In Hartford, Whalers are gone but fan support lives on
HARTFORD — Their annual commiseration will be Sunday afternoon, here in a downtown restaurant, and there is no telling how many will attend. The proud members of the Hartford Whalers Booster Club will gather around a table or two at the Black Bear Saloon on Allyn Street and reminisce over the team they still love, the one that played its final NHL game at the Civic Center on April 13, 1997, and then made tracks south for Raleigh, N.C.
At some point during their annual Whaler Fanniversary, with nearly two decades of Sundays gone by, they’ll once more play a tape of that last game. They’ll chitchat about their beloved Hartford players and conjure up their favorite moments in Whaler history.
They’ll come lugging memories, old ticket stubs, scrapbooks, and autographed sweaters, the collective sporting goods and spoils of their lingering, inextinguishable Whaler love affair.
“I wore a black armband to the last game that day,’’ recalled Joanne Cortesa, current president of the Booster Club, who was a Whalers season ticket-holder throughout the team’s NHL days. “They were leaving . . . and it was like someone had died. It was heartbreaking to see it.’’
As the 2013-14 NHL regular season comes to a close Sunday, there is no sign that Hartford — roughly the halfway point between longstanding NHL outposts Boston and New York — will woo back the NHL. Smart money has Seattle and possibly Las Vegas at the top of the expansion list. Quebec City, where a dazzling new rink is under construction, is considered likeliest to receive a transferred franchise. Quebec for 16 seasons was home to the NHL’s Nordiques, who moved to Denver in the summer of 1995.
“I wait for the day that I get a call, someone telling me, ‘Hey, Hartford and the NHL, it’s hot again!’ ’’ said Hartford Courant sports columnist Jeff Jacobs, who covered the Whalers for nearly a decade before they moved 625 miles southwest. “But I don’t get that feeling.
“If there are 3-4 cities on the back burner, my impression is that Hartford’s maybe 5-6, at the cusp of the back burner. Some tire kickers, maybe, but that’s about it.’’
Ever-hopeful, however, Al Victor believes anything is possible. The former Whalers Booster Club president and now treasurer (wife Diane is secretary) remains in regular contact with the other 40-50 Booster members, constantly swapping NHL expansion rumors and turning over the delicate tea leaves of hearsay and speculation. There is no tangible evidence that the NHL will reopen for business in Hartford, but that doesn’t stop Victor, 68, from dreaming.
“I ardently believe they’re coming back, and it could be as early as next year,’’ Victor recently told a reporter who visited his home in New Britain, some 10 miles southwest of the Civic Center. “My bet’s the Islanders. If you look at everything, it really makes the most sense.
“They’re leaving Long Island, and I know the deal is that they’re going to Brooklyn. But someone could get in there now, just pay whatever it takes to break that Brooklyn deal, and bring that team to Hartford.’’
A few Booster Club members, noted Victor, have gone so far as to place $100 deposits at a local bank for season tickets — for a team that doesn’t exist. Some of that money, he said, has been in the bank since 2006.
“Our hope,’’ he said, “is to hand the new owner the deposits and then pick out our seats.’’
Merchandise for sale
If only it were so simple. But then, such is the view of any jilted fan base that one day backs its team with heart and soul and the next day is left waving goodbye with empty hands. The parting never seems complicated, only abrupt and painful and typically wrought with anger and lingering sorrow.
Brooklynites know that score. They saw their beloved Dodgers pack up for Los Angeles in September 1957, club owner Walter O’Malley wooed by the swaying palms and abundant riches of Chavez Ravine.
Quite similar to the Brooklyn Dodgers, whose brand name has remained wildly popular for years and marketed via ball caps and T-shirts, there remains robust interest in Whaler paraphernalia. The Lids store at the Shoppes at Buckland Hills, a sprawling mall in Manchester, east of Hartford, keeps a gondola in the center of its shop stocked with more than a dozen versions of Whaler caps, at prices upward of $30.
“It makes me laugh,’’ said a Lids clerk. “The Whalers aren’t around anymore, but they are still popular. Kind of crazy.’’
So popular, in fact, that the Connecticut State Lottery last November rolled out a $3 Whaler scratch ticket with a top prize of $30,000. Whalers tickets haven’t been sold at the Civic Center for 17 years, but $3 and maybe a penny more to scratch the card might win a fan enough cash to buy a half-dozen season tickets in Raleigh.
“We sell a few now and then,’’ said a cashier at a convenience mart in New Britain, handing over a Whaler scratch ticket to a $3 customer. “But they’re not as hot as when they first came out.’’
K&M All Star Sports, a shop at the Crystal Mall in Waterford, near New London, trades in a steady stream of Whaler collectibles and clothes, said owner Sam Romanella.
“Whaler jerseys, hats, T-shirts, pucks . . . I mean, we sell more of that now than when the team was in Hartford,” said Romanella, who opened his shop in 1990. “It’s ridiculous. And a lot of it is young kids who never saw the Whalers play. They weren’t even born.
