The Rise, Fall and Possible Return of the Hartford Whalers
Over the last year or so, there has been much speculation about possible NHL expansion. In addition to expansion, there has also been talk regarding possible franchise relocations for those organizations that have had trouble filling their buildings and generating enough revenue to be viable in today’s NHL.
Some of the more popular names that have been bandied about for possible landing spots for a new /relocated franchise have been Portland, Seattle and a return to Quebec. Another location that could become a home for a wayward franchise or a newbie could be Hartford. Once the proud home of the Whalers, FTHN examines the possibilities – both pro & con – of whether Hartford will re-enter the NHL.
HISTORY IN HARTFORD
The Whalers started off in 1971 in the WHA playing their games in Boston and were known as the New England Whalers. In 1974, the Whalers moved from Boston to Hartford and when the NHL/WHA merged in 1979, where they were known as the Hartford Whalers.
Home for the Whalers was the Hartford Civic Center. It would turn out to be the only NHL home they would ever know, as they would play all their home games there until the franchise moved to Raleigh, NC and became the Carolina Hurricanes following the 1996-1997 season.
The Whalers had many successful players dress up for them in the green and blue. Unfortunately, most of them were past their prime by the time they joined the Whale. A look at the roster history of the Whalers and you will see some very impressive names: Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Mark Howe, Mike Rogers, Dave Keon and WHA all-time leading scorer Andre Lacroix. In fact, unlike their other WHA counterparts who joined the NHL in 1979, the Whalers only lost George Lyle, Warren Miller & Brad Selwood to the expansion draft.
In their inaugural season, The Whalers did – OK. They finished with 73 points and made the playoffs. Of the four WHA expansion teams in the NHL, the Whalers and the Edmonton Oilers were the ones who made the post season. Unfortunately for them, they ran into the playoff juggernaut known as the Montreal Canadiens and were swept in 3 games.
After the playoffs, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull & Andre Lacroix all announced their retirements. These retirements started a series of bad luck, bad trades and poor draft picks that would haunt the Whalers for several years. One of the good things that came out of the Whalers ineptitude was that they were able to draft Ron Francis.
Also in 1983, Emile Francis – the long time former GM of the New York Rangers & St Louis Blues – was hired as GM with the job to turn the Whalers fortunes around. Francis in turn hired head coach Jack Evans and then proceeded to overturn the entire roster. Within a 4 year time span, the only remaining holdovers from the pre-Emile Francis days were Ron Francis & Paul McDermid.
Building upon the foundation of Ron Francis, the Whalers drafted wisely under Emile Francis. They picked up Kevin Dineen, Sylvain Turgeon & Ulf Samuelsson. Francis had also acquired a proven goalie in Mike Liut.
Dineen, Francis & Turgeon piled up the points to give Hartford legitimate scoring threats. Samuelsson provided the grit and did the necessary dirty work in front of his net to make sure Liut could do what he was paid for; stop the puck and do it well.
The Whalers had some success in 1985-86. They became a legit playoff contender. Unfortunately, as most teams do, they suffered some injuries and during the dog days of the season in February and early March they floundered. Upon getting back their injured players they proceeded to make the playoffs by finishing 4th. They would go onto sweep the heavily favored 1st place Quebec Nordiques 3-0 in what would turn out to be the franchises only winning playoff series. They then were eliminated once again by the Montreal Canadiens.
In what would become a watershed moment in Whalers history, in March 1991, GM Eddie Johnston traded Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson & Grant Jennings to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Zarley Zalapski, John Cullen & Jeff Parker. The Whaler faithful were in an uproar. Francis had become symbolic with Hartford. He was Mr. Whaler. Name an offensive stat in Whaler history and it was owned by him. Johnston was vilified by the fans and it only got worse as the Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup two years in a row led by Francis & Samuelsson along with some other guy named Mario Lemieux.
While the Whalers did make the playoffs a few more times, they were no longer considered a legitimate threat to win The Cup. In fact, Hartford was the place no one wanted to be traded to. Brendan Shanahan & Paul Coffey were just a few of the players that wanted out of Hartford from basically the moment they arrived. The all-star career of Chris Pronger was started in Hartford but it was in St. Louis where he blossomed. Hartford was not the place TO be, it had become the place NOT to be.
