EAST HARTFORD, Conn.  — The Hartford Whalers have returned to Connecticut – for a day.

About two dozen former Whalers, including Portland Pirates Coach Kevin Dineen, Gordie Howe and Ron Francis were scheduled to attend a fan festival today at Rentchler Field in East Hartford to sign autographs and reminisce.

Fans lined up for three hours before gates opened at 11 a.m. and thousands had crowded the stadium concourse by noon.

It’s all part of an effort by former Whalers owner Howard Baldwin to convince the NHL there’s enough support to bring the league back to the city.

Baldwin is planning a bigger event for February, the Whalers Hockey Fest, which will include 10 days of minor league, college and youth hockey games on an outdoor rink at the stadium.

The Whalers left Hartford in 1997 and became the Carolina Hurricanes.