Sports

A Requiem For My Team, The Hartford Whalers

It's been more than 17 years since the Hartford Whalers took the ice, but that doesn't mean the team's fans have forgotten their bond.

by Aaron Gordon
Nov 5 2014, 1:50pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

On a cool, bright spring day in April of 1997, Matthew Olsen and his wife Jennifer left their newborn son for the first time. With the boy in his grandmother's hands, the couple donned their Whalers paraphernalia-Matthew picked his newer blue Whalers road jersey over his classic white home sweater, a decision that he regrets to this day-and took the 30 minute trip from Middletown, Connecticut to Hartford.

On the drive, Matthew thought about his years following the Whalers. As a child in Guilford, he proclaimed his love for the team the day they were accepted into the NHL from the WHA. He scraped every cent he could from a $5.65 per hour job as a short order cook in his MIT dorm so he could go to as many games as possible. He thought about the time in 1992 he and his college friend impulsively grabbed all the cash they had and, at 3 AM, got in Matthew's Ford Probe and drove to Ottawa for the Whalers game. He remembered the border patrol agent asking them, "Are you really driving four hundred miles each way to see the two worst teams in the NHL?" He remembers answering without a hint of shame, because he was a Whalers fan and so he had become immune to that particular emotion, and then being waved into Canada, as some unwavering love for hockey was the only entry requirement.

He thought about the dust-ups at the old Boston Garden when Bruins fans didn't take kindly to his classic Whalers sweater. He thought about how he would never be able to watch the Whalers with his son, a bond he always imagined they'd share. He thought about all this as he and his wife rode silently to the Hartford Civic Center one last time.

Scott Tomford's family had two tickets to the final game. As the first-born child a day shy of his tenth birthday, he naturally staked his claim to one of them. Scott and his mother set out in the late morning, talking about literally anything other than what they were about to witness. Scott's parents didn't know how to explain why this game was special, so they didn't try.

Andy Alleman was also nearing his tenth birthday, but his parents took a different approach on the car ride to Hartford. They wanted him to understand that this was the last time he would see the Hartford Whalers, that the Whalers were leaving and not coming back. He tried to wrap his head around it, but it just didn't make sense.

Steve Twarosch, then a 20-year-old college student, had just signed up for his first credit card. During the Whalers' press conference announcing the move, he picked up the phone and called the box office. He bought three tickets way up in the rafters.

My family loaded into the car for the hour's drive from Trumbull to Hartford. I was seven years old at the time. My older brother, at 10, was almost at the age where he could stay up late enough to attend midweek games. When I found articles mentioning "local business leaders" trying to save the Whalers, my dad was among them. I had been one of the many children on TV holding hand-written "Save Our Whalers" signs. According to my dad, I believed that if I held up the sign and cheered loudly enough, the Whalers would stay.

I don't remember much of anything about the game. Seventeen years later, with the tickets framed above my bed and original Whalers gear stashed throughout my house, I'm trying to figure out why something I can barely remember matters so much.

Photo by Denis Brodeur via Getty

Three weeks earlier, Tom Monahan of Hartford's NBC affiliate reported on the six o'clock news-because this was how news was broken in 1997-that, according to "sources" inside the state legislature, the Whalers would be moving.

The mid-90s saw a major shift in NHL geography. The beloved but financially struggling Minnesota North Stars, Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets had already moved to Dallas, Denver, and Phoenix, respectively. If two Canadian cities and hockey-obsessed Minnesota could lose their teams due to financial conditions, it seemed only a matter of time until Hartford lost the Whalers.

When Peter Karmanos, a tech mogul from Detroit, purchased the team in 1994, most fans were in denial. Maybe he would give the team the financial stability it always needed to thrive in such a small market. Maybe he would try to work with the local government. Maybe, as a longtime hockey fan, he wouldn't immediately cast his eyes southward.

Karmanos wanted somebody else to pay for most, if not all, of a new arena in downtown Hartford. Governor John Rowland balked. Both were accused of negotiating in bad faith. Their names became epithets in Whaler households.

To be fair to Karmanos, the Whalers had one of the most unusual arenas in North America: the Hartford Civic Center was often called "The Mall" because, well, it was one, with a 15,000 capacity arena in the middle. My most vivid memory of attending Whalers games was first stopping at the candy store in the mall and getting a healthy portion of chocolate raisins to split with my dad. In many ways, The Mall was an apt metaphor for the Whalers general existence: not a natural fit but nevertheless establishing its own quirky niche.

"For the diehards that were there, it was a real love affair," recalled Steve Levy, SportsCenter anchor and former NHL broadcaster. "That team wasn't very good very often. They dealt with a lot of losing and still supported the team."