“I’m 51 years old, and what this says to me is that everyone wants to live in the ’80s. It’s a retro thing. Everywhere you look, hey, what does everyone want to copy? It’s the ’80s.’’
The store’s No. 1 bestseller, said Romanella, is a retro Whalers sweater (“It looks like it’s been worn a million times’’) made by Reebok. Retail price: $64.99.
“People love them things,’’ said Romanella. “I mean, hey, I love it. Who better than us to keep an NHL team alive that doesn’t even exist anymore?’’
According to Brian Jennings, the NHL’s chief marketing officer, Whaler-related items continue to be in high demand as part of the league’s Vintage Program.
“Avid fans know the history of the franchise and new fans enjoy the look and classic logo,’’ said Jennings.
Howard Baldwin, who originally brought the Whalers to Hartford as a World Hockey Association franchise 40 years ago, failed in a recent attempt to stoke interest in bringing the NHL back to the city. He gained control of the local American Hockey League franchise, rebranded it as the Connecticut Whale, and hoped that would be his platform to rebuild the NHL community. More important, he hoped to build interest among city and state officials as well as deep-pocketed investors.
“Not to sound cornball about it,’’ said Baldwin, 71, reached by phone at his office in Los Angeles, “but what it takes above all is leadership and desire.
“I still believe Hartford has as good a chance as anybody, if people get behind it. I saw it happen when we brought the team there in WHA days. It can be done.
“But this time, you had Howard, but you didn’t have all the other elements — corporate, city, state — all united for the greater good. This time, you had Howard and a couple of business leaders, period.’’
According to the Courant, Baldwin left behind a trail of debt amounting to some $2.7 million, roughly one-third of that in bank loans. Baldwin says that amount is exaggerated and that he continues to whittle away at his venture’s bills. Meanwhile, his attention these days is spent running Baldwin Entertainment, his movie company that has turned out hits such as “Ray’’ and “Mystery, Alaska.’’
“Some success stories, and some clunkers,’’ he said, noting a portfolio that includes upward of 30 films. “You know, that’s the movie business.’’
When Baldwin landed the Whalers in Hartford, they were upstart castaways, having begun life in the WHA as the New England Whalers. They initially split their home games at the old Boston Garden and the even older Boston Arena (now Matthews Arena, owned and operated by Northeastern University).
Hartford was welcoming, embracing to the point that the local large insurance companies offered employees the opportunity to purchase discounted Whalers tickets via payroll deduction. Some season ticket-holders paid for their tickets year-round and interest began to build in earnest when the Whalers were merged into the NHL in 1979 along with WHA brothers Quebec, Winnipeg, and Edmonton.
The legendary Gordie Howe, who joined the club for its final two WHA seasons, played his last full pro season with the NHL Whalers in 1979-80, then retired at age 52.
“Emile Francis said it best — we were like the Green Bay Packers of the NHL,’’ recalled Baldwin, the comparison being drawn to another small-market franchise beloved by its community. “Our experience there was incredibly rewarding. I’d love for that to happen for Hartford and all Connecticut again, but I don’t see leaving LA at this stage of my life. As far as running a team, or being involved the way it would mean, on a day-to-day basis, I’m not the right guy.’’
The Civic Center, now branded the XL Center, is the home these days of the Hartford Wolf Pack, AHL affiliate of the New York Rangers. When the NHL Whalers played there, the facility was commonly referred to as “The Mall,’’ the arena itself the centerpiece of a retail development that included an array of shops and restaurants. A bustling Wendy’s was a common meeting place.
“I loved Wendy’s!’’ recalled Cortesa, who lives in Hartford. “I miss all of those places. There was so much life and energy there.’’
Nowadays, there is no trace of the businesses that filled The Mall and little vibe in the surrounding area, especially on days when there are no events booked in the arena. In fact, the Booster Club’s Fanniversary was originally scheduled for a restaurant closer to the arena, but they had to shift to the Black Bear Saloon, said Victor, because the other restaurant opted not to open with nothing happening at the arena.
“That’s the way it is around there,’’ said Victor. “If you don’t have a Wolf Pack game or a concert, it’s dead.’’
The arena itself holds only traces of its Whaler heritage. A half-dozen retired numbers hang in the rafters, remembering Rick Ley (2), Gordie Howe (9), Ulf Samuelsson (5), Ron Francis (10), Kevin Dineen (11), and Johnny “Pie” McKenzie (19).
“Why McKenzie, I don’t know,’’ mused Victor, noting the winger’s better-known days with the Bruins. “I never considered him a Whaler, but . . . ’’
Inside the arena’s main entrance, across from the box office, a large spread of photos commemorates “Hartford Hockey,’’ with one panel showing ex-Bruin Ted Green celebrating after the Whalers won the Avco Cup as WHA champions. There are also large pictures of ex-Whalers Larry Pleau, Ray Ferraro, Francis, Dineen, and others. Another shot taken from above center ice captures the opening faceoff on April 13, 1997, the last game. “Thanks for the memories,” was painted into the ice at one edge of the circle.
