The Hartford Whalers haven’t touched the ice in Connecticut in 23 years. And yet we’ve seen a resurgence of love for the defunct team in recent years. The team left the state for a lack of interest and success, though which caused the other is debatable. So why the change of heart? There’s no one answer as to why people suddenly long to have the Whalers back in the League, so let’s explore what there is to love about them.
A Brief History
The Whalers first splashed into the NHL in 1979, back when expansion drafts were terrible at best and catastrophic at worse. They’d been kicked around in Boston in the WHA as the New England Whalers, bullied by not only the Bruins but the Celtics and AHL Boston Braves, too. Ready for a chance to spread their fins, they moved to Hartford. Anyone who has ever lived in Connecticut will probably tell you this was their first mistake.
One thing the Whalers really had going for them was the names on their rosters over the years. When they came into the NHL, they brought with them Blaine Stoughton, Dave Keon, Mark Howe, and Gordie Howe. Plus, just before the deadline that year, they acquired Bobby Hull. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that’s probably what brought their debut year to the postseason.
There were plenty more big names throughout their time in Hartford, including Hall of Famers Ron Francis and Brendan Shanahan. The Whalers drafted Chris Pronger in 1993, who went on to also enter the Hall of Fame. Mark Johnson, of Miracle on Ice fame, served as captain from 83-85.
Their last winning season was 1989-1990, while their last playoff appearance was 91-92. It may have been a mix of a lack of a superstar, small fan base, and depletion of funds that finally did the team in, starting way back then. Their demise officially came in 1997 when they were moved down to North Carolina and became the Carolina Hurricanes.
CT Loyalists & Beyond
Though the fanbase may have been small, they were devoted. Going to AHL games in the mid-2000s, and even in the 2010s, in Hartford or Bridgeport, I saw many hockey fans proudly wearing their Whalers jerseys. In 2015 with the birth of the NWHL, it was an easy choice to pay homage to Nutmeggers’ (*collective cringe*) favorite teams, and name the women’s team the Whale (though maybe whale in context of a women’s anything was ill-advised). They even used Pucky the Whale’s likeness as their logo.
There are echoes of the Whalers all over Connecticut. They still make special license plates for the team to support Connecticut Children’s Hospital. There are multiple Twitter accounts devoted to the team and Pucky.
But even beyond CT, it seems hockey fans don’t want to let the Whalers go. In 2018, the Carolina Hurricanes announced they were going to have Whalers night, complete with uniforms and Pucky, against the Bruins. They even broke out “Brass Bonanza.” They followed it up this past season against the Kings. The Canes remain undefeated (2-0-0) while wearing the throwback Whaler uniforms.
Most recently, the league has announced that each team will have a “reverse retro” jersey to add to collections. According to the teaser released by the Canes on Friday, Pucky, once again, will feature. Granted, their uniforms haven’t changed very significantly since being in North Carolina. But still.
Why the Hype?
Being from Connecticut, I might be a little biased. But, based on many articles I’ve read and hockey fans I’ve talked to, there seem to be two undeniable draws: the uniforms and “Brass Bonanza”. The W and tail are iconic, and, as many have said before, brilliant use of negative space. It’s probably the most creative and genius logos the league has seen. As for “Brass Bonanza,” it’s an easy tune to hype up the crowd when blasted. It’s catchy, there are no words to memorize, and it’s exciting.
We live in an age of nostalgia, now more than ever before (thanks COVID). People see the green and blue and remember the days when Gordie Howe was the best there was, or when Connecticut actually had something to live for. Hockey fans love the Whalers like they love retired players. They love the Whalers like they love those wild purple and yellow Kings uniforms, or the Nordiques, or the Jets (pre-comeback). It’s one of those human nature things, wanting what used to be.
I may forever hold out the tiniest bit of hope that somehow, someday, the Whalers will return to Hartford. I think that a lot of Connecticut residents will, as well. And honestly, I think the league would love it, too. Would it work financially? Absolutely not. But it’s fun to dream. For now, Connecticut is going to have to live with the Sound Tigers and Wolfpack as their local hockey fixes, or shell out the money for Boston or New York. Or, better yet, support the Connecticut Whale.
*For the record, the Whalers only played 2 seasons during my lifetime. I wasn’t old enough to fully appreciate them….obviously.
-Heidi Thomas (@DamselOnDrums)
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