They played in a rink at a shopping mall, celebrated goals with music that sounded like a 1970s television theme song and have been gone from pro hockey for 17 years. Yet the iconic blue and green of the Hartford Whalers is as popular and visible as ever.
“I think the people that grew up with the Whalers will never, ever forget them, and they’ll always have an attachment to them,” former general manager Jim Rutherford said.
With the recent retirement of goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, there are no more former Whalers playing in the NHL (Chris Pronger is still on an active roster despite career-ending injuries, and Craig Adams of the Pittsburgh Penguins was one of Hartford’s final draft picks but never suited up for them).
“I would’ve never thought that, yeah, he was the last Whaler in the league,” said Sean Burke, who played five seasons in Hartford, including part of one with Giguere. “It’s another end to the Hartford Whalers story in another way, but in some ways it just keeps the story alive.”
Most of the Whalers’ story now is nostalgia: fans, many of whom weren’t alive for the team’s only Adams Division title in 1987 and never saw a game at Hartford Civic Center proudly sporting the “HW” logo with the water spout or listening to Brass Bonanza.
The Whalers maintain a loyal following that longtime broadcaster Chuck Kaiton attributes to the creative logo, players like Ron Francis and even Gordie Howe at the end of his career and the team’s role as the “ultimate underdog.”
“They were always like that little engine that couldn’t, that people thought couldn’t compete with the big boys,” said Kation, who has never missed a game in the 35-year history of the Whalers and Carolina Hurricanes.
Francis, Howe and son Mark and Brendan Shanahan were among the Hockey Hall of Famers to make their way through Hartford, and Pronger could be in within the next few years. But the Whalers’ lasting legacy has to do more with the likes of Joel Quenneville, Dave Tippett, Kevin Dineen and Ulf Samuelsson.
“If you look back at it now, it was a lot of really good players that came through there that became good coaches and management,” said Burke, who’s now goaltending coach of the Arizona Coyotes. “The list goes on and on of guys who played there that are still having an impact on the NHL as coaches and management.”
Francis, the franchise’s all-time leader in games, goals, assists and points, replaced Rutherford as general manager of the Hurricanes this past spring. Shanahan just took over as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, while Marc Bergevin is about to enter his third season as Montreal Canadiens GM and Don Maloney his eighth in charge of the Coyotes.
Tippett, a Whalers alternate captain and defensive stopper, is considered one of the best coaches in the NHL after 11 seasons split between the Dallas Stars and Coyotes. Samuelsson is a New York Rangers assistant under Alain Vigneault and was a head-coaching candidate for a few vacancies this off-season.
Dineen, the final Whalers captain before the team moved to Raleigh, N.C., to become the Hurricanes in 1997, coached the Florida Panthers and Canada’s women’s Olympic and men’s under-18 world championship teams before joining Quenneville’s staff in Chicago.
“They were good leaders then and it translates into coaching,” Giguere said. “I played with Kevin Dineen and Sean Burke, and those guys were good with the young guys, at talking to them and making them feel welcome, teaching them the ropes of the game and stuff like that. Those are the guys I remember from when I played there. I think that’s a quality you need to be a coach.”
Quenneville credited the “soft and quiet leadership” of Whalers coach Jack Evans for producing so many future coaches and front-office personnel but didn’t discount the strong bond between teammates in Hartford.
After coming over in the World Hockey Association merger in 1979 along with the Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers and Quebec Nordiques, the Whalers made the playoffs just once in their first six seasons before a run of seven straight trips. Those were the only eight playoff appearances in the Whalers’ 18 seasons.
Kaiton, hired before the Whalers’ inaugural NHL season, wondered if winning would have prevented Hartford from losing the team.
“Had that market been more of a winner consistently, I think it would’ve defied a lot of the odds, especially today, with market size because we had a very zealous fan base,” Kaiton said.
That zealous fan base packed Hartford Civic Center and bought plenty of merchandise from what Kaiton said was the first in-arena gift shop in the NHL. They created the kind of in-arena atmosphere that made Rutherford forget all about the location steps from a cigar shop, record store and hotel.
“It’s not really, to me, what’s around rinks,” Rutherford said. “It’s more about what happens on the rink, and the people, what they get out of the games, the atmosphere of the games. And the atmosphere of the games were terrific in Hartford (Civic Center). I really never paid much attention to the fact that there were some stores build around it.”
Just as there was nothing else like that arena, there are few hockey songs like “Brass Bonanza,” the campy Whalers anthem that still conjures up memories of the team. Asked what he thought the Whalers would be remembered for, Giguere first brought up that “classic” song.
It was so popular among fans that they protested when it was removed from the rotation. Kaiton remembers how much it annoyed visiting teams, especially one night when the Whalers beat the Flyers 9-3 when Mike Emrick was Philadelphia’s play-by-play man.
“He said, ‘Can we not have that song play?“’ Kaiton recalled. “That song played, he counted, like 13 times or 14 times because when they came out for warm-up, when they came out for the start of each period and any time a goal was scored, that song would be played.”
Synonymous with the Whalers since their WHA days, “Brass Bonanza” was silenced at least at the NHL level in 1997 when owner Peter Karmanos, unable to work out a new arena deal with the state of Connecticut, moved the team. The outdated arena and crumbling corporate support doomed the Whalers more so than a lack of support.
“It was clear to everyone that if the Whalers needed to stay, you needed a new building,” Giguere said. “At the time, I think the economy of the city probably didn’t permit it. There was money that needed to be spent elsewhere instead of building a building, and I think you can understand that now.”
Rutherford said there was “nothing wrong” with Whalers fans that made the team leave.
“I think it was just an economic problem that couldn’t be overcome,” he said.
The reasons the NHL left Hartford are the same ones that leave it out of the conversation when expansion or relocation is discussed, even as Quebec City is considered a favourite to get the Nordiques back and the Jets returned to Winnipeg. XL Center, as it’s now called, has gone through renovations, but a new arena would still need to be built to make it possible.
Kaiton said he doesn’t know if there’s a financial base necessary to support a modern-day NHL team. And even as local politicians discuss trying to lead a return of the Whalers, Burke understands it’s an uphill climb.
“Quebec City might not be in a lot of ways any better of a market than Hartford on the surface, but it’s Canada,” Burke said. “When you speak of Hartford, people are going to remember that the team failed ultimately at the end of the day, it couldn’t make it. That’s really, really hard unless there’s somebody out there that can convince you that it’s definitely going to make it this time around.”
Even if the city never gets another shot, Burke still sees a Whalers jersey or two in every arena he goes to and fondly recalls what Hartford was like as a hockey town.
“In a lot of ways, you were the only team in town,” he said. “In Hartford they really embraced the club. Even till this day there’s still a cult following for the Hartford Whalers. ... It was more of just a real small-town mentality, but yet it was a good place to play.”