Once Upon a Whale
(page 1 of 2)
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.