NHL 2019-20 season Fantasy & Chat thread - Page 23

The Life and Times of the Hartford Whalers.

The story of the Hartford Whalers is a particularly interesting one to me. From their very beginnings in the WHA, to joining the NHL, to being the perennial underachiever, to finally being moved to North Carolina. Obviously there is a lot more to this story than "they were bad and they moved", much, much more. The Hartford Whalers started life as the New England Whalers, a franchise in the World Hockey Association, a rival league to the NHL, that challenged the NHL's hold on Hockey and their reserve clause(basically meaning: You play with us, until we trade you or you retire). Over 67 players jumped to the WHA, including names such as Gordie Howe or Bobby Hull, with the WHA also going onto sign more European players and having young stars such as Wayne Gretzky. The New England Whalers started playing in 1972, led by ex-NHLers, Tom Webster(Red Wings), Ted Green(Bruins)(Inaugural Captain too) and many others, the Whalers first season was an incredible one for them, finishing First in their division and winning the Avco Cup. At the same time though, they had to play around the schedules of every other team playing in the Boston Garden, which led to scheduling issues for the Whalers, they essentially got the shortest end of the stick, because they were seen as a joke.
Enter Hartford, Connecticut, one of the richer cities in North America, they had just finished building the Hartford Civic Center, a multipurpose arena in the heart of downtown Hartford. The City had been hoping to attract an ABA Franchise to the city, but when that failed they had settled on the Whalers, giving them a home for their rest of the franchises existence(...ish). On January 11, 1975 the Whalers played their first game at the Civic Center, in front of a sold out crowd, where they defeated the San Diego Mariners 4-3 in Overtime. The next few seasons were pretty good for the Whalers, although they never quite achieved the success they had in the first season, they made It back to the Avco Finals in the '78 season, losing to the original Winnipeg Jets, although this came at the cost of losing their new arena, due to a roof collapse they were forced to play 26 miles up the road in Springfield, MA at the Big E Coliseum and the Springfield Civic Center(home to the AHL Thunderbirds and NCAA Yellow Jackets), for the remainder of their two WHA Seasons.
After 8 years of operation, the WHA merged with the NHL, with most of the clubs outright folding, save for the Whalers, Oilers, Jets(final Avco Cup winners) and Nordiques. Unlike the other clubs, the Whalers were allowed to keep the NHLers they had on their roster, rather than sending them back to their original team, as the other “new” teams had to do. This allowed the Whalers a slight advantage over many of the other NHL Teams, especially being able to keep players like Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe and Andre Lacroix(WHA All-Time Leading scorer). This advantage helped them become the first expansion team in NHL History to make the playoffs in their first year, a feat which would not be broken, until the Vegas Golden Knights joined. This merger was far from smooth however, as the Bruins who held a firm grasp on the New England market came close to(or did?) suing the league over admission of the Whalers, finally settling allowing the New England Whalers to join on the condition they change their name to the Hartford Whalers.
Their first NHL season was one of their best ever, finishing with 73 points, the best of the former WHA Teams. In the first Round of the Norris Division playoffs however, the Whalers fell 0 Games to 3 Games, to the Montreal Canadiens, the reigning champions went on to lose to the Minnesota North Stars. That however proved to be their only playoff run for about 5 seasons, as they lost their stars in Howe, Lacroix and Lacroix, all announced their retirements, although this was not Howe’s final time playing professional hockey as he later signed a contract to play 1 game, 1 shift, with the IHL’s Detroit Vipers(the IHL was the NHL’s previous farm league before the ECHL). Losing their stars, combined with the aging WHA roster and a management making bad trades to try and stay afloat, led to a 5 season long drought. Despite the drought, attendance rose at the Civic Center and would continue rising until the 88-89 season, where attendance finally began falling off.
