The Hartford Whalers were an American professional ice hockey team based in Hartford, Connecticut. Known as the New England Whalers when they were members of the World Hockey Association (WHA) from 1972-79, the club played in the National Hockey League (NHL) from 1979-97. In 1997, the Whalers franchise was moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where it became the Carolina Hurricanes.
The WHA days EditThe Whalers franchise was born in November 1971 when the World Hockey Association awarded a franchise to New England businessmen Howard Baldwin, John Coburn, Godfrey Wood, and William E. Barnes, to begin play in Boston. The team began auspiciously, signing former Detroit Red Wing star Tom Webster, hard rock Boston Bruins' defenseman Ted Green (the team's inaugural captain), Toronto Maple Leafs' defensemen Rick Ley, Jim Dorey, and Brad Selwood, and former Pittsburgh Penguins' goaltender Al Smith. New England also signed an unusually large number of American players including Massachusetts natives and former US Olympic hockey team members Larry Pleau (who had been a regular with the Montreal Canadiens the previous season), Kevin Ahearn, John Cunniff and Paul Hurley. Two other ex-US Olympians on the Whalers roster (Minnesotans Timothy Sheehy and Tommy Williams) had spent a significant part of their respective careers in Boston with Boston College and the Bruins, respectively. The Whalers would have the WHA's best regular-season record in the 1972-73 WHA season, with Webster leading the team in scoring and rampaging through the playoffs, and behind legendary ex-Boston University coach Jack Kelley, would win the inaugural league championship.
For the first 2½ years of their existence, the Whalers played home games at the Boston Arena, Boston Garden, and The Big E Coliseum in West Springfield. However, with sagging attendance related to the ebbing of the early 1970s hockey boom in the Boston area, ownership decided to move the franchise to Connecticut, an area which, except for various minor league teams in New Haven, had been largely bereft of pro hockey. The Whalers' ownership group was attracted to the city of Hartford. With many large corporations and an area rich in hockey tradition, Hartford was seen as a natural choice.
On January 11, 1975, the team played its first game in front of a sellout crowd at the Hartford Civic Center Coliseum. With the exception of a period in the late 1970s when the Whalers played at the Springfield Civic Center while the Hartford Civic Center was being renovated (due to the collapse of a portion of its roof after a blizzard), the franchise was located in Hartford until it relocated to North Carolina in 1997.
Though they never again won the league championship, the New England Whalers were a successful team, never missing the playoffs in the WHA's history, and finishing first in its division three times. They had a more stable roster than most WHA teams—Ley, Webster, Selwood, Larry Pleau, and Tommy Earl would all play over 350 games with the club—and scored a major coup when they signed legend Gordie Howe and his sons Mark and Marty from the Houston Aeros (WHA) in 1977.
While the first two full seasons in Hartford were not glittering (the Whalers recorded losing records both years), the final two WHA seasons saw more success. They went to the finals again in 1978, with a veteran team spearheaded by the Howes—50-year-old Gordie led the team in scoring—future NHL stars Gordie Roberts and Mike Rogers, All-Star defenseman Ron Plumb, and forwards John McKenzie, Dave Keon, and Mike Antonovich, and possessed of the league's best defense. The next season was not so fine, but while age finally caught up with Gordie Howe, the slack was picked up by Andre Lacroix, the WHA's all time leading scorer, acquired from the folded Aeros.
As it was one of the most stable of the WHA teams, it was one of the four franchises admitted to the National Hockey League when the rival leagues merged in 1979. Following lobbying from the Boston Bruins, one of the conditions of the merger stipulated that the Whalers were to drop "New England" from their name. The Howes, Rogers, Ley, Keon, Smith, Roberts and Lacroix would go on to wear the uniform of the Hartford Whalers. Most of the members of the 1978-79 Whalers were available as only Selwood, George Lyle and Warren Miller were reclaimed by their former NHL teams. Legendary goal scorer Bobby Hull would be acquired late that season in a trade with another former WHA team, the Winnipeg Jets, and play the last games of his career not only as a Whaler, but also as a member of the same team as his childhood idol, Gordie Howe (who also retired following the Whalers' first NHL season).
Career leaders (WHA, 1972-1979) Edit
- Games: Rick Ley, 478
- Goals: Tom Webster, 220
- Assists: Larry Pleau, 215
- Points: Webster, 425
- Penalty Minutes: Ley, 716
- Goaltending Wins: Al Smith, 141
The Hartford Whalers Edit
The Whalers were never as successful in the NHL as they had been in the WHA, yet they attracted a passionate fan base over the years. They only recorded three winning seasons in their eighteen years in the NHL, missed the playoffs ten times, and only once won a playoff series, earning along the way the derisive nickname "Forever .500s." The team developed heated rivalries with the nearby Boston Bruins and New York Rangers—for home games against the Bruins especially, the Civic Center would have as many of a quarter of the fans in the seats from Boston, two hours drive away—achieving all-time records of 37-69-12 and 23-26-6 respectively against those clubs.
