This story begins with a hockey fan who simply wanted a T-shirt for the minor league team he grew up with. It culminates with a brand-new beer that has reawakened an entire community’s love affair with its long-defunct team.
The New Haven Nighthawks played in the American Hockey League for two decades from 1972 to 1992 as affiliates of the North Stars, Islanders, Rangers, and Kings. The team was renamed the New Haven Senators for the 1992-93 season after affiliating with Ottawa, then left town in favor of Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada. For what it’s worth, the Nighthawks nickname came from nocturnal birds that live in the region—nighthawks have long wings and tiny feet and beaks, and they eat insects.
But this is not the story behind a hockey team’s nickname, it’s the story behind a beer.
Jeffrey Haynes grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, attending Nighthawks games with friends and family at the New Haven Coliseum—a venue that was closed in 2002, then imploded in 2007 while the New Haven community watched on live television and in person.
With the team long gone and the building that hosted it razed to the ground, Haynes was feeling sentimental.
“A few years ago, I was at work, and we were reminiscing about the old Nighthawks, and I was like, I would just love to have a Nighthawks shirt that fit me, because when the Nighthawks were around, I was a kid,” Haynes said. “None of that stuff fits me anymore. Where can I go to get a Nighthawks T-shirt?”
Haynes made a few phone calls in support of his quest, but came up empty. There were no shirts to be found locally, and the current iteration of the franchise, now the Binghamton Senators in New York, had no leads. He contacted the league itself and exchanged emails with an AHL executive.
“I was like, ‘Hey, how does someone go about getting Nighthawks merchandise?’” Haynes said. “He was like, ‘I don’t know how you can get it, but if you want to make it, here’s the rights to it.’ I was like, ‘Okay!’”
Then a series of happy accidents and lucky coincidences fell into place that started Haynes on a path he never would have predicted. He and his wife were refinancing their mortgage and their lawyer just happened to have knowledge of trademark law. Haynes lined up trademark rights in Connecticut and then federally, allowing him to produce Nighthawks gear.
Then Haynes stumbled upon a fledgling local establishment called Thimble Island Brewery.
“My wife found it,” Haynes said. “She actually had stopped there, and the owner was there, and at the time, before the brewery got any bigger, it was two little bar stools and this little tiny thing. They weren’t able to bottle yet. They were on tap in one restaurant, and it was only because the guy who was doing Thimble Island, his friend happened to own a small little restaurant.”
Haynes met with the owners of the brewery and an idea started brewing.
“I was like, hey, I’m working on this other thing, where I’m getting the old Nighthawks going,” Haynes said. “What do you think about if we made a beer that was this really nostalgic beer that went along with the nostalgic logo and everything?”
Thimble Island was on board, but as they were just getting started themselves, they needed time to establish their own brand before taking on a contract project. After several years developing the concept and coming up with just the right beer, New Haven Nighthawks Old Time Ale was released just within the last month.
The brew itself is an alt beer, a traditional German style beer that’s been around longer than lagers—an old time beer to go with old time hockey.
“So many of these microbrews do these IPAs, let’s just pound out these IPAs,” Haynes said. “I wanted to do something very different, very unique, and very classic.”
In keeping with the sentimental community feeling around the beer, Nighthawk Brewing is keeping it local—really local. As in, the labels were designed by Haynes’ Aunt Cheryl, a graphic designer, and the taps, which feature both left-handed and right-handed hockey sticks, are carved by Haynes’ father in his garage.
“I feel like if it’s going to be a New Haven County product, let’s make it as much local as possible,” Haynes said. “That was really the goal.”
The reaction to the new beer has exceeded expectations. Haynes has fielded calls from all over the country, from relocated fans who simply want to regale him with anecdotes about the team or the Coliseum to those who want to get their hands on a bottle—even after Haynes explains that they can’t ship beer across state lines yet so all they can send are empties.
“This is all so much a part of all of us in this area,” Haynes said. “People are so excited just to see it back. It’s very cool.”
For now, Haynes is doing this on the side while working full-time in another field, but he has big dreams for the beer—and for fans of the team.
“We’ve reached out to old players and we definitely want to have old players sign autographs at the brewery,” Haynes said. “We’re trying to embrace as much as possible the team and the culture and the history and have people be able to tell their stories.”
But the dream doesn’t stop there. Haynes wonders if excitement around an old team and an old brand might just be the spark that lights and even bigger fire.
“We’ll see where this takes us,” Haynes said. “Does this take us to some day getting a team again? That would be awesome.”
Every sports fan can relate to nostalgia for a team they grew up with, but it takes a special set of circumstances for one fan to create a commercial product that reignites a community’s passion for a team that hasn’t taken the ice for almost a quarter century.