Loyal NHL fans in Hartford haven’t forgotten Whalers
The Whalers abandoned Hartford so long ago, a little more than 22 years to be exact, that it’s hard for even their most loyal rooters to find comfort in their old franchise, now doing business as the Hurricanes, playing the Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals.
Yet this long in their wake, there remains a Whalers Booster Club, now 153 members strong, keeping alive the memories of Ulf Samuelsson, Sylvain Turgeon, Greg Millen, and others still considered fan favorites.
Al Victor, one of the booster club’s ex-presidents, this past week commiserated over the phone with current president Joanne Cortesa, each of them unable to summon up much in the way of feelgoods for the franchise that then-owner Peter Karmanos abruptly packed up and hauled out of town.
“You know I’ve never liked the Bruins,” said Victor, formerly of New Britain, Conn., and living these days in Las Vegas, where he is thrilled to be a Golden Knights season ticket-holder. “I think Joanne put it exactly right — if only they could both find a way to lose this series. That would be perfect.”
Such is the hell of a hockey fan scorned. Could it have been different in Hartford? Maybe. Had the Forever .500s banged out the Civic Center every night, bought up the luxury suites, and ultimately forced the city and/or state to build one of the sport’s new megarinks, perhaps Karmanos wouldn’t have been enticed by the allure of Sunbelt hockey. None of that happened, in part because the Whalers, though an endearing and oft-plucky bunch, couldn’t shake their win-one-lose-one-never-win-the-big-one DNA.
“There was enough blame to go around for the team leaving,” noted a realistic Victor. “The fans, too. I mean, you have a playoff series against Montreal and can’t fill the building? I’m sorry. We let the team down.”
As Karmanos found out, the grass wasn’t necessarily greener, or money streams deeper, in North Carolina, despite the Hurricanes winning the franchise’s first (and still only) Stanley Cup there in 2006.
“I’m annoyed they left and where they are now,” said Cortesa, a lifelong Hartford resident and the booster club’s president the last four years. “I’m annoyed where they won the Cup for the first time — that first Cup really belonged in Hartford. That was our Cup. That wasn’t Carolina’s Cup. That was our team. A lot of our players were still on the team at the time . . . so it should have been in Hartford.”
Not so today, of course. The last true connection to the Whaler past ended last spring when longtime Whalers favorite Ron Francis was fired from the front office. He took over general manager duties in 2014, became director of operations soon after Tom Dundon plunked down $420 million as the new majority owner, and then was terminated from that role at the end of last April.
Other than John Forslund in the TV broadcast booth and a couple of dedicated guys on the equipment staff, Skip Cunningham and Bob Gorman, Elvis has left the franchise. Popular radio broadcaster Chuck Kaiton departed after last season. A Hockey Hall of Fame honoree, the hard-working Kaiton opted not to accept ownership’s low-ball offer after decades of devoted service at the microphone.
Little wonder that the proud members of the Whalers Booster Club find it hard to connect with, say, even current Hurricanes star Sebastian Aho, who was born three months after the Whalers played what turned out to be their final game at the Civic Center.
“I know there’s a lot of buzz around the team now that they’re playing well again,” said Cortesa. “Some of the players were recruited by Ronnie Francis. He brought in a lot of those guys on the roster now, so that’s a good thing.”
Otherwise, the Whalers Booster Club is content to savor the past. Cortesa and a few of her Booster Club pals met Thursday night at a Buffalo Wild Wings to watch Hurricanes vs. Bruins in Game 1.
The next time they’ll meet formally as a group will be for a July 13 “Whaler Night” reunion at a Hartford Yard Goats game. According to Cortesa, a smattering of ex-Whalers players will attend, including Jordy Douglas, Bob Crawford, Andre Lacroix, and brothers Dave and Wayne Babych. If he can arrange good flights to and from Alaska, said Cortesa, Grant Jennings would like to make it.
In Vegas, even Victor has changed his colors. When he first started attending Knights games last season, he wore his Gordie Howe No. 9 Whalers sweater. After a few weeks, he switched to Knights wear.
“Greater than I ever could have imagined,” said Victor, drawn west four years ago in part because his son was working in Vegas. “It’s really nice out here. And, let me tell you, the Knights do it right. They really do.”
SHAKE IT UP A BIT?
Proposal for new playoff system
The Lightning, first overall in the regular-season standings, and Capitals, the defending Stanley Cup champs, were both shooed out of the first round of this year’s playoffs.