The 1981 Draft was a great time to be a Whalers fan, they had just missed the playoffs, but had gotten Fourth Overall, leading them to draft Ron Francis. Francis made almost an immediate impact, with multiple point per game seasons, though it wasn’t enough to lead to the Whalers to a playoff berth, that wouldn’t happen until the 85-86 season. 85-86 was a magical time to be a Whalers fan, things began looking up, which seemed fair. In Game 1 of the season, down 3-0 to the Buffalo Sabres, Kevin Dineen led the Whalers in an incredible comeback, scoring 2 goals, which ultimately led to the Whalers winning 5-4. The following night was their home opener at home against the Rangers, with goals by Francis and Ferrao, the Whalers decimated their opponent with a score of 8-2, in front of an incredible crowd of over 15,142 fans. October was a pretty good month for them, beating the Canadiens 11-6 and going 6-4-0 for the month of October, leading to them sitting in third place in the Adams division. It cannot be stated enough how much these Whalers seemed like they were a playoff team, goalie Mike Liut was having a spectacular first few months, after being acquired late last season from the Blues for Greg Millen and Mark Johnson.
November was a different story! Their first three games they lost by over 20 goals total, scoring only 7 total in this time. After trading for Defenseman Dave Babych, they looked legit for at least one game, against the Jets where they won 8-1, with Francis getting a hat trick. The fun didn’t stop there though! They went onto win their next two games with a combined score of 25-6(and 1 shutout of the Kings). After falling to the Oilers though, things went back to normal, they fell out of their playoff spot, dropping it to the Canadiens, who also were barely holding on. November ended with a record of 5-7-0.
The rest of the season had its ups and downs, Francis was incredible, Dineen was an incredible player, while goaltending could be better, it could be much worse. They barely got into the playoffs, but it didn’t matter to the fans, they were going to the Adams Final this year! ...Where the Canadiens proceeded to destroy them in 7 hard fought games. All in all it was considered their best season ever at this point and to be fair, it was the best the Whalers would ever get, even though they finished 1st in the Adams the following year, they lost in the first round to the Nordiques(Hartford was cursed to lose to Quebec), this was the first and only season the Whalers had finished above Fourth in the Adams. To be honest, they were never “worldbeaters”, they were a smaller market team, which meant it was harder to attract great players, let alone trade for them, in many ways it’s the curse of location.
The 80’s Whalers didn’t bring us much playoff victories, but they brought us...Whaler Mania. Sung by the one and only “Whaler Maniacs”. This video features a Hall of Fame cast, inspired by the likes of "the Bears Shufflin Crew’ Crew or the LA Rams “Ram It”, this summed up the 80’s in a nutshell, music videos from sports teams.
The next few seasons were about much of the same, making the playoffs only to lose to Montreal, minus the two years where Boston beat them, it was usually just Montreal kicking them out of the first round. The 80s came and went, in what could be considered semi-successful, they got out of the first round once, they made it to the Adams Final, finished 1st in the Adams, but just couldn’t beat Montreal, Quebec, or Boston, to make a real run.
Their best playoff run ever was celebrated with a Whalermania Parade, where over 40,000 fans attended. You might be wondering why a parade? Honestly who knows, it was probably to get more eyes on the product.
The Hartford Whalers, trade forward Ron Francis Defensemen Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings to the Pittsburgh Penguins, in exchange for Forwards John Cullen, Jeff Parker and Defenseman Zarley Zalapski. You may be asking “Why did they trade Francis!?” Well, so did the fans. The Hockey News reported the Whalers got the “better end of the deal”, leading many fans to question what these writers were smoking and where to buy some of that shit. To their credit though, Cullen was the Penguins leading scorer and the other two were no jokes, they were good players the Pens gave up, Mario wasn’t that great at the time, he needed someone like Francis to compliment his abilities.
The Penguins went onto win the next 2 Cups, cementing Mario's legacy as one of the top five players to play in the NHL. Francis cemented his legacy as one of the best as well, not top five, I don't think though. Francis even had a hat trick in the '92 playoffs against the Rangers.
(I can't find anything with Francis from the '91 Finals, so enjoy this clip! of him scoring on the Caps!)
Despite this, they made in the playoffs in 91-92, losing to the Canadiens, who despite looking like favorites to sweep, blew it, the Whalers responded by winning Games 3 and 4, Montreal won Game 5 due to crease violations(these weren’t enforced at the time), but Hartford tied it in Game 6, 24 seconds in Overtime thanks To Yvon Corriveau. Heartbreak happened though as usual, as they lost Game 7 in Montreal. During the offseason Coach Jimmy Roberts was fired, alongside GM Eddie Johnston, who just took his talents(???) to Pittsburgh as a Coach instead.
