In loving memory of the Whalers (1979-1997)

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The XL Center, formermly the Civic Center, where the Wahlers once played (CBS Local Connecticut)

It’s almost as if they never left. Walking around UConn’s campus you can spot the iconic logo scattered on the occasional shirt or hat. The blue whale fin serving as a hat on a crisp green W, creating a purposefully accidental H in between remains one of the most appealing logos in sports history.

Yet this logo is one of the few pieces that remains of the Hartford Whalers, who abandoned Connecticut for North Carolina in 1997. Students may flash the retired logo, but the team itself has not existed in their lifetimes. Head over to NHL.com and you can purchase any kind of Whalers gear you could imagine, but this apparel is only a memory of a team long extinct.

Besides the logo one of the only other remaining elements that Whaler fans can cling onto from their favorite team is “Brass Bonanza,” which blasts after each UConn goal at the XL Center. The classic tune is symbolic of the Whalers as it used to be their goal song.

The closest thing you can get to professional sports in Hartford these days is the Hartford Yard Goats and the Hartford Wolf Pack. The Yard Goats, who are the Double AA affiliate of baseball’s Colorado Rockies, play at the brand new Dunkin Donuts Park. The Wolf Pack, the AHL affiliate of the New York Rangers, play at the XL Center, like the Whalers used to. The Hartford media market is now the largest in the United States without a Big 4 sports team.

The Whalers were beloved by their fans, who were some of the most passionate in the NHL. On March 27, 1997, it was announced that the Whalers would leave Hartford at the end of that season, leaving fans just a couple weeks before their team would vanish.

Although there had been rumors of the team leaving in years prior, learning that the end would come after just a few more games must have been devastating for the community. It’s like learning that a close member of the family has only weeks to live. It might make one question where everything went wrong. Sure, there were plenty of visible issues financially and in terms of success on the ice but why exactly did the Whalers, who had been grounded in Hartford since 1979, depart from New England?

People point to the small market and swarm of other teams in the area. The Boston Bruins reign as a dominant fixture of the region just an hour and 30 minutes north. And to the south, the New York Rangers are in control. To top it off, the New York Islanders steal some of the fans in the region as well. It can be hard to gain traction as an organization with so much competition in the way. There was a conception that the Whalers were stuck in no man’s land in Hartford, making it difficult to survive.

The Whalers’ owner at the time of relocation, Peter Karmanos, likened the area to the “Bermuda Triangle.” He noted this as a reason for the struggles of the organization, as attendance was extremely low in the 1990s. In 1996, he claimed that the team would relocate if they failed to sell at least 11,000 season tickets. As expected, they did not meet this mark, but luckily, Whalers fans fought to save their team.

Through the “Save the Whale” movement, they were able to get Karmanos to keep his club in Connecticut for at least one more year. But in 1997, the end finally came for Hartford’s hockey team. Karmanos continued to threaten to relocate unless the city provided the organization with an arena deal that satisfied them. Connecticut governor, John Rowland, offered a $147.5 million arena deal, but this was not sufficient for Karmanos. The owner refused the deal, as he did not want to pay additional rent on the site and tax on revenues.

When Karmanos originally bought the team in 1994 he said that he was set on keeping the Whalers in Connecticut for at least four years. But as a couple years passed and attendance was low, he realized there were more lucrative arena deals available in other cities. Because of this, it would have taken a miracle for the state to keep the Whalers from leaving.

Karmanos may have claimed that the team’s downfall resulted from geographical boundaries and lack of fan support. But the true reason the Whalers never soared in Hartford was that they never won much. They made the playoffs just eight times during their years in Hartford, and advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs only once. The Whalers were lousy most years, especially towards the end of their tenure, in the 1990s. They also traded away some of their best players, making it easy for fans to lose interest in the team. They relinquished superstars like Ron Francis and Chris Pronger, receiving few notable players in return.

The Whalers were actually above the league average in attendance in their final winning season in 1989-1990. After that, the attendance plummeted as they never had a season above .500 again.

The idea that Hartford’s location between the major cities of Boston and New York is also faulty, as this allowed them to create their own identity. Stuck smack in the middle of the two cities, the Hartford area did not really belong to either. People could root for the Boston and New York teams, but there was surely something special about having a team right in their backyard. The Whalers were their team. The Whalers had their own unique identity that Connecticut fans could fall in love with.

If the Whalers could have consistently put a winning team on the ice, they had the brand and and fanbase to be successful. Whether that’s just nostalgic hope or the truth is questionable. But one thing’s for sure, they were never really given the opportunity to fully flourish in their time in Hartford.

The Carolina Hurricanes went on to win A Stanley Cup in 2006, but ironically have struggled with attendance in recent years in Raleigh. In 2017-2018, they ranked 29th in the NHL in average attendance. Although the Hurricanes have complete control over their territory, they still lack in attendance numbers.

At the time of relocation, Karmanos was considering Minneapolis, Columbus, Las Vegas, and Nashville, which are all cities that now house NHL franchises. Each of these clubs had better attendance numbers than the Hurricanes last year. To be fair, all of these teams were playoff teams in 2017-18 while Carolina was not. Nonetheless, even when Carolina won the Stanley Cup in 2006, they still ranked in the bottom third of the league in attendance.

We can only wonder what might have happened to the Whalers if they remained in Hartford the past twenty plus years. For one thing, they probably would have a new arena in downtown Hartford. But would they have ever captured the Stanley Cup?

The hope to bring the Whalers back lives on, as when there are talks of expansion or relocation, Hartford usually comes up in the conversation. Most recently there was consideration of moving the Islanders to Hartford when they were struggling to find an arena deal. Those rumors dissipated when they reached an agreement, but hope remains that the Whalers can one day be reborn.


Dylan Barrett is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.  He can be reached via email at dylan.barrett@uconn.edu.

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