Former Hartford Whalers forward Dave Tippett. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports.

The Return Of The Hartford Whalers?

Former Hartford Whalers captain Kevin Dineen.  Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Every few years or so the talk starts up again; is Hartford ready to return to the NHL? During those times, many area hockey fans become optimistic, until the talk fades and fans are figuratively left feeling as Charlie Brown did after Lucy pulled the football away. Or literally, like in 1999 when the New England Patriots did exactly that to Hartford.

Once again there are reports of multiple teams perhaps having an NHL interest in Hartford. This is usually the point at which theories of the sport’s sustainability in town, from the practical to the nonsensical, are usually tossed out. The latter typically recycles the same tired arguments; they had little support, we’re too close to the Bruins and Rangers, few support the AHL Wolf * Pack, we’re a basketball state, etc. These sentiments never really seem to be thought out all that much.   

When opinions are expressed, non-locals around the country rarely hear from Hartford hockey fans themselves, but rather from those whose platforms and studio microphones allow their voices to carry much further.

So this time let’s take a look at it from the fans’ perspective; the trials and tribulations of Hartford’s hockey history and its current potential NHL viability.

From the time the NHL absorbed the Whalers from the defunct WHA until they packed up and left for the premier ice hockey destination that is North Carolina, they played 18 National Hockey League seasons in Hartford. During those years the Whalers produced exactly three winning seasons and one playoff series victory. With a few notable exceptions, their management drafted and traded players with such incompetence they likely would have made former New York Islanders general manager Mike Milbury proud.

The Hartford Whalers are the team that essentially gave away Mark Howe, Kevin Dineen and Ray Ferraro. The topper, of course, came in 1991 when GM Eddie Johnston dealt away the franchise, in the persons of Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson, to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Whalers’ fans then watched as both immediately helped the Pens win two straight Stanley Cups. Johnston was fired by Hartford and then, interestingly, two years later there he was behind the bench; the newly hired coach of those same Penguins.

The Whalers were then sold to the group that would eventually sail them out of town.  The fans jumped through a series of seemingly endless hoops regarding season ticket sales to meet the goals set by the new Whalers’ ownership, but achieving them wasn’t enough. Amazingly, the team actually announced they were exiting Hartford before they even had another city to inhabit.

Before the tears had even dried and against the wishes of Hartford’s hockey faithful, the New York Rangers were allowed to set up shop in Hartford with their American Hockey League team. Though never in the same division, many in Hartford considered the Rangers rivals and had no desire to support them. It didn’t help when the Rangers ditched much that was Whalers-related, then inexplicably gave the team a nickname completely unrelated to Hartford, while also dropping its hockey colors in favor of replicas of their own uniforms. Virtually everything the hockey fan base asked for was ignored.

So welcome to Hartford, Connecticut. The only hockey city in America where the hockey customer is not only always wrong, but also deemed irrelevant.

Over the years the Rangers existence in Hartford and their attitude toward its hockey history has eroded and divided the hockey fan base to the point of alienating many of them from their own market. While other AHL cities change affiliates like socks, Hartford, a city that would be helped significantly by such a switch has watched the Rangers remain entrenched downtown since the previous millennium.

The irony of course, is there are several AHL cities that would eagerly roll out the red carpet for the Blueshirts while Hartford wants nothing to do with them. And yet, again, here they stay.

Former Hartford Whalers defenseman Joel Quenneville. Lai-USA TODAY Sports

The XL Center (The former Hartford Civic Center) has become an empty, atmosphere-bereft library inhabited by a few Rangers’ fans who seem quite content with the status quo, and make attending a game as appealing as a box of chocolate-covered brussel sprouts. Those who question why the Wolf*Pack are not supported don’t seem to consider how foolish it would be for anyone to spend good money to watch a home team they don’t like and, even if they were to attend, would actually be rooting against.

Only in Hartford does such an obvious reason result in bewilderment among those whose voices are heard loudest.

Many consider Connecticut a basketball state when it is, in reality, a winning basketball state. The UConn Huskies drew little attendance in the Big East or before until they started winning in 1989-90. In those infrequent years since in which they haven’t produced a competitive team, they still don’t draw well.

