Once Upon a Whale

 

Perhaps you’ve heard: The Whale is back in Hartford—Howard Baldwin, too, the man who lured the original Harford Whalers to town and then upgraded them into the National Hockey League in 1979. To refresh your memory, a decade later Baldwin left the team, which subsequently (in 1997) jilted Connecticut for North Carolina—of all places. Adding insult to injury, the decidedly-not-your-Hartford Whalers won the Stanley Cup in Dixie.

The recent cetaceous hubbub is more semantic than seismic: The former Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League is now calling itself the Connecticut Whale. The nostalgic new brand comes complete with green-and-white jerseys, “Brass Bonanza” (that addictive Whalers anthem of yore: Da Da Da … DaDaDaDa … Dahh, etc.), a new mascot that goes by the unfortunate name of “Pucky,” and heavy helpings of highlights of the 1980s Whalers served up on the JumboTron at the XL Center. This flip-flopping is all very minor-league so far, but if Hartford and environs pick up the hockey pace, can the return of a National Hockey League franchise be far behind? Can you guess what that team’s name would be? That’s the buzz being aided and abetted by Baldwin, who now operates the Hartford franchise, which is owned by the New York Rangers.

“I think Hartford is an NHL market, that’s for sure,” Baldwin says. “But I have no idea if and when it will happen. If we keep doing a great job here, it definitely can happen. We have to keep building the market back and solving certain problems with this building to make it NHL-ready.” Baldwin isn’t saying yea or nay at this point, but he does point out that hockey icon and former Whalers coach Emile “The Cat” Francis once dubbed Hartford the Green Bay of major-league hockey. Green Bay, of course, never lost its Packers.

No one would be happier than yours truly if this Whale fairy tale were to come true, and Hartford became a major-league city again. Maybe if we all clapped our hands in unison and really believed in leviathans, then the likes of Kevin Dineen, the Greenest of the Green, would skate back into town (he’s coaching an AHL team in Maine, so this isn’t so far-fetched). In one sense, the team is still here in spirit. There are wonderful grassroots websites, such as whalershockey.com and brassbonanza.com, which escort Green diehards down memory lane to any date in the team’s history, and feature historic photos and new and vintage Whalers memorabilia—all of it actually still selling to people like me. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I love hockey. With Social Security looming, I still play twice a week. And I loved my Whalers. My son, who is 24, worshipped them, too, and his old room is still festooned with logoed paraphernalia. Ever since the team left, Jackson and I have played a game we call “Former Whaler!” when we’re watching hockey on TV. The winner is the first one to blurt out those two words when a member of the Great Green Diaspora is mentioned on the air. Here’s a sampling of those who went on to win the Stanley Cup elsewhere: Brendan “Brenda” (at the end of his term in Hartford, anyway) Shanahan, Bobby “Czech-ing Out” Holik, Glen Wesley (not Harding), Jean-Sébastien “Jiggy” Giguère, Pat “Little Ball of Hate” Verbeek and Dana “Get a Man’s Name” Murzyn. Today, alas, there are but two former Whalers skating in the NHL.

Because the Whalers were hardly ever on television, I used to listen to Chuck Kaiton call the games on the radio; now that’s devotion—like, you really couldn’t see the puck (a common TV complaint back then). Chuck once pronounced a game over and “done like dinner” with the Whalers leading by two goals and a minute to play. They lost. (That was worthy of the 1962 Mets.) But they improved. They had a few good years. They raised our hopes.

I also made cold cash off of Kevin and the boys. I wrote about our long-lost local heroes for various media. I profiled Dineen, and Mike Liut, and Emile Francis, who told me that when he was growing up in Saskatchewan, times were so hard, and so cold, they played with pucks fashioned from horse pucky. I was getting paid to hang out with professional hockey players—how cool was that? Watching the Whalers practice one afternoon, I was standing right behind the glass when Ulf Samuelsson decided to play a wee Swedish joke on me. While I was scribbling in my notebook, he drilled a slap shot that exploded against the Plexiglas not a foot from my face. As I convulsed in fright, the boys collapsed in Nordic guffawing.

It wasn’t just Howard Baldwin and my family who were devastated when the Whalers left. Martin Evtushek was president of The Hartford Whalers Booster Club and in attendance on April 13, 1997, when the team officially kissed Connecticut goodbye. Uncharacteristically, the house was packed and the Whalers won, although, truer to form, they missed the playoffs again—for the fifth straight year. Dineen was there to score the last Green goal, but Ronnie Francis was long gone, traded with Ulf in 1991 to Pittsburgh in the worst deal in Whaler (NHL?) history. The duo would later be instrumental in the Penguins capturing two Stanley Cup championships.

 

Evtushek freely confesses that he teared up during that farewell game, along with thousands of others, and then he went home and cried some more. Remarkably, he says he has never been bitter, only sad. But he switched his season tickets to the Wolf Pack, and he even rooted for the not-his-Hartford Whalers when they won the cup way down yonder in Carolina in 2006.

Beyond remarkable, however, is the fact that for all these years Evtushek has remained a Hartford Whalers Booster Club member—not to mention that there is still a club to be a member of, even if the faithful once dwindled to as few as a dozen disciples. Now the Head Fan again, Evtushek is a total Green-and-White optimist. Membership is back up to 80—heck, it peaked at only 170 when the team was still in Hartford. And now Baldwin is back in town. “It’s finally starting to happen,” Evtushek enthuses. “There have been naysayers for 14 years, but Howard Baldwin has resurfaced and has a team in Hartford that hopefully the fans will support. I think we’ll have an NHL team here shortly, within five years.” Evtushek hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid, doesn’t need to. It runs through his veins.

