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Hartford might be losing ground

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published April 06. 2013 4:00AM

It is a time of change in Connecticut sports, new endeavors right there now with older rhythms. What has captured our fancies in the past month - it's not just UConn basketball anymore - illustrates growth and new areas of interest, best illustrated through how we're flocking to games now in different regions of the state.

We have, for example, become a sudden player in college hockey. Yale and Quinnipiac in the Frozen Four. It seems more than an anomaly, Quinnipiac has a wonderful coach in Rand Pecknold and a basketball/hockey facility that is to be envied.

We watched record crowds fill Mohegan Sun for the state high school basketball championships last month, the long drive to them, thar hills suddenly irrelevant. A pair of sellout crowds went to Bridgeport for the women's basketball regionals, too.

We hear whispers that the American Athletic Conference (UConn's new league) will hold its women's basketball tournament next March at the Sun. Neon Uncasville has long since become the state's top entertainment destination, not to mention the home to steady crowds watching the Connecticut Sun.

There's more: UConn basketball may play a home game or two at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport next year. The same arena will likely make a bid for the high school hockey finals, perhaps even the basketball games, too. Charlie Dowd, the former general manager of the Connecticut Defenders, runs the arena in Bridgeport now and has made it a player.

Does it not strike you as interesting, and perhaps a little sad, that Hartford isn't included in any of this?

We are a small state. So much more should revolve around our capital city. And yet it does not.

It's a central location, no more than an hour's ride for anyone, really. There is a building for basketball and hockey, a chance for loyalists of both sports to watch high school and college events there regularly. And yet we do not.

All of this is why Global Spectrum, the new company charged with running the XL Center, can't swing and miss with its ideas and application of renovation. With so many other capable venues across Connecticut, Hartford could become an afterthought real fast.

Think about the possibilities. While Hartford officials focus far too long on the cosmically irrelevant Connecticut Whale, the future gives us so much more: UConn basketball and UConn hockey, for example. A newer, more aesthetically pleasing XL Center could play host to conference tournaments galore, high school basketball and hockey, too. With UConn headed to Hockey East the year after next, college hockey will have three major teams in Connecticut not far from each other. Imagine a Beanpot-like tournament here with, say, UConn, UMass, Yale and Quinnipiac?

The question: Will the new XL Center have the cachet to attract such a tournament? Right now, Bridgeport would be the better choice. As is Mohegan Sun for the women's basketball tournament.

That the XL Center needs to be renovated falls under the category of "well, duh." But how and where? Some conversations this week with Those Who Know suggest that a new building may surface in a different part of the city. A smaller capacity, perhaps 11,000 or so, but with all the amenities. Not a bad seat in the house, sort of like Mohegan and Bridgeport, but with access to luxury boxes in the same time zone as the arena floor.

Marvelous idea. Run with that. The XL Center, as it exists, offers too many seats too far away, skyboxes that are closer to the sky, not enough concession stand options, a narrow concourse and in need of more restroom facilities. The 8,000 it drew for the Big East women's tournament created a depressing atmosphere. The same 8,000 at Mohegan would have generated a buzz. (And they'd have food and entertainment options under one roof with free parking).

A smaller building might draw opposition from the Bring-Back-The-NHL crowd. Maybe one day they'll awaken from their stupor and realize the dream is over. Or at least that the Whalers left.

Connecticut residents don't spend enough time rooting for Hartford. One columnist friend of mine calls Connecticut home to "162 petty fiefdoms." Good line. And true. But while it's nice to think about Mohegan Sun and our pal Charlie Dowd doing great things, a revitalized building in the capital city would generate happier thoughts for all of us who like big sporting events.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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