In retrospect, it's incredible a team lasted as long in Hartford as the Whalers did. When the team joined the NHL in 1979, Hartford was known as the Insurance Capital of the World because, well, a lot of insurance companies were there. (I'd go into detail about this, but then we'd be talking about insurance.) From 1959 to 1989, median family income (adjusted for inflation) in each county in Connecticut doubled. Also, you may not know this about Connecticut, but there are a lot of white people there-90 percent of the state's population in 1980-and hockey is, largely speaking, a sport white people enjoy, with 94 percent of the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals audience being white. As a northern state seeking an identity, hockey was a natural fit.

Photo by Al Bello via Getty

But no matter how white or affluent the population, the Whalers' market was always geographically restricted to the small section of New England that fell outside of the New York and Boston halos. Since the Whalers were the city's only professional team, most locals already had Boston or New York loyalties in other sports. Many of the affluent fans in Fairfield County, the wealthy New York suburb, were Rangers loyalists, and the further up I-95 and I-91 you went, the more likely you were to hit Bruins territory.

Being a fan was also a lifelong commitment to losing. The team won only one playoff series in its NHL existence-defeating the Quebec Nordiques in 1986-while its nearest rivals experienced varying, but always greater, degrees of success (the Islanders were a powerhouse in the 1980s, the Rangers won the Cup in 1994, the Devils won it in 1995, and the Bruins made the finals in 1988 and 1990). "The Whalers were sort of the fourth or fifth team in the area, the kid brother," Levy told me.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates this more than the team's unofficial theme song, "Brass Bonanza," an upbeat jazzy tune more appropriate for a cheesy used car commercial than a pro sports anthem. Then again, Hartford was kind of a silly place for a professional hockey team in the first place.

"As much as some guys didn't like the song and other teams thought it was corny and goofy, it was part of [the Whalers]," six-year Whaler veteran Andrew Cassels recounted. "A lot of guys would always be like, 'Man we gotta change this song.' It was mostly new guys. The old guys, everybody who had been there for a while, I think you were just so used to it." It was the type of song that made you hate yourself for loving it so much.

Unlike most other small city teams, rooting for the Whalers was a choice. In Connecticut, anyone could get away with being a Rangers or Bruins fan. But it also wasn't a choice, because only a certain type of person would voluntarily become a Whalers fan. To choose the Whalers was to choose an unpopular, under-funded, unsuccessful, small-city team with a cheesy theme song. It was pure hockey hipsterism before hipsterism was something to aspire to, which means being a Whalers fan wasn't a choice at all, it was just the kind of person you were.

The night of Monahan's report, the Whalers played at home against the Colorado Avalanche-the former Quebec Nordiques-and lost 4-0 to culminate a six game losing streak. On the outside of the playoff race, the Whalers put together a 4-1-1 record over their next six games to give fans hope for a magical sendoff. The team went as far as distributing first-round playoff tickets to season ticket holders. But, the Whalers being the Whalers, they collapsed down the stretch. Disappointing losses in their third and second-to-last games against the hapless Islanders and playoff-bound Senators officially eliminated the team from playoff contention.

The last game in Whalers history would be on April 13, 1997 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Levy decided to attend the game not as a reporter or fan, but as an observer. "I like the human emotion. I like moments like this. It was the reason I got into the sports business. I knew it was going to be a significant sports moment."

Photo by Rick Stewart via Getty

The puck was set to drop at 1 PM, so John Forslund, the Whalers play-by-play man, made sure to set out for the arena early. As he drove south on I-91 towards Hartford, he saw a dark cloud hanging over the diminutive city skyline, the kind of storm cloud a small child would draw over a sad person. Forslund knows how fantastical this sounds, but he swears it's true. Still, the cloud would give way to an otherwise beautiful spring New England day.

Andy Chapo and his buddy Rob walked across the oldest park in America, Bushnell Park, towards the Civic Center. Chapo felt the breeze run through the holes in his mangled but lucky 16-year-old long-sleeve tee shirt. He wore that same shirt to perhaps the team's greatest performance, an 11-0 win against the Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers in 1984. The shirt had bared the brunt of years of Whalers fandom, with Chapo's elbows protruding through the gaping holes. If there ever was time for a lucky shirt, this was it.

Chapo always arrived in time for the final warm-up skate so he knew who was playing that day, but for the final game, he arrived much earlier so he could soak in every second. The silence of the car ride over gave way to boisterousness. More than an hour before game time, the chant of "Let's Go Whalers" reverberated through the streets of downtown Hartford. Some fans refused to break the chant as their tickets were ripped entering the arena and as they filed into their seats during warm-ups. One of the first things Chapo noticed were the words "THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES" printed on the ice above the center circle.

