Hockey fans love nostalgia. We love the past and all the tradition of the NHL. The retro sweaters and the defunct teams, we all love them. It’s a huge reason why the Hartford Whalers still continue to be a very brand among hockey fans to this day. A couple even had a Whaler themed wedding recently. If the Whalers are still popular now, then why did they even leave in the first place and why are they never coming back in the NHL?
The departure of the Hartford Whalers started in motion 19 years ago this summer when the team was bought by the Connecticut Development Authority. The group, headed by Compuware CEO Peter Karmanos, wanted to turn the ailing club into contenders right away. The Whalers, with new general manager Jim Rutherford, were aggressive in pursuing players during the first year with the new ownership. They went out and acquired Jimmy Carson and Steven Rice and drafted highly touted prospect Jeff O’Neill.
However, the Whalers could never play consistently during that first season, started off 2-7-2. The Whalers got hot in February, but faltered down the stretch and missed their first playoff appearance since 1992 by four points.
Dwindling Support and the Political Powers That Be
After just two years into the new ownership, Karmanos was growing impatient with the team’s lackluster play and, to be honest, so were the fans. Karmanos announced that if the team could not sell 11,000 season tickets fro the ’96-’97 season, he would likely move the team. To make matters worse, he eliminated the mini-plans in favor of the full game packages further hurting ticket sales.
Despite the ownership group raising ticket prices by 20%, the Whalers faithful were able to reach the goal and were to stay in Hartford until at least 1998. However, that was just a temporary solution to a growing problem.
Connecticut politics played a big part in the Whalers future. Then Governor, John Rowland, refused to allow state taxpayers to fund an arena for the Whalers. Who could blame him? The Whalers weren’t exactly a winning team and attendance was still a huge issue that hadn’t been solved yet. Instead, Governor Rowland decided to use his efforts on wooing the New England Patriots to Hartford, but the Patriots would later reach a deal to stay in Foxboro, Massachusetts in a brand new stadium, Gillette Stadium.
Carolina Bound and a New AHL Hope
After Governor Rowland decided not to have the taxpayers fund a new arena, Karmanos announced that the team would leave Hartford. On May 6, 1997, Karmanos announced that the Whalers would move to the hockey hotbed that is Raleigh, North Carolina. And just like that, after years of tradition within New England, it was over.
Karmanos had basically reneged on his promise to keep the team in town for four seasons. He basically bought the team in order to move it to a larger market. The Whaler fans did all they could to keep the team in town, but it was no match for a man hellbent on moving his franchise.
Just one season later, the New York Rangers AHL team, the Binghamton Rangers, moved to Hartford to fill the hockey void left by the Whalers. The Hartford Wolf Pack were much more successful than the Whalers were, winning three division championships and one Calder Cup in 2000.
The New York Rangers brought in old Whalers owner Howard Baldwin to head up the team’s business operations. One of his first decisions in office was to change the name of the Wolf Pack to the Connecticut Whale. Baldwin hoped that the Connecticut Whale name would garner support for the return of the NHL to Hartford.
The annual WhalerFest in Hartford is a wildly popular event in Hartford with hockey events and basically to remind the citizens of Hartford about their soul, the Hartford Whalers. But, was the name actually working?…
The Ouster of Baldwin
After than two years together, the New York Rangers and Howard Baldwin dissolved their partnership and the name was reverted back to the Hartford Wolf Pack. The work of Howard Baldwin just wasn’t paying off and the Connecticut Whale’s attendance the final two years was always in the bottom ten in the AHL, never averaging more than 5,000 a game.
The whole point of the Whale name was to try and show the NHL that the city of Hartford can support a team at the NHL level. However, since the attendance was very low, it all but killed any hopes of the league returning. The XL Center needs to be upgraded, or replaced, to meet NHL standards and I just don’t see that happening.
With other hungrier cities like Quebec City and Seattle, Hartford will always be the little guy and, to Gary Bettman, that means less money for the league. The Whalers are never going to come back to the NHL and as a New Englander with deep Connecticut roots, it pains me to say this, but its true.
What really hurt the Whaler fans the most is the Carolina Hurricanes Stanley Cup victory in 2006, nine years after Hartford was robbed of their heart and soul. The Hartford Whalers who always struggled to make the playoffs and when they did they lost to juggernauts Boston Bruins or Montreal Canadiens. That title could have been the city of Hartford’s, but alas, it belongs to North Carolina and Hartford is still pining for it’s long lost team.
Only one former Whaler is still active in the league today, goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who recorded a record of 1-4 in his only season in Hartford. The last captain and the last person to score a goal for the Whalers, Kevin Dineen, is now the head coach of the Florida Panthers. The last player to be drafted by the Whalers, Craig Adams, won the Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes and currently plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Even today, the tradition of the Whalers is still felt with it’s former players and it’s gear that sells extraordinary well, but until the ol’ Brass Bonanza and the foghorn are heard through the XL Center’s loudspeakers again as the green and blue of the Whalers take the ice, will Hartford begin the healing cycle.
Until that time comes, may we hold onto the memories of the Hartford Whalers.