The Hartford Whalers announce the hiring of Brian Burke, naming him the 5th General Manager in franchise history. Burke had most recently built the Vancouver Canucks who had gone onto a Cup Final(You know how that ended..). GM Brian Burke announces the hiring of Paul Holmgreen, the 10th Coach in franchise history. Holmgreen had most recently coached the Flyers, through a crazy playoff run, they had beat Lemieux's Penguins 4 games to 3, winning Game 7 in Pittsburgh. They then missed the playoffs twice, before he got fired. Holmgreen proceeds to name Pat Verbeek the team’s new Captain, counting the carousel of Captaincy. He got to play with up and coming stars, Andrew Cassels and Geoff Sanderson though, which was nice.
Burke’s first trade as a GM came quick: The Hartford Whalers trade Forward Bobby Holik, a 1993 Second-Round Pick and a conditional draft pick in 94(I can’t find anything on the condition) to the New Jersey Devils for Goaltender Sean Burke(no relation to Brian) and Defenseman Eric Weinrich. Burke had been playing internationally for Canada’s national team and for the Devils’ IHL affiliate. To say the least, he was a rookie sensation for the Devils, he had previously helped Canada(Junior) win a Silver Medal and from there went straight to the NHL, where he seemed...good. In the ‘89 season he was even named to the All-Star Game, being one of the few rookie goaltenders to make get named to the game. He was quickly becoming the face of the franchise, becoming the first Devil to be on the cover for The Hockey Digest. However by 1990 he became unhappy with the team and sat out 91-92, playing for Team Canada instead. So this was a seemingly good trade that Burke made, a change of scenery could do him well. He was even voted Whalers team MVP from 94 to 97, so it worked out for him, even though this team never even so much as sniffed the postseason again.
Behind the scenes, things were...rough. Brian Burke didn’t last long in the role as GM, he quit after one season. Head Coach Paul Holmgreen stepped into the GM Role as well as staying head coach, until November 16th when he stepped down as coach, citing a “lack of effort from the players” and “wanting to focus on being a GM”. Pierre Mcguire(again that Pierre) became the new Coach and...he was pretty hated actually. To quote the Hartford Courant: “He fancied himself two-parts Scotty Bowman and one-part Bob Johnson. It was a super-human leap of faith on his part.” Basically he tried to act like Scotty Bowman, being cold and distant to the players, while at the same time trying to be ``friends” with them, like Bob Johnson tried to do more of. He was so hated that Whalers Captain Pat Verbeek(amazing he lasted this long as Captain!) was quoted as saying: “the best thing that could have happened to the Whalers.” Yes, the team captain is literally shitting on the ex-coach, because he was that goddamn awful. Nobody liked Pierre, he mocked other coaches and drove away players, even the fans were happy he was gone. He later went onto be the annoying guy NBC trots out to torture us, because they hate all of us.
You might be thinking, “Can’t get any worse than Pierre,right?” Well it does. March 30th, 1994(before Pierre got fired), GM Paul Holmgren was arrested for driving drunk in Simsbury, Connecticut. From there he went to the Betty Ford Center for treatment / rehab, where upon Whalers owner Richard Gordon tried to fire him, being stopped by Bettman himself and Connecticut Governor Lowell P. Weicker Jr, who convinced him to not. Aka Bettman told him “Do it and you’ll get a fine” most likely and Weicker probably say “Don’t do it please!”. He later became the coach again because the players were ready to either kill Pierre or hitchhike out of Hartford, if it meant not playing for him again. Seriously nobody liked Pierre, he got the job because he was an assistant under Scotty Bowman.
The Whalers finished that year with only 63 points, 5 points better than last, but nowhere near good enough.
Summer of 1994. The Whalers announce the team has been sold to Compuware(They specialize in equipment for IT) CEO Peter J Karmanos, the cheap bastard himself, alongside partners Thomas Thewes and Jim Rutherford(Pens GM). Rutherford quickly became the new GM of the Whalers, succeeding Holmgreen, whom went back to being a coach. Karmanos wanted a winning team, which made Rutherford to get Jimmy Carson and Steven Rice, in Free Agency. During the draft Rutherford selected Right Winger Jeff O'Neill with their First Rounder, O’Neill was a highly touted player, who had put up over 329 Points in only 3 Seasons with the Guelph Storm, so this was a smart decision. He never really lived up to his potential though, especially in the early years where he bounced between the Pros and Minors. Among other trades Rutherford made, he traded Chris Pronger(they weren’t happy with him not developing fast enough) for Brendan Shanahan, who was incredibly unhappy about this trade. Did it matter? Hell no! He was named Captain before even skating a single practice, the whole time he wanted out of Hartford, he felt it was too small of a market and they had an “uncertain future”.