It seemed like everyone had a sign demonstrating the various stages of their grief. There was denial ("Only Losers Quit. Keep Fighting To Save Our Whalers. Never Give Up!"), anger ("Fuck You, Karmanos"), bargaining ("Please Don't Go! We Need You Here!"), depression ("WHY?"; "We'll Miss You!"), and acceptance ("Thank You"; "You're The Best"; "Good Luck!"). Some signs were cartoonishly despairing, like the drawing of a whale with a slight frown, wearing a boating hat with a packed suitcase and a single tear streaming down its face with the caption "WE'LL MISS OUR WHALERS". When the players came out for warm-ups and saw all the fans already in the stands holding their signs, they realized what this game really meant.

Like always, the game began with a rousing rendition of "Brass Bonanza" as the Whalers skated onto the ice. Twarosch, the college student who had put the tickets on his new credit card, swears they played it even louder than normal that day. This may or may not be true, but they played it far more frequently than usual, seemingly at every moment in which it wouldn't violate NHL rules to do so.

Once the puck dropped, the focus returned to the ice. After all, the people came to watch a hockey game. Only a few minutes in, with the "Let's Go Whalers" chant still echoing, Robert Kron left a drop-pass for Glen Wesley at the point. Wesley one-timed it into back of the net. The goal gave the Whalers a 1-0 lead, sending the fans to their feet. "The atmosphere was as jubilant as it could be possibly be," Tomford, the soon-to-be-10-year-old recalled. "It was loud as hell."

Photo by Rick Stewart via Getty

I admit: after all I had heard from my parents and other fans about the game, I expected more when I rewatched it. I expected constant chants, ceaseless crying, and wails of lament reverberating through The Mall like a haunted house on Halloween. But, if someone showed you the game on YouTube without any context, you'd be excused for mistaking this particular game for any other. The players were lackadaisical, playing out the meaningless game in a perfunctory fashion. After the Wesley goal, the crowd settled too. If the whole day was a funeral, the first two periods were the muted memorial service.

It was almost as if it took the start of the third period to make the fans realize this was real. As the players came onto the ice in the Whalers uniform one last time, the fans all got on their feet and clapped along to "Brass Bonanza" again. Before everyone had the chance to sit down, the Whalers began an offensive zone cycle. From his perch high in the upper deck, Twarosch watched the play develop, one of the great pleasures of watching hockey in person. Geoff Sanderson, arguably the team's most talented player, shuffled the puck from the corner to the veteran Andrew Cassels, who was in his station below the goal. Cassels sent a backhanded, no-look centering pass to the tape of Whalers captain and fan favorite Kevin Dineen's stick right in the slot. The man who everyone, including his teammates, wanted to score the final Whalers goal had the puck with a clear line of sight.

Mere minutes away from losing something that brought them untold joy for decades, we were looking for something, anything, to cling to. Dineen put the puck in the net. Mike Orvis, a season-ticket holder in attendance that day, did the best job of summarizing the importance of the Dineen goal to Whalers fans: "For that one moment," he wrote to me, "I forgot they were leaving."

Although the Lightning would quickly get one back, the Whalers played solid defense. The minutes ticked down, the fans rose to their feet. As the clock on the Whalers franchise dwindled-five, four, three, two minutes remaining-fans realized that there would never be enough time to memorize every detail, preserve them in the pristine fashion they deserved. The image of Sean Burke towering in goal. Geoff Sanderson's blistering speed down the wing. Kevin Dineen's stoicism. Stu Grimson's fists colliding with the hapless faces of opponents. The chill of the Civic Center's recycled air. The old, pixelated jumbotron. The nauseating aroma of Bud Ice. Everyone tried to enjoy the last few minutes of Whalers hockey, but the knowledge that these were the last few minutes made them impossible to enjoy.

The final horn sounded and "Brass Bonanza" blared once more, because there can never be enough "Brass Bonanza." The Whalers held on for the win, 2-1, although the final score is little more than a sentimental footnote. The wake had now begun.

Fans were free to leave and the players could have skated off into the locker room. The tipping point for most fans, crying-wise, came when the players left their post-game hug and looked up to the rafters, raising their sticks to the crowd. The fans applauded the players. The players applauded the fans. This reciprocation of gratitude was, more than anything else, what the fans came for that day, so it makes sense this was what drove so many to tears.

After the three stars of the game were announced-Dineen the first star, of course-a microphone appeared and he gave a short speech. "I knew so many people in the building because you would see the same families game after game," Dineen told me via email. "I didn't have anything planned and I don't remember how long I spoke for. But I do remember it was those people, the fans, that I had in mind during it."

He thanked the fans for supporting local charities affiliated with the team and hoped they would continue to show that generosity after the Whalers were gone. He then thanked the fans for their support over the years as well. Some fans remember seeing him cry. As best I can tell, he didn't. But it's not so much the words he said that mattered to Whalers fans, but the fact that he said anything at all.

This was the first time I saw my mother cry. I remember thinking that her mouth made a weird shape when she did. I don't know if the crying was contagious like laughter or if we were all doing it of our own accord, but it was the only time in family history we were all in tears together.