The Whalers' NHL history was plagued by disastrous trades, especially in dealing stars for several mediocre players in an attempt to gain "depth." For instance, they dealt star defenseman Mark Howe and their first scoring leader Mike Rogers in separate deals for players and draft picks which never panned out, and also swapped hardrock defenseman Gordie Roberts for the remaining half-season of Mike Fidler's NHL career. All too often when the trades were sound—as in trading Chris Pronger for Brendan Shanahan—the players acquired were not happy in Hartford and left as soon as possible.
The team had a brief moment in the sun in the 1986 and 1987 seasons. It made the playoffs both years, winning its sole playoff series in 1986 and its lone Adams Division championship in 1987. The Whalers were led by center Ron Francis, emerging hardcore winger Kevin Dineen, superstar goalie Mike Liut, and troubled scorer Sylvain Turgeon. The team would drift back into its losing ways the season following.
The most psychologically damaging moment for the club was the 1991 trade of Francis, the team's captain and a bona fide NHL superstar, to the Pittsburgh Penguins. While Francis was unhappy, and the trade made sense on paper, the players acquired in return did not lead the Whalers to success, while the very popular Francis promptly helped the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cup titles. The reaction of the fan base was savage in condemnation. Coincidentally, Eddie Johnston, the Hartford general manager who had orchestrated the Francis trade, would follow him to Pittsburgh as the Penguins' head coach two years later.
The Whalers went to the playoffs in 1992 behind Jimmy Roberts' coaching, but lost a dramatic double overtime Game 7 in the Adams Division Semifinal against the Montreal Canadiens, as Russ Courtnall scored on a turn-around shot. Roberts was fired thereafter, and while the Whalers had some stars in their remaining five seasons in Hartford— including forwards Geoff Sanderson, Pat Verbeek, and Andrew Cassels and goalie Sean Burke—they would never again make the playoffs or attain a winning record.
Departure from HartfordEdit
The primary factors in the Whalers' departure from Hartford were market size and the lack of a modern playing facility. The Hartford Civic Center was small but adequate, and famously mocked for being attached to a shopping mall. As teams in the NHL began moving into larger, corporate-sponsored stadiums with luxury suites and other high-end amenities, it became increasingly apparent that a team playing in an aging municipal facility with limited revenue streams could not compete.
In 1994, Compuware founder Peter Karmanos purchased the Whalers. Karmanos pledged to keep the Whalers in Hartford for four years. Frustrated with lackluster attendance and corporate support, he announced in 1996 that if the Whalers were unable to sell at least 11,000 season tickets for the 1996-97 season, he would likely move the team. Furthermore, ownership only made season tickets available in full-season (41-game) packages, eliminating the popular five- and ten-game "mini plans," in a strategy largely designed to spur purchases from wealthier corporations and individuals. Sales were underwhelming at the beginning of the campaign, and at the end of the 1995-96 season it was still unknown whether the Whalers would stay in Connecticut or move. However, thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign, and the creative efforts of many fans (who pooled together resources to purchase some of the full-season packages collectively) the Whalers announced that they would stay in Connecticut for the 1996-97 season.
In early 1996, negotiations between the Whalers and Connecticut Governor John Rowland to build a new $147.5 million arena seemed to be going well. However, negotiations fell apart when Rowland and the State refused Karmanos' demand to reimburse the Whalers for up to $45 million in losses during the three years the new arena was to be built. As a result, the team announced on March 26,1997, that they would leave Hartford, one of the few times that a team announced it would leave its current city without having already selected a new city. Many suspected that Governor John Rowland did not want to keep the Whalers, as he harbored hopes of instead landing an NFL franchise. Ideally, Rowland wanted to use the state's resources to build a new stadium to lure the New England Patriots to Connecticut and did not have serious intentions of building an NHL arena for the Whalers.   
Many ex-Whalers are still active in the NHL, including Chris Pronger, Geoff Sanderson, Sami Kapanen, and Brendan Shanahan. Glen Wesley is the final Whaler still active with the Carolina/Hartford franchise, although his stint has not been continuous, playing seven games for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2003 after a deadline deal before re-signing in Carolina in the 2003 offseason .