In reality Connecticut is a hockey state. It is home to reigning NCAA Men’s Hockey Champion Yale University, and has produced many NHL players. Among current native Nutmeggers skating in the NHL are LA Kings’ Stanley Cup champion and US Olympian Johnathan Quick, Max Pacioretty, Ron Hainsey, and Nick Bonino. Connecticut has also contributed Craig Janney and three former NHL team captains; Brian Leetch, Chris Drury and Chris Clark. Not too shabby for a state you can drive completely across in two hours.

The Whalers were supported through many lean years and the aforementioned awful management; even outdrawing the Boston Bruins at times. Much of its core fan base remains in Hartford and the Hartford Whalers Booster Club still exists to this day.

The point of this prologue is to provide understanding and add some perspective to those outside hockey fans who aren’t aware of what Hartford fans have gone through.

So now that you’ve read some history, what do we see looking into the future? I spoke with veteran Hartford sportscaster and former Whalers public address announcer Pete Lamoureux, whose opinions often echo those of many who would like to see a team return.

“The emotional attachment and the civic pride attached to this team was immeasurable,” said Lamoureux.

He then raised an important point that may have since been forgotten, but nevertheless should resonate with all of those who have the capital city’s best interests at heart.

“Back in 1996-97, their last year, the Whalers had a 130 million dollar impact on the city when it came to all goods & services. From bars and restaurants, to hotel rooms for visiting players and fans to taxes paid by the players, the Whalers had an indelible economic impact. I just think it would be a major economic boon if they were to come back. They were simply the most important entity we ever had in the city of Hartford and the region.”

1996 was eighteen years ago, before the advent of Facebook, Twitter, NHL Center Ice, the NHL and (Connecticut-based) NBC Sports Networks, and mainstream use of the internet. For a team that hasn’t played a game in Hartford in a generation its gear has, and continues to be, among the top sellers of NHL apparel.

You’re apt to see the classic Whalers logo and/or hear their legendary fight song, the Brass Bonanza, at any sporting event in North America. Hockey or otherwise. Indeed, spontaneous chants of “Let’s go Whalers!” frequently break out at Hartford-area rock concerts.

Hartford’s geography is no detriment, indeed the opposite is true. An NHL team here would immediately rekindle the old rivalries with Boston and the Rangers, which would in turn nearly guarantee over a half dozen sellouts a year just with those two teams visiting alone. Economically-speaking, with Hartford ninety miles south of Boston as well as only two hours from the Rangers and Islanders, annual travel costs would decrease.

With the XL Center nearing forty years old, what’s most necessary at present is a new arena. The point has been made several times that Hartford’s going to need to build another one sooner or later, so why not now? It has been announced that there will be renovations to the venue, and there has been speculation that the reason may be to keep the old barn viable for a few more years while a decision comes on its eventual replacement.

It’s almost impossible for the young hockey fan who saw what the 1985-86 Whalers alone did in terms of bringing joy and excitement to Greater Hartford after one lousy playoff series win against Quebec to adequately explain it today.

For Connecticut it was incomparable. “Whaler Mania” was rampant, and most fans will likely tell you that the team whose roster included such notable coaches, broadcasters and agents as Joel Quenneville, Dave Tippet, Dineen, John Anderson, Samuelsson, Ferraro, and Mike Liut was one Claude Lemieux Game 7 overtime backhand goal from bringing the Stanley Cup to Hartford.

Undoubtedly this debate will resurface every time word of another NHL shuffle comes around. Will any of Seattle, Kansas City, Quebec, or Las Vegas win the next franchise? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

However the next time the occasional Wheel of Relocation/Expansion stops again it could do much worse than to land on, or in, Hartford; currently the largest television market in the country without a professional sports team.

Hartford threw a parade for a 4th place team that lost in the 2nd Round of the playoffs. The Whalers played in a mall; they wore kelly green uniforms and played a unique, catchy tune every time they scored. And Hartford’s fans would not have had it any other way. The time has come for the Whale to swim home.

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