To Karmanos’ credit, he wasn’t new to owning Hockey, he had previously owned the OHL’s Windsor Spitfire, back in 1984 along with Thomas Tewes(longtime business partner) and Jim Rutherford. The Spitfires never won a Memorial Cup with Karmanos as owner, but they came close. Karmanos eventually sold them to someone who pledged to keep the Spitfire in Windsor, so long as the OHL granted him an expansion team in Plymouth, Michigan. It was that or he’d move the Spitfire to Plymouth, so he got the Plymouth Whalers.Karmanos’ group tried unsuccessfully to get an expansion team in St Petersburg, Florida. Eventually getting his hands on the Whalers.
That’s right, behind the scenes, the Devil himself, Karmanos was trying to move the Whalers out of Hartford, unless he got a shiny new arena built by the taxpayers. At this point, Hartford was starting on an economic downswing and the Government didn’t care that much about the Whalers, to pay for a new arena. Can you blame them though? Karmanos didn’t want a new arena, he never wanted Hartford to begin with, he was eyeing another market. It was easy because the Whalers were bad, had they had good management, things might have gone differently.
The team was bad and it was even worse behind the scenes, but they had recently re-acquired Kevin Dineen who was a fan favorite and helped boost morale at the least, along with mentoring the young players. It...didn’t really help though, attendance was down and they had missed the playoffs yet again. Due to his comments, Shanahan eventually got stripped of the “C”(why give it to a guy who didn’t want to be there I don’t know), due to fans and the media attacking him for his comments. Dineen was given the Captaincy instead, but it was another season lost. Shanahan finally got traded to a big market though, Detroit. The Detroit Red Wings acquire Forward Brendan Shanahan from the Hartford Whalers in exchange for Keith Primeau, Paul Coffey and a first-rounder. It actually helped the Whalers at first, as they started the 96-97 season with a winning record(that wouldn’t last).1996 was good for them, 1997 turned awful as losing kept happening, the playoffs slipped further and further away, until it was another season of no playoffs.
To be fair here, it wasn’t all because of Karmanos that the team moved. Yes he ultimately is the one who pulled the trigger and moved him, but this tale goes back to previous ownership and people no longer in charge. A lot of this can be blamed on Richard Gordon, the former owner who bought Donald Conrad’s(the other owner) stake in the team, in the later 80s, but this story goes well into the 90’s. Donald Conrad didn’t have the money needed to equal Gordon’s investment and had to get the help of Benjamin Sisti and Colonial Realty. In the end, Conrad had to sell his share to Colonial Realty and Gordon got the control he ever so desired. It doesn’t end there, Colonial Realty then declared bankruptcy because it turns out, they were a massive ponzi scheme. This gave a ton of uncertainty to the Whalers, since now it was they didn’t meet the financial terms of Conrad’s exit, which could also lead to Conrad being back in the ownership picture. Gordon pressed the NHL to investigate Colonial Realty, but this was the 90s NHL, they let a broke guy briefly own a team, they didn’t do their due diligence. For the first time, the 90s brought the word “relocation” to the Whalers, with Blockbuster owner Wayne Huizenga trying to buy the Whalers to move them to Florida, he later got awarded an expansion team in Miami. (this is a complicated mess I'm still trying to understand)
To Gordon’s credit, he refused all relocation offers. But this was a long standing issue, people blame Karmanos, but it’s far more than just “Karmanos moved the team because he hated Hartford”, he did. Gordon’s micromanaging seems to be the reason for some of the baffling 90s trades, like trading Francis, or then trading Liut for Corriveau, who was nowhere near as good. Liut led the league in shutouts the year he was traded to Washington, while Corriveau was...bad, he bounced between the pros and minors constantly. Gordon was just as bad an owner if not worse in many ways, than Karmanos. It didn’t help that in 92, there was a player strike(it lasted 10 days) while Colonial Realty was going bankrupt. All in all it was a mess, I could write up a novel detailing all of this, but that would be boring. Gordon sold the team to Karmanos knowing Karmanos wanted to relocate a team, so please blame him more.
