Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Hartford Whalers alumni reunited for Fan Fest in East Hartford

How can a franchise that hasn't existed under their name or logo in over a dozen years and was never really deemed "successful" in their years of existance, still be within the top 30% of sales for the NHL?

The Whalers can answer that question for you. Started in the World Hockey Association as the New England Whalers, the team became the Hartford Whalers as part of the NHL in 1979.

In the early 1990s, following the trade of team star Ron Francis to the Pittsburg Penguins, the Whalers struggled to survive through a few tumultuous seasons. Turnovers in the front office, coaching and issues with the players led to a couple of bleak years. The Whalers had only rarely glimpsed the promised land of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and a series of good drafts in the early 90s gave hope to the fans that the team could finally shake off its underdog mantle and become a contender.

Compuware CEO Peter Karmanos purchased the team with partners Thomas Thewes and Jim Rutherford in 1994, pledging to keep the team in Hartford for four years later; but the 1996-97 season was the last played at the Hartford Civic Center. The team was moved to North Carolina that year and renamed the Carolina Hurricanes, playing their first two years in Greensboro while a new stadium was built for them in Raleigh.

The Whalers peak years were immediately after their founding, when they were highly successful in the WHA. Their NHL era years reads with an awful lot of "did not qualifys" for the playoffs, and losing in the seminfinals most years between 1986-1992. Their one "successful" season in the NHL was 1986-87, when they won the Adams division.

The owners might not have wanted to keep the team in Hartford - seeking greener pastures down South - but the fanbase was there, and even if it was smaller than many markets, it was hardcore. It was the only professional sports team that Connecticut called its own, sandwiched between the lucrative, sports-mad markets of Boston and New York. Around the same time that Karmanos was pondering whether to keep the Whalers in Hartford, there was also negotiations to attempt to bring the New England Patriots to the city as well, which never quite worked out.

In their heyday, the team never really had the money to attract big-name talent like New York or Boston could, but its diehard fan base loved the players.

On April 13, 1997, the Whalers played their last game in blue, green and white, winning against Tampa Bay, 2-1. Team Captain Kevin Dineen scored the last goal in Whalers history; and went on to score the first goal in Hurricanes history as well, as he continued as team Captain for the first two years in Carolina. The final game was emotional for fans and players alike, with the players handing their gear and sticks over the glass to fans after the game.

Hartford never forgot the team, either; in 2006, the Hartford Civic Center (now renamed the XL Center) honored three players - Ron Francis, Kevin Dineen, and Ulf Samuelsson - by hanging their numbers in the rafters next to the few officially retired Whalers numbers. Francis's number 10 was eventually officially retired by the Hurricanes; in total, he spent 10 seasons with the Whalers and 6 with the 'Canes, of his 24 seasons as a player in the NHL. (He spent 8 seasons in Pittsburgh, where he helped win two Stanley Cups.)

Ever since the team moved out of Hartford, the fans have hoped that if the team wasn't moved back, then at least a new Whalers team could be developed to replace it. Another hockey team, the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack, currently plays at the XL Center; and just up the road in Springfield, MA, the Falcons are their closest AHL rivals.

I grew up as a Whalers fan. Nobody else in my family cared for the sport. I think I first fell in love with hockey by watching the 1980s Olympics. Back in those days, there were less than half a dozen channels to choose from, so when the Olympics rolled around, you watched everything. I don't remember watching any other hockey games, but I remember the US-USSR game - the famous "Miracle on Ice". The closest hockey team was of course the Whalers, so a Whalers fan I became. What probably cemented me as a Whalers/hockey fan for life, and the spark that made him my favorite player ever, was being stopped by rookie Kevin Dineen in Zurich Airport. It's a bit of a goofy story and one that probably took all of five minutes at the time, but in that moment, I discovered what I still believe 25 years later: hockey players are the most awesome athletes out there.

When he retired in 2009, Jeremy Roenick - who eventually grew up to have his own NHL career - recalled his own special fan moment with the Whalers as a little kid, and how it influenced how he chose to interact with fans as a player:
"Gordie Howe picked up a whole bunch of snow on his stick and dumped it on my head," Roenick said. "I thought that was the coolest thing that ever happened in my whole life. Then he skated around and he looked at me again and he winked.  "For those three seconds, it was me and Gordie Howe and nobody else. That's a gift that was given to me that I made sure I did every single day."

Gordie Howe w/a fan at the Fan Fest

Perhaps the greatest thing the Whalers were able to do as a professional league in a small market was to have many of these kind of moments that impacted fans over the years. They may not have been Cup-raisers like their rival Rangers and Bruins, but they touched fans young and old alike.

This past weekend, some two dozen past Whalers players and personalities gathered in Hartford to provide a unique experience to the fans of Whaler Nation: the Whalers Reunion and Fan Fest, held at Rentschler Field ("the Rent") in East Hartford.

Fans wait in line for the gates to open. I'm hoping the NHL will eventually offer the navy jerseys (used late in the Whalers tenure, starting in 1993) - I think they were the team's best-looking jersey besides the '79-80/'85-86/ '92-93 white jersey variants.

Frankly, they couldn't have asked for a more beautiful day. The temperature was perfect and there was a light breeze to keep things cool. Fans had lined up as early as 8am to get in line for the 11am gate opening; here's just a small sample of the line as it wrapped around the venue. A thousand fans were there by the time the gates opened.

