timing and the Bruins run to the NHL Finals with a unique announcement and publicity play. The team was looking for a new coach, and in their organization resided Phil Esposito. Not the Hall of Famer and former Bruin and Ranger, but a younger man with all the right acumen to coach and help grow the team. So on the night of Game Five of the NHL Finals, the Whalers named Phil Esposito their head coach. The karma didn’t pay off for the B’s, who lost game five to Vancouver 1-0, but it did generate some buzz with the timing for the Whalers, and obviously opens the door for some unique recognition and promotion for the team next year. Had they waited or done the announcement earlier, the media would have missed the story. However by landing on a Finals night, the Whalers scored some fun promo time and helped draw casual interest, which is what the minors is all about.
Can Phil coach? Who knows? Was the announcement noteworthy now and into the offseason for a small Federal League team in Connecticut? For sure. Well done and best of luck Espo.