Fun fact: Dallas, Minneapolis(Well ok, Minneapolis never did, but Minnesota got another), Las Vegas, Anaheim and Miami all tried to get the Whalers to move to their city. All of these cities later got an expansion team, or in the case of Dallas, a relocation.
It also didn’t help that former Mayor Carrie Saxon Perry(or Hat Lady) was anti-Whalers. Famously saying “Hockey is for White People”(She’s not totally wrong though, unfortunately) and this was in a time when concession sales were becoming a much bigger deal. She didn’t want to play ball with the Whalers, she didn’t want to re-negotiate on the lease, I think she may have just wanted them gone to be honest. She wasn’t well liked by many, Aetna(they previously owned the Whalers) threatened to leave Hartford if she won a fourth term as Mayor.
I won’t go into further details on who to blame, or it’ll be forever.
With talks of the Whalers leaving, fans were livid. A “Save the Whale” Campaign launched, buying up just over 8,563 tickets, in under 45 days, despite the Whalers doing everything possible to get people to not buy tickets, fans bought up tickets to save the Whalers. It wasn’t enough though, even with the people wanting to save the team, even with everything else, Karmanos announced they were leaving. Karmanos had discussed moving to Norfolk VA, but the only arena they had, The Scope, was too small to house an NHL Franchise and the city wouldn’t build them an arena. (Norfolk is a great minor league market I think, but I’m heavily biased). Rowland’s offers weren’t good enough for Karmanos, since he was trying to move the Patriots to Hartford(spoiler: that didn’t work), he wasn’t really trying to please the Whalers, but would have bent over backwards for the Patriots. It’s a lot of bullshit.
The relocation proposals: The Move. On April 17th, 1997, the Whalers played their final home game in Hartford, defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1, with Captain Kevin Dineen scoring the final goal. On May 6, Karmanos announced the team would be relocated to Raleigh, North Carolina to become the Carolina Hurricanes. Despite years of trying and the Government doing what it could, they left and that was the last time a major league team had come to Hartford. In many ways this was the final nail in the coffin for Hartford, they were beginning to struggle and the 2000’s made the cities downswing much worse.
On October 1st, 1997, the new Carolina Hurricanes played their first game in North Carolina, losing in front of a sellout crowd to the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-4. Unfortunately, things didn’t improve, crowds were regularly drawing below 10K, the new arena wasn’t ready yet forcing them to move to Greensboro, as it was the only NHL ready arena in the state. Triangle area fans didn’t want to drive down I-40 to Greensboro, as it was an 80-Mile drive, while fans from the Piedmont Triad refused to support a lame-duck team and one that displaced the popular minor league Greensboro Monarchs. This was for all intents and purposes a stupid move, the arena was still 2 years out and fans in the area refused to support it, Karmanos had effectively killed a team that was at least getting 10k+ people to watch the games, in favor of an area that wanted nothing to do with them. It didn’t help the Greensboro Coliseum held over 20k+ seats for hockey, making it the biggest at the time in the league, but made it worse when nobody came to their games. It was so bad that sections had to be curtained off so that it wouldn’t look so awful on TV. It didn’t help only 29 TV Games were shown and radio broadcasts were often preempted by basketball, leading many to wonder “Why move them if nothing was ready?” Even Karmanos later admitted Greensboro was a mistake. The Whalers weren’t doing well in Hartford, yes, but moving them without a plan was just the best way to fuck up a relocation quickly.
The story of the Whalers isn’t a very happy one, in fact it’s pretty depressing when you realize this franchise never really had a chance, due to ownership, due to being a small market, due to a lot of factors. In the end, the Whalers are remembered for Brass Bonanza, for their run to the Adams Final, that had them a goal away from a Conference Final.
I'll probably cover the North Stars and everything that happened with them next, I dunno yet. I omitted a few things I know, like talking about the logo or mascot, but I covered the major events. Special thanks to the mods, who I didn't have to harass this week, because the bot deleted a post. And thanks to jacoobz for linking me to the Whalers article, I read through it and enjoyed it.
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