Throughout the day, I met fans from all across New England and New York, but I also met people who had come from California, Colorado, Florida, and Washington, DC., among other locations. (I came from Chicago, of course!)

It's been too many years since I've witnessed so many Whalers jerseys and T-shirts and hats in one place! Other hockey team shirts/jerseys/hats sported in the crowd included: Habs (Roy), Kings (Gretzky), Red Wings (Howe), Flyers (Pronger - who was once a Whaler; and Briere), Blackhawks (Sharp, Bufyglien), and several Chicago Blackhawks championship T-shirts. 


Although "Pucky the Whale" was the official emblem of the Whalers, he never game to life as a mascot until this year. Old and new fans took pictures with him all day long. It was really fun watching little kids run up and hug his knees in happiness.


There were a lot of merchandise brokers, but there were also displays of some notable pieces of Whaler history. Here is Mike Byers' game-worn uniform from the Whalers' first season, when they were still known as the "New England Whalers".


The jerseys worn by Gordie Howe and his two sons, Marty and Mark, when they shared Whaler ice during the 1977-78 season. Of course, Howe played the majority of his illustrious career with the Detroit Red Wings - from 1946 to 1971. He then spent four years with the Houston Aeros (WHA) before coming to Hartford for three years - 2 of those spent under the WHA banner and one as NHL. His last year with Hartford made him the oldest player to play for the NHL - 52 years and 11 days for his last game. Howe was - and is, and likely will ever be the only player to have played in the NHL for 5 different decades, starting in 1946 and ending in 1980. Howe's #9 was of course retired by Detroit, but it was also retired by the Whalers as well. (The Hurricanes have not retired his number, but they have never issued it to a player, either.)

The concourse had plenty to keep fans occupied while they waited for autographs, including the chance to play NHL 11 or NHL2K11 - showing off that people can now play as either the Hurricanes or the Whalers. (The Whalers are really Carolina 3rd jerseys.)

There were unique souvenirs...

... an unusual hat or two ...

... a fond memory or two ...

... and silly souvenirs ...

... and fans showing off their Whalers pride. Check out this awesome tattoo!

The fans filled the concourse all along one side of the stadium; seen here, waiting for the players to be announced prior to signing autographs.

My favorite player, Kevin Dineen, who now coaches the Portland Pirates (AHL). In orange is Chuck Kaiton, who was the voice of the Whalers in Hartford and is now the play-by-play announcer for the Hurricanes. In the background is Jeff Brubaker.

When I was in the autograph line, and I finally got to Dineen, what I wanted to say to him was to thank him for saying hello to me and my friend AJ, that day 25 years ago in Zurich, which basically forever cemented me a hockey fan. I did remind him about that, which I don't think he remembered; and he admitted he'd been running kind of late through the airport on that trip. (And yet he stopped anyway to talk to a couple of high schoolers because they were from his adopted state! How cool of a player was he!)

But before I got out my "thank you" part, he asked me about my Blackhawks jersey, and said he was sorry that I'd missed Joel Quenneville (who'd had to leave for his flight) by the time I'd reached that point in the line. He wasn't the only player who apologized that I'd missed Quenneville, either; those who had flanked him at the signature tables were the first to tell me that he'd had to leave to catch a flight.

Father and son celebrating Dineen

Kevin Dineen signing for fans. At this point, the players had been signing since around 12:15-12:30; it was already 3:30 at this point, and they kept signing til 5.

Joel Quenneville (maroon) waiting with Dana Murzyn (blue) and Dave Babych (goatee) to be called onstage for introductions

I'm not kidding you - every single player in the signing line made cracks about my Blackhawks jersey (even though I also had a Whalers hat and T-shirt on), but all in a very good-natured way: "Oh, you're obviously here to see Joel, right?" was the most common remark. One asked me, a twinkle in his eye, "You're not one of those bandwagoners, are you?" (I had to keep explaining I'd grown up a Whalers fan but have supported Chicago for about a dozen years.)

Another one joked that "Oh, Joel might've helped out on a little something in Chicago this year, right?" But they all had smiles when they said it, and it was clear they were all very proud of what Quenneville achieved with the Blackhawks this season.

Mike Rogers, who used to play for the Whalers and now does color commentary for Calgary on the Fan 960 radio station, talked with me about the United Center and the crowds in Chicago, calling it "the most amazing place to experience a hockey game". 

Dave Babych

Ed Kastelic (black), Paul Lawless (blue), Doug Roberts (yellow), Alan Hangsleben (turquoise) sign for the fan line

A few more pics over on my Flickr stream.

A big thank you to former Whalers owner Howard Baldwin, who organized the event. I give a lot of credit and a shout-out to all the volunteers, who helped run the event pretty smoothly - they expected maybe 500-3,000 if they were lucky, and ended up with nearly 5,000! 

Gordie Howe was asked if he was surprised at the turnout.

"Hell, no," he said. "It's hockey, isn't it?"

It is - and Hartford would definitely like to have a hockey franchise once again.

1 comment:

  1. WOW! This blog post is by far the best account of the Fan Fest I have read. It means so much more coming from a passoionate Whalers fan. I unfortunately had to leave at 2:30, so after standing in line for an hour, I had to bolt. My brother couldn't go because of work, and he wanted to meet his favorite Whaler, Eddie Kastelic. (I can confirm there is at least one Kastelic jersey out there!) Did you get a chance to talk with Ed?


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