New Ownership to the Rescue?
In the summer of 1994, the Whalers were sold to Compuware CEO Peter Karmanos. Karmanos named Jim Rutherford GM and made a pledge to the loyal fans of the Whale in that he would keep the team in Hartford for at least 4 years.
Despite having some loyal fans, the Whalers had suffered with attendance. Fans had become disenchanted with the play of the Whalers in previous seasons and it showed at the gate. After 2 years, Karmanos announced that if there wasn’t a committed 11,000 season ticket sales for the 1996-97 season, the team would be moved. Karmanos also made attaining that number difficult as he cut partial season plans which were very popular.
The fans put together a group called “Save the Whale” and they were able to achieve over 8,500 season ticket sales in a little over a month and a half. The Whalers stayed thru 1997 -then the politicians stepped in.
As with most things involving politicians, nothing was easy. Governor Rowland stated that the taxpayers would not foot the bill for a new building in Hartford. However, talks continued and it looked like a new $147.5M dollar arena was going to get done. They were close to getting things signed when out of the blue; Karmanos demanded $45M payment for services he would lose in the 3 years it would take to build the arena. That was the last straw as talks then collapsed. Karmanos announced that the Whalers would be leaving to go to North Carolina and become the Hurricanes.
On April 13, 1997, the Whalers would play their final NHL game in Hartford against the Tampa Bay Lightning. In the 2-1 loss, Kevin Dineen would score the final goal in Whalers history. The Whalers would be no more.
Possibility of a Return?
That brings us to today and as stated earlier, some of the more popular landing spots for the next NHL franchise seem to be Seattle, Portland and Quebec. But what about Hartford? FTHN was able to reach a former Whaler & NHL veteran, Chris Kotsopoulos and get his take on what it was like to play in Hartford, some favorite memories, the viability of a return to Hartford and why (or why not) it would work.
FTHN – What was it like playing in Hartford?
CK – I enjoyed my time in Hartford. Had a lot of fun but unfortunately we were not a well put together team.
FTHN – How were the fans?
CK – For the fans, it was mardi gras every night. Restaurants, bars, shopping all in and around the Civic Center and all within walking distance. The atmosphere was fantastic.
FTHN – What was one of the good times you had in Hartford?
CK – Winning the Budweiser Cup for Best defenseman in 1981-82. Thanks in large part to my partner on D Mark Howe. I owe it to him
FTHN – How about a not so good moment?
CK – Like I said earlier, we were a badly run team, management wise. I’ll leave it at that…
FTHN – OK, there’s been some talk about adding teams or relocating teams. What do you think of Hartford getting back into the NHL?
CK – I would like to see them back in the NHL, but I’m afraid the dream’s over. Too many hurdles to cross. New Building, Local and State government, Finances, etc…The hardcore fan of the Whale is there – they are fantastic by the way – but not sure if there is enough support from the parties you need to put it all together.
Can They Come Back?
In order for the Whalers to make it back to the NHL, one thing is a certainty, they need a new building. The NHL that left Hartford almost 20 years ago is vastly different than the one that is here today. Just like other sports, the venue needs to be not only a place where the game is played but also a happening spot. It needs luxury boxes, top notch vending for food and beverages and great seats with very few limited obstructed seats if any at all. Fans want to be pampered when they are at a game. They want all the amenities and Hartford fans would expect no different.
Recently it was announced that there are plans underway to renovate the dilapidated XL Center (formerly the Civic Center). In Mid July 2014, the local NBC affiliate in Hartford announced:
“Starting this week, you literally don’t have to go further than your home to sit in lower level XL Center seats. On Monday, Hartford’s XL Center began selling a limited number of stadium seats in the lower section to fans for $200 a pair plus an ordering fee, according to the XL Center website. The seats were removed to make way for renovation that includes the installation of a “new interactive fan bar and private loge boxes,” the XL Center said on its website. The upgrade to the concert, sports and events venue is part of the XL Center’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of the facility formerly known as the Hartford Civic Center. The seats will be sold on a first come, first serve basis.”