Possible NHL Return?Edit
During the last few years, there was a certain groundswell of support to return the NHL to Hartford following the Whalers' departure to the Raleigh metropolitan area. Former Whalers owner Howard Baldwin along with Larry Gottesdiener Chairman of Northland Invesment Corporation both have desire to help return NHL hockey to Hartford. To that end, in early 2007 Hartford mayor Eddie A. Perez sent a letter to Pittsburgh Penguins owner Mario Lemieux to try and see if he would add Hartford to his list of possible relocation sites when the Penguins were seriously contemplating moving, but this particular avenue became a moot point when an agreement was brokered between the NHL, the Penguins and the city of Pittsburgh to build a new arena there. The Hartford Civic Center now run under the operation of the AEG company is trying to buy a new franchise to put in place of Hartford's AHL team, the Hartford Wolfpack.
The Hartford Whalers' official theme song was "Brass Bonanza," a tune composed by an aspiring musician Jack Say. The song is still very popular with Hartford crowds, and continues to occasionally be played at Civic Center events (including University of Connecticut basketball games) and, in recent years, at Fenway Park during Boston Red Sox games. Continuing the hockey tradition, the song is also played during the UConn men's hockey home games, and also recently at Hartford Wolfpack games as well.
Career leaders (NHL, 1979-1997)Edit
- Games: Ron Francis, 714
- Goals: Francis, 264
- Assists: Francis, 557
- Points: Francis, 821
- Penalty Minutes: Torrie Robertson, 1368
- Goaltender Games: Sean Burke, 256
- Goaltender Wins: Mike Liut, 115
- Shutouts: Liut, 13
Reference in Popular Culture Edit
In the Kevin Smith written movies Mallrats and Chasing Amy, two different characters played by Jason Lee reference the Whalers. In Mallrats, Lee's character Brody says, "Breakfasts come and go, Rene. Now Hartford, the Whale? They only beat Vancouver once or twice in a lifetime." In Chasing Amy, Lee's character Banky says, "What difference does it make if I refer to her as a dyke? Or if I call the Whalers a bunch of faggots in the comfort of my own office, far from the sensitive ears of the rest of the world?"
Hall of FamersEdit
- Paul Coffey, D, 1996-1997, inducted 2004
- Dave Keon, C, 1976-1982, inducted 1986
- Gordie Howe, RW, 1977-1980, inducted 1972
- Bobby Hull, LW, 1980, inducted 1983
- Ron Francis, C, 1981-1991, inducted 2007
- Emile Francis, General Manager, 1983-1989, inducted 1982 (Builder)
Note: includes both WHA Whalers and NHL Whalers
NOTE: Since moving to Raleigh, #2 and #19 were brought back into circulation.
First round draft picksEdit
Note: This list does not include selections from the WHA.
- 1979: Ray Allison (18th overall)
- 1980: Fred Arthur (8th overall)
- 1981: Ron Francis (4th overall)
- 1982: Paul Lawless (14th overall)
- 1983: Sylvain Turgeon (2nd overall)
- 1984: Sylvain Cote (11th overall)
- 1985: Dana Murzyn (5th overall)
- 1986: Scott Young (11th overall)
- 1987: Jody Hull (18th overall)
- 1988: Chris Govedaris (11th overall)
- 1989: Bobby Holik (10th overall)
- 1990: Mark Greig (15th overall)
- 1991: Patrick Poulin (9th overall)
- 1992: Robert Petrovicky (9th overall)
- 1993: Chris Pronger (2nd overall)
- 1994: Jeff O'Neill (5th overall)
- 1995: Jean-Sebastien Giguere (13th overall)
- 1996: none
Hartford Whalers Individual Records (NHL)Edit
- Most Goals in a season: Blaine Stoughton, 56 (1979-80)
- Most Assists in a season: Ron Francis, 69 (1989-90)
- Most Points in a season: Mike Rogers, 105 (1979-80/1980-81)
- Most Penalty Minutes in a season: Torrie Robertson, 358 (1985-86)
- Most Points in a season, defenceman: Mark Howe, 80 (1979-80)
- Most Points in a season, rookie: Sylvain Turgeon, 72 (1983-84)
- Most Wins in a season: Mike Liut, 31 (1986-87)
- ↑ http://sophia.smith.edu/~jeue/John/pete4.html
- ↑ http://clubs.ccsu.edu/recorder/editorial/editorial_item.asp?NewsID=15
- ↑ http://www.sportslawnews.com/archive/articles%201999/Patriots1.html
- ↑ http://www.legendsofhockey.net:8080/LegendsOfHockey/jsp/SearchPlayer.jsp?player=11734 1
- ↑ http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/s_463240.html
- ↑ http://msn.foxsports.com/nhl/story/6544654
- Carolina Hurricanes
- Head Coaches of the Hartford Whalers
- List of defunct NHL teams
- List of Hartford Whalers players
- List of NHL seasons
- List of NHL players
- List of WHA seasons
- World Hockey Association
- The Official Hartford Whalers Booster Club - Still Active!
- The Blowhole, Uniform history
- WHAhockey.com - New England Whalers
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