Across the lobby, a collection of eight wooden plaques adorns the wall, hung there with no title or banner to tell visitors what they represent. The plaques include brass relief likenesses of Baldwin, Dave Keon, Ley, Howe, Courant reporter Frank Keyes, Whalers owner Bob Schmertz, former Connecticut Governor Ella Grasso, and coach Jack Kelley. The brass is tarnished. If one could get close, it would be possible to read the plaques’ inscriptions, but cattle-grate-like fencing prevents access.
According to Baldwin, the plaques represent the Whalers Hall of Fame and once hung inside the arena. In his 2½ years back in Hartford, Baldwin hoped to add more names and plaques, all part of his intent to reinvigorate the franchise.
“Too bad,’’ said Baldwin, informed of the plaques’ lack of presence. “It’s almost like an afterthought.’’
Pride on parade
Yet the Whalers live on, with the likes of Victor, Cortesa, and friends keeping the Booster Club alive. A bunch of them marched last month in the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. A college student from Springfield, Seth Dussault, dressed up as the defunct team’s official mascot, Pucky the Whale, and delighted kids along the downtown parade route.
Instead of a float, Cortesa entered the parade with her 2009 Subaru Forester, with the Victors aboard.
“We had 20 of us marching, actually,’’ said Cortesa. “My car’s blue, so we added some green and white streamers. It looked great. When the kids saw Pucky, they went ballistic! We played ‘Brass Bonanza’ with the sun roof wide open and had a Whaler flag dangling out the window.’’
“Brass Bonanza,” also known as the “Whalers’ Victory March,” early on became the team’s theme song, and 13 years after the Whalers departed, Jacobs, the Courant columnist, tracked down Jack Say, the piece’s composer.
“I found him in Belgium,’’ recalled Jacobs, noting that social media was key to his sleuthing. “In fact, I’m still Facebook friends with him. Here’s the thing, he wrote the piece as ‘Evening Beat.’ And he’s not Jack Say, either. His real name is Jacques Ysaye. He’s a classical musician, in his 90s, and he lives in Belgium.’’
The song lives on, along with the caps, the sweat shirts, the scratch tickets, the Fanniversary, the memories. The Booster Club has dwindled, noted Cortesa, but it also picks up new members now and then. Kevin Klimas, 38, joined just a couple of years ago, in part because he wants his son, Kyle, 8, one day to see NHL hockey back in Hartford.
“I was only 4 years old when I started watching them, and they were gone when I was 21,’’ said Klimas, who lives in Newington. “A whole bunch of us became misplaced fans of the NHL.
“We saw the best come through here — Howe, [Mark] Messier, [Wayne] Gretzky, [Mario] Lemieux, and on and on — and the way youth hockey has grown in this state, I know NHL hockey could be supported again. Until you grow up with a team and have it yanked out from under you, you’ll never understand.’’
Chuck Kaiton, the radio voice of the Whalers from their first day in the NHL, moved to Raleigh to continue his broadcast career with the club. In some 35 years, he has missed only one Whalers/Hurricanes game, taking a day off to attend his father’s funeral.
To this day, Kaiton continues to hear from fans in Hartford, some of whom write to him by e-mail when he airs his “Kaiton’s Corner’’ segment during Hurricanes broadcasts. The Whalers have been out of Hartford nearly as long as they played there as an NHL entity but, Kaiton says, he can still sense the fans’ passion.
“And I know there’s a pocket of Whaler fans who still follow the ’Canes,’’ he said. “There’s still a certain amount of people who have great memories of the team when it was there, no doubt.
“They’re still loyal, as I think you’d find in Quebec, maybe even Atlanta. It’s an interesting dynamic, isn’t it? It’s great that people follow their passion. It goes to show that you can’t take loyalty out of some people, nor should you.’’
Jerry Erwin is the among the loyalists. Erwin and Peter Hindle cohost a 30-minute cable access show devoted to the Whalers that airs year-round in eight towns (Farmington, Burlington, Canton, Avon, Simsbury, Berlin, New Britain, and Bristol). Their episodes of “Whaler Talk’’ and “Whaler Nation’’ also appear online at nutmeg.org.
“One of the things we always say on the show is that, yeah, they left town, but that was never the fans’ fault,’’ said Erwin. “The fans here showed up. They loved the Whalers.’’
Erwin is among the rare few Whaler fans who care not to demonize Peter Karmanos, the club owner who took the club south.
“I get it from a business standpoint, or from a financial basis, he did what he felt he had to do,’’ said Erwin. “But you know, it still hurts like hell.’’
There is no cover charge Sunday at the Black Bear Saloon for the 17th Whalers Fanniversary. There is also no agenda. The day is meant only for friends of a not-forgotten franchise to gather once more, maybe enjoy a beer or a burger, reconnect over old games, autographs, memories.
Cortesa, 55, said she’ll brace herself for the annual showing of the final game.
“I can’t watch it without crying,’’ she said. “Really, 17 years later and I still cry. We all do. The team’s gone, but our hearts are still there. We bleed green.’’