The local Fox affiliate also reported, “As the $35 million renovation of the Hartford XL Center ramps up, the overhead company that owns the stadium, Global Spectrum, has launched a weekly video update on the progress. The first installment starts with Peter Stevens, the president of JCJ Architecture, showing the beginning stages of the renovation, and later segues to Bob Saint, the director of construction services for the Capital Region Development Authority. Check out the first installment above, and follow the XL Center’s You Tube Channel for further updates.”
The loyal fans of the Whalers have also set up “Whaler Nation TV” which has become one of the most watched shows on Nutmeg television. Per Whaler Nation: Jerry Erwin and Peter Hindle – the shows creators – have always had a vision for Hartford, part of that vision was a reality at one time. They have created a show that promotes Hartford while striving to return the NHL back. They believe Hartford will be a major league city again and they are far from alone.
The idea and makeup for the show was literally a start from the ground floor. All they had for assets were their Whalers memorabilia and an idea. They decided to start a public access show strictly for the purpose of uniting and reigniting the Whaler fan base. They both believe in the city and definitely believe in Connecticut as a viable NHL market.
Since 2011 just about every other week they have created a half hour show dedicated to the Whalers and any happenings in Hartford. So the fan base is there, some of the financial backing is there, but what about any political backing or financial support? On February 9, 2014 Governor Malloy was a guest on WFSB’s “Face the State” and said that he was “going to take a shot” at the NHL. He stated that a third ownership group is interested in bringing the NHL back to Hartford but he wouldn’t elaborate on it any further.
Unfortunately, since then there has been nothing acknowledged publicly either in support or against it happening.
If the people of Hartford want the NHL back, they have some serious competition. Here is a snapshot of what I feel are the three front runners before Hartford.
1) Seattle – With the rise of the Seahawks as Super Bowl Champions of the NFL, the fact that the Mariners were able to offer big bucks and outbid the Yankees for Robinson Cano and the long history of successful minor league franchises in Seattle makes them the leader at this point.
Politicians in the area are also trying to entice an NBA franchise to return there so if that happens, its possible an NHL franchise might not be too far behind. Add to the fact that the game’s greatest player – Wayne Gretzky – is in full support of a franchise coming to the Pacific North and I would say they are definitely the next up.
2) Portland – While lacking the glitz and glamour of having another professional sport franchise in the state, Portland is still a very attractive landing spot. Like its counterpart Seattle, Portland has a long & storied history of minor league hockey and can very easily sustain having an NHL franchise there. Portland while not a conventional hockey town has become a hockey a hockey crazed town and one that will do what it can to bring its first major sports franchise to the area.
3) Quebec City – Since losing the Nordiques to Colorado 20 years ago, rumors of a franchise coming back to the area have been a daily occurrence. That just wasn’t going to happen at the old Le Colisee. Now that a new arena is being built – it should be completed in 2015 – with the cost of the $400M arena being shared by the city & province of Quebec one of the major stumbling blocks for any franchise has been cleared. The arena will seat 18,500 which is perfect for hockey and with naming rights to be up for bid shortly after completion of the building, the recouping of some funds will start. There is definitely a huge enough fan base in the area.
One thing that might hurt Hartford and even Quebec’s chances of having the NHL return to their venues is that they are situated in the Northeast. The way the league is currently balanced; there are 16 teams in the East and 14 in the West so if or when the league expands that is something that would in all likelihood be taken into consideration as well.
After everything is taken into consideration, I would say at this moment in time it’s a long shot that the NHL returns to Hartford anytime soon. It saddens me to say this as I personally would love to see the Whale back in the NHL fold.
When you look at the landscape as currently constructed, Hartford is behind the eight ball. The other locations mentioned either have an arena in place, are in the process of building an arena or have renovation plans that have been ongoing long before Hartford got the ball rolling. Also add to the fact that there is also rumored consideration to add another franchise in the Toronto area to add another team in Canada.
All in all we might have to wait quite a while to hear “The Brass Bonanza” play again at another NHL game.