Ditto for Calgary and Nashville, the division winners in the Western Conference. Both sent packing, completing a total first-round knockout of the four division winners.
Sure brings into question the value of finishing as high in the order as possible, doesn’t it? Home-ice advantage, and a regular season in which they averaged the equivalent of 55 wins (110 points), ended up meaning zero to Tampa Bay, Washington, Calgary, and Nashville.
So, why not a lottery to determine first-round matchups?
Every league loves a TV event, and what would be better than another bounce of the ping-pong balls on the final Sunday of the season? A ratings bonanza, for sure, across Canada and the 24 NHL-loving cities of the United States.
Does it run contrary to the tried-and-true current system? Of course. But what’s the point of tried-and-true when the four best teams are all melting ice at the end of Round 1? If a lottery produced the same outcomes, well, it’s no worse than the 0 for 4 tried-and-true. At least there would be some suspense, hand in hand with some fun programming.
For the sake of discussion, keep the regular-season chase the same, and even lock in Round 1 home ice for the four division winners.
Beyond that, make the matchups a scramble, even to the point that home ice for the other four series isn’t automatically awarded to the team that would have earned it on the outcome of the regular-seasons standings. To wit: In a lottery, the Bruins this year might not have started at home against the Maple Leafs. In fact, they might not have faced the Leafs if the balls didn’t bounce their way.
In a weighted lottery, the eight teams in each conference, similar to the draft lottery, would be awarded an allotment of ping-pong balls. The teams with the most points gained in the regular season would have the most balls entered, scaling the number of balls back from No. 1 through No. 8 as the seeds are selected.
In the East this year, Tampa Bay and Washington would have entered the lottery with home ice secured. Based on odds, a lottery might have delivered them the Blue Jackets and Hurricanes, respectively, as first-round opponents. But perhaps not. Perhaps they would have drawn the Bruins and Leafs, respectively. Maybe the Bruins would have tumbled to No. 8 in the lottery and ended up paired with the Lightning. If so, maybe they would have followed the Blue Jackets’ destiny and knocked out the Presidents’ Trophy winner in four straight instead of having to do the seven-game derby distance with the Leafs.
If we have learned nothing else about the postseason this year, yet again, it’s that the outcomes are all very random. That’s not likely to change. A lottery would embrace the randomness of it all and build in some tantalizing suspense.
Down to final four between the pipes
Of the four No. 1 goalies playing in the conference finals, only the Blues’ Jordan Binnington is tending the net for the club that originally owned his NHL rights.
Binnington, 25, finally took over the Blues’ net this season, his fifth as a pro, after Craig Berube replaced Mike Yeo as bench boss. Jake Allen was not getting the job done and the Blues were on a fast track to a postseason DNQ until the switches to Binnington and Berube.
The other three remaining goalies:
■ Tuukka Rask, the oldest of the quartet at 32, originally was drafted by the Maple Leafs in 2005 (No. 21 overall) and made his way to Boston a year later in a one-for-one swap for Andrew Raycroft. He is expected to suit up Sunday for his 80th postseason start for the Bruins.
■ Petr Mrazek, 27, signed on with the Hurricanes as an unrestricted free agent last summer after the Red Wings flipped him to the Flyers at the Feb. 18 trade deadline. He entered the league as Red Wings property, selected 141st overall in 2010.
■ Martin Jones, 29, was briefly a Bruin in June 2015, acquired by Don Sweeney in the deal that dumped Milan Lucic to the Kings. Unwilling to meet his contract request, the Bruins flipped Jones to the Sharks for Sean Kuraly and the first-round pick that became Trent Frederic. Jones, never drafted, turned pro with the Kings organization after a four-year junior run with the Calgary Hitmen.
Still tending to his Garden
John Grzelcyk, dad of Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk, is in his 50th year as a member of the Garden’s bull gang, the hard-working crew that oversees the labor-intensive switches entailed in setting up the Causeway Street house for myriad other events.
The original Grizz, who grew up in Charlestown, was a high school student caught up in the Bobby Orr craze when he signed on as bull gang part-timer in the late ’60s.
“As kids, we’d buy cheap tickets to the Celtics games on Sunday afternoon,” he recalled Thursday, just before his son suited up for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. “Then we’d hide out in the bathrooms after the Celtics games and get in the Bruins games for free that way.”