But will the fans support the minor-league Whale in numbers great enough to eventually inspire a Hartford Miracle on Ice? If anyone can pull this off, Baldwin can. The Johnny Appleseed of hockey, he has roamed the continent merging professional leagues or starting, buying into, managing or improving franchises: from Minnesota to Pittsburgh, from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to Manchester, N.H. He was one of the owners in the Iron City when Ronnie and the Pens won those two cups (ex-Whalers seem to win cups willy-nilly—like Joel Quenneville, coach of the reigning champion Chicago Black Hawks). Besides producing compelling, winning hockey, Baldwin, along with his wife Karen, made movies, most notably Ray, the biopic about Ray Charles, and the feel-good hockey drama Mystery, Alaska that depicts a ragtag team of amateurs who take on the mighty New York Rangers . . . and lose. It’s sort of a Near-Miracle on Ice, but close enough because everyone’s a winner in this fantasy.

So how’s Baldwin doing so far? While the rebranded Connecticut Whale debuted at the XL Center on Nov. 27 before an impressive 13,089 fans (2,546 short of a sellout), a week later the Saturday night crowd was back to a more typical 5,060, although it didn’t look like anywhere near that many from where this scribe was sitting. The announced official totals tend to edge above a crucial numerical threshold, and there is suspicion abroad that management papers the house with free tickets. Average attendance through early December was just above 4,000, ranking Hartford 18th out of 30 AHL teams, and below such hockey hot spots as Houston, Charlotte (there’s that state again) and Bridgeport. 

As in Whaler days of yore, scalpers outside the arena sell tickets below face value, a clear sign that the product is being widely discounted. But inside, the atmosphere is decidedly different from the alleged glory days. It’s a younger, bluer-collared crowd—hardly a corporate suit to be seen—and the energy in the aging barn is infectious. When the hockey or the fighting on the ice pauses (at one point, three bouts were going simultaneously), the music blasts like it’s a Metallica concert, and the JumboTron’s giant screen focuses on just about every fan in the joint by the end of the game. Girls and shirtless boys audition for their seconds of fame by pumping their fists and shaking their booty. While they’re clearly not old-school hockey aficionados, let’s give them their due: They rock and roll and cheer until the final whistle, something their nattier NHL predecessors were not known for.

Paul Doyle, a sportswriter for The Hartford Courant who has covered hockey off and on for 20 years, is impressed with the changes Baldwin has wrought. “The atmosphere in the building the past few years was almost sad,” he says. “There was hardly any effort to engage the fans. It has been a lot better this season. The Whaler-brand nostalgia has taken on a life of its own.”

He adds that the real test will come next season, after Baldwin, who took over the team just two weeks before opening day, has had a full year to work his magic. Doyle also says there are “warm-market” NHL teams, such as the Atlanta Thrashers, that are in trouble and may be looking to relocate.

Baldwin agrees with Doyle. “In any professional league, you have movement of franchises—leagues need really good markets,” he says. “It’s all about economics, and if you can get the economics out of [the existing XL Center] that work for me, they should work for everyone else. I keep pointing to the example of Fenway Park. A lot of people told the Red Sox they needed a new building and for some reason they don’t have one—but their situation is as healthy as anything in major-league baseball.”

Of course, to compete with other NHL- franchise suitors like Kansas City (with its spanking new building), Quebec City (which sent 1,000-plus fans down to an Islanders game in December to fill empty seats there and demonstrate their NHL worthiness), and Hamilton, Ontario, it would help if the Connecticut Whale could outdraw burgs like Providence or Peoria.

Chuck Kaiton, the radio play-by-play man who followed the team to North Carolina, doesn’t think averaging even 12,000 fans a game will impress the NHL. “Until there’s a commitment for a new, viable building, I just don’t see it happening,” he says.

“We fought that battle 14 years ago and lost.” Kevin Dineen himself, as passionate a Whaler as ever laced ’em up, would give only a noncommittal comment about the Whaler resurrection euphoria: “There are 30 NHL teams and no plans for expansion. You always hear these kinds of conversations, from [businessman Lawrence R.] Gottesdiener a few years ago, and now Howard. The Whalers were in Hartford and drew well, and there are people who think it can happen again. That’s yet to be seen.”

To see the Promised Land, or even the XL Center half full for his Connecticut Whale, Baldwin has to win over a number of key constituencies, including NHL snobs like me. How are you going to keep us from being down on the farm team when we’ve seen Francis and Gretsky and Guy LaFleur? I never attended a single Wolf Pack game.

Also consider the much diminished indigenous Hartford business community: They remember how it all went south in 1996-97, when the then Whaler management sold them a bill of goods: Please, oh please, buy a bunch of season tickets, and we’ll try like the dickens to stay in Hartford—yes sir, step right up. The suits swallowed the hook, attendance jumped, but the team left anyway, like a traveling medicine show. 

Baldwin had nothing to do with that, of course. He was responsible for making Hartford a major-league city for a spell. That someone as successful as Howard Baldwin, who is 68, wants to relive those times is really quite a tribute. It says a lot about him and about Hartford. Major-league or no, it’s not such a bad place to be. It doesn’t need the NHL and, let’s face it, vice versa. And while nostalgia is fun, everything in moderation, my fellow Whale watchers. At some point, revisionist history and sentimentality can regress into foolishness. I mean, have you ever drunk-dialed an old flame at 3 a.m.? How’d that work out for you?

Once Upon a Whale

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