Twenty minutes after the players left the ice, most of the fans hadn't moved. "I just remember they didn't want to leave," Steve Levy recalled. "They were soaking it all in, wanting to absorb every moment. I think people were really trying to take pictures with their eyes, with their minds, trying to make sure these were going to be unforgettable moments."

Gregg Wisniewski stood with his brother and sister-in-law, paralyzed with disbelief. When the last Whaler left the ice, he knew it was real and the three of them lost it.

Tomford hoped the Whalers wouldn't leave as long as he stayed in his seat. The players, having already left the ice once, came back once again, reinforcing his belief that they couldn't really go. The players did another skate-around to a mostly-full Civic Center, signing autographs and tossing a few more items into the stands. With the broadcast still live, Forslund said to the fans watching at home:

"This is a human moment. A moment in sports you don't hear and talk about very much. You talk about salaries. You talk about work stoppages. You talk about owners relocating teams. You talk about politicians not getting the job done. You talk about players who maybe don't care about the city or town that they play in. But these guys do. And the fans care. And that's why this moment is so special."

With their jerseys off, skating around the rink a half hour after the Whalers stopped existing, the players no longer represented anything.

When they returned to the locker room, they remained mostly silent. Cassels remembers sitting there, thinking about the game, the years, his time in Hartford, and all the people he would be leaving behind. Few players develop genuine connections to the cities in which they play, since they're always a day away from being traded. Cassels was an exception. He had friends in Hartford, raised his kids there. Sean Burke, too. And Dineen. Cassels would move with the team to Raleigh, spend one night in his house there, and then get traded to Calgary.

Nobody really knows when the last fan left. Some say it was hours later. As Levy stood in the concourse, he watched people file out. He saw adults comforting children and small children consoling adults. As the Allemans walked out, father and son equally devastated, they took the shortest meandering steps of their lives. Parents and kids sad together at the end.

When he was ready, Olsen turned to his wife Jennifer and simply said, "It's time to go," so they did, which I'd like to imagine is more or less how every fan departed The Mall that day. They shook hands with the fans around them, some they knew and most they didn't, but all forever family. The car ride back was as silent as the drive in, but Jennifer held Matthew's hand the whole way home.

******

In Bradley International Airport outside of Hartford, next to the neck pillows and Stephen King novels, you'll find stands full of Whalers gear, the kind of apparel you could never find in the airport when the Whalers existed. Whalers gear sells very well; although exact figures are tough to come by, the Whalers are prominently featured on the NHL Vintage home page. There are rumors the team is perennially in the top five team sales, including existing teams such as the Carolina Hurricanes, who, by the way, won the Stanley Cup in 2006.

Some people I spoke to, former players and fans alike, suspect the apparel boom has something to do with the children of the 1980s and 90s becoming income-earning adults. There may be some truth to this, as the Whalers have undeniable "Oh, yeah, I remember them!" appeal for even the most casual hockey fans. Another aspect is the draw of the logo itself, widely regarded as one of the best in American sports history.

Most of the fans at the final game needed some time to recover. Scott Tomford has the puck his mom caught at the final game sitting in his office. He also has a Whalers tattoo on the underside of his forearm, which he says gets him compliments all the time.

Matthew Olsen's sons (he would have another five years later) both grew up to be Bruins fans. He didn't think it made a lot of sense to try and convince them to root for a team that no longer existed, so the Whalers are his own private love. He cheers for the Bruins, too, so that they can root as a family, but he does so with a fraction of the energy he had for the Whalers. He doesn't think the Whalers will ever come back, but if they ever do, he says to put him down for two season tickets 15 rows off the glass for the rest of his life.

Andy Alleman, after licking his wounds for a few years, took his only option and became a Bruins fan. He knows how it sounds, but his parents didn't get the MSG channels, the ones that carry the Islanders, Devils, and Rangers. He said he probably would have picked one of the New York teams, since he's a Mets and Jets fan, but the only team he could consistently watch was the Bruins. "That's Connecticut for you," he says.

My family gave up on hockey for a while. I dabbled in Rangers and Devils fandom, but neither stuck. When I moved to D.C., I tried to love the Capitals, but that didn't work either. Finally, after years of self-deception, I realized that, even though they hadn't played a game in 17 years, I'm a Whalers fan.

I hung the tickets from the final game on my wall. Every once in a while, seeing them triggers a memory. My mom shouting at two fighting players-I'm fairly certain they were the mulleted Andrew Cassels and Jaromir Jagr-to pull each other's hair. Curtis Leschyshyn's game-winning goal against the Buffalo Sabres with 4.6 seconds left that catapulted me out of my reddish-orange Civic Center seat. And, of course, sharing the chocolate-covered raisins from the mall candy store with my dad. In my mind, they're the best candy I've ever had, but they may have just been Raisinets.