Shooed out of the stalls one Sunday by a Garden employee, he was encouraged to join the bull gang as a means to make a few bucks and, best of all, get to watch the Big Bad Bruins for free.
“No-brainer, right?” said John Grzelcyk, also joined in those days on the bull gang by the father of Tom Fitzgerald, the former Bruins forward who is now assistant GM with the Devils. “Come game time, we’d grab photographer stools and watch Orr while we sat on the floor behind the last row of stadium seats, Section 46.”
The doorway behind Section 46 led to what for decades was the Garden press room.
“It sure beat watching it all on TV,” said John Grzelcyk, recalling the days when WSBK-TV, a UHF channel, carried the Bruins. Reception often was terrible, the black-and-white images often fuzzy and wavy.
“In those days,” said Grzelcyk, recalling how he would squint at the images on TV, “someone would ask, ‘Did you see Bobby Orr last night?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, sure I did . . . I saw nine of him on TV.’ ”
Even Pavelski disagreed with call
Little solace for grieving Golden Knights fans, but Joe Pavelski last weekend agreed that Cody Eakin didn’t deserve the five-minute major that effectively knocked Vegas out of the playoffs.
With the Knights holding a 3-0 lead over the Sharks late in Game 7 of their first-round series, Eakin smacked Pavelski with a cross-check to the chest immediately following a faceoff. Pavelski then knocked into Vegas winger Paul Stastny, tumbled, and suffered an ugly gash to his head in the ensuing fall.
“No issue with that play,” Pavelski said just days before he returned to the lineup and helped the Sharks dismiss the Avalanche in another Game 7. “Was it a five-minute major? No. I don’t think it was. Am I glad they called it that way? Heck, yeah.”
The hit triggered a parade of horribles that led the officiating crew to call the major, pitch Eakin from the game, and send the Sharks on a five-minute power play that produced four goals and flipped the series.
League GMs will meet next month in Vancouver, and the Pavelski hit promises be a hot topic. The bad call on Eakin, and the profound financial loss to the Knights, will prompt some GMs, possibly a majority, to call for major penalties to be reviewable by the on-ice officiating team. Current rules do not allow the guys in stripes to watch video replay in such instances or confer with league bosses via phone hookup to Toronto.
No doubt, more reviews via replay will make for longer games, but non-fighting majors are rare. If the GMs deem majors reviewable, it will be left to the Board of Governors to make the final decision before the start of the 2019-20 season.
Another officiating topic the GMs likely will discuss will be related to the puck-off-the-net incident that led to Artemi Panarin’s goal in Game 4 of the Boston-Columbus series. The scoring play began with a deflected Seth Jones shot that clearly touched the netting high above the glass behind Rask. None of the four officials whistled for a stop in play (puck out of bounds), and two passes later, Panarin’s goal trimmed the Boston lead to 2-1.
The bet here: GMs will rule in favor or reviewing the major penalties, but they’ll keep hands off the puck-off-the-net call.
Both can have profound influence on the outcome of games, but the risk of costly damage is weighted more toward the five-minute calls.
The Hurricanes have the most budget-friendly goaltending tandem in the league, with No. 1 Mrazek and backup Curtis McElhinney pulling down a combined $2.35 million — less than Boston backup Jaroslav Halak ($2.75 million). They had high hopes for Scott Darling when bringing him aboard two years ago as a UFA for four years/$16.6 million, but now the ex-Blackhawks tender is on target for a buyout next month, saving the franchise a total $2.4 million . . . An Orr game-worn Bruins sweater, circa 1972, hit the auction block on Tuesday on Lelands (lelands.com) and will remain open to bidding until June 7. The Bruins in ’72 won their second Cup in three seasons, although the No. 4 sweater up for grabs has no direct connection to the championship. Lelands just weeks ago auctioned off a mint 1966 Orr trading card for more than $204,000.
The Bruins during the regular season ranked No. 10 in the league for lead time, working with an advantage 36.4 percent of their total playing time. Thus far in the playoffs, they’ve held the lead for just less than 50 percent of the time. The three other conference finalists also all finished in the top 10 for lead time during the regular season — No. 4 St. Louis (38.68), No. 5 Carolina (38.37), and No. 8 San Jose (37.39). Tampa Bay, Washington, and Pittsburgh held the top three spots, and all three were dealt first-round knockouts.