Hey Dad, what are the Hartford Whalers?” It’s a valid question — though perhaps puzzling to people of a certain age. To put this story into perspective, let this sink in for a moment. A person born on the day of the last Hartford Whalers game at the Civic Center will turn 25 this spring. It is safe to say if you are under the age of 30, you likely have no memory of a team that was on the local TV sportscasts nearly every night and talked about all over the United States and Canada.
It’s a strange phenomenon. There is still tremendous love for a NHL team that bolted for the South a quarter century ago. It’s not uncommon to see a Whalers shirt on a woman at the supermarket, or that familiar Whalers logo on a hat on a guy at your child’s football game, or on a license plate in traffic in Meriden, Manchester, or beyond.
What is it about the Hartford Whalers and their incredible staying power in our hearts? The team that is now the Carolina Hurricanes still has brisk merchandise sales. According to some estimates, Whalers gear outsells the majority of current NHL teams. Parade of Novelties in the WestFarms Mall is even planning a Whalers Shop within the store to meet the demand. At any given time, the number of Hartford Whalers items on Ebay tops 500. As I was writing this article, the number was 721.
Let’s take a little journey into a brief history of this iconic team. The Whalers were born in Boston in 1972 as the New England Whalers, of the now defunct World Hockey Association. A few years later, they moved to the Hartford Civic Center, and in 1979, when the WHA folded into the NHL, they became the Hartford Whalers. Hartford, at the time, was the 21st biggest Nielsen television market in the nation. It now stands at 33.
The funny thing about the Whalers is, the team was never successful on the ice. There was never a Stanley Cup brought to Connecticut’s capital city, but the fans were fiercely loyal and still are to this day. Case in point: after the Whalers made the playoffs in 1986 and lost, the state threw a parade through downtown Hartford that attracted thousands of people.
Despite their popularity, by the 1990s, however, it was widely reported the team was losing money. It was eventually sold by Richard Gordon to Detroit software magnate Peter Karmanos, who announced in 1997 the team would leave for Raleigh, North Carolina. It came after an intense season ticket drive led by then Lt. Governor Jodi Rell, and negotiations with Karmanos by Governor John Rowland. By all accounts, the state offered a generous deal to keep the team in a refurbished Civic Center, but Karmanos wanted more.
There was anger, sadness, and efforts to persuade the NHL team to put an expansion team in Hartford to replace the beloved Whalers. The pain of losing the Whalers was tempered when the following year, the New England Patriots announced they were moving to Hartford, but the year after that, team owner Robert Kraft announced he was backing out the deal.
In the years that followed, other cities across the country were growing while Connecticut was suffering a population decline. The odds were stacked against a return of the NHL to Hartford.
Nevertheless, people started to wear more and more Hartford Whalers merchandise. Some of it was even made on the cheap, but before long, high-class replica jerseys and the like started showing up at sporting goods shops and airports like Bradley, and even TF Green in Providence. People were snapping up the stuff to show their Connecticut pride. Celebrities who had no connection to Hartford were spotted wearing it, showing up in tabloid photos, and a Whalers shirt even made cameos in TV shows and movies, like Adam Sandler’s 2010 movie Grown Ups.
The green and blue of Peter Goode’s very clever logo, with the H intertwined in a W and a whale tail, were becoming ubiquitous. They became the unofficial colors of Connecticut’s capital.
When the Hartford Yard Goats were born, one thing was clear as they pondered the name and marketing scheme: the colors would be green and blue. Team president Tim Restall told me that decision was made before the nickname was chosen. The case was the same for the Hartford Athletic, the soccer team that set up shop here in town. Owner Bruce Mandell told me the colors were a no-brainer. I know some wish the Hartford Wolf Pack felt the same, but the minor league hockey team sticks with the red and blue of the New York Rangers. They were green and blue for a year when they changed their name to the Connecticut Whale, though. That, too, was a very cool logo.
The big question I get asked all the time is, “Will we ever get a team back?” ESPN’s Steve Levy explained in depth during our September Seasons Magazines Conversations with Dennis House podcast that the possibility is highly unlikely, and it is a complicated answer. Others have said that first we would need a billionaire to come forward and say, “I want a team in Hartford, and I’ll pick up the bills.” Second, the state would have to agree to help build a state-of-the-art arena to house a team. Also, keep in mind that there are other bigger cities that are also salivating for a team. Owners of the brand new Seattle Kraken expansion team paid the league a $650 million dollar expansion fee just to join the NHL, and there was no arena included in that price.
Twenty years ago, there seemed to be more hunger to get the Whalers back. Memories are fading and the fact is, those who remember going to Whalers games are getting older. The high school hockey players who played on the Civic Center ice and went to Whalers training camp to learn some skills are now middle-aged. It’s interesting, in the past two years, I’ve received gifts from some senior citizens who were downsizing and getting rid of their Whalers memorabilia. They couldn’t bear to throw it away, so they reached out and wanted me to have it. I’m grateful for an awesome jacket, a tie, and other Whalers souvenirs bequeathed to me by several people in our great state.
There are so many who still dream of the Whalers coming back to their rightful home. Despite the odds, I think if I were governor, I’d create a task force to explore it, if for nothing else than to show the state we have exhausted the possibilities. In the meantime, these fans will wear their shirts emblazoned with names like Howe and Dineen and get a lump in their throat every time they hear the Brass Bonanza.