In the last week or so the City has been abuzz about our old friends, the Hartford Whalers. Despite being gone since 1997, the Whaler Fan Fest held over the weekend drew about 5,000 visitors and the Hartford Courant has reported that Whaler merchandise sells as good as the top five NHL teams. The Courant also has had a large section of their website devoted to Whalers memories for over a week.
Many of us have great memories from watching the Whale at the Civic Center; the Candyman, the Brass Bonanza, the raucous crowds at Bruins and Rangers games, where you were always guaranteed to see a scuffle not only on the ice but also in the stands.
So with all this outpouring of love, one can’t help but wonder; what happened and why aren’t the Whalers here?
Ask that question to ten different Hartford people and you might get ten different answers. None will be completely right, but none may be completely wrong. The most common names you will hear are Peter Karmanos, Gary Bettman, and former Governors Weicker and Rowland; all whom share some of the blame. To try and get a grasp of what happened it is best to reverse engineer events.
As the owner who moved the team Peter Karmanos gets the lions share of the blame and certainly it is deserved. Karmanos bought the struggling Whalers in 1994 promising they would stay for at least four years. Two years later, Karmanos, announced the Whalers would have to move if they did not sell 11,000 season tickets before the 1996-97 season, a level that seemed impossible given the teams flagging attendance. Reaching this number was made more difficult when Karmanos and the Whalers made only full-season ticket packages available to fans.
Through aggressive campaigns and fans pooling funds, the ticket goal was reached. A year later Karmanos announced the team was still moving. Nothing short of the city bending over backwards and giving Karmanos access to the treasury would have kept the Whalers in Hartford. Karmanos bought the team to move it and Hartford’s fate was sealed when Karmanos took over ownership despite Governor Lowell Weicker backing the move. Governor Weicker would later become a Board member of Compuserve, a company whose CEO and founder was one Peter Karmanos. (wow Connecticut taxpayer, a politician sold you down the river, sound familiar?)
Gary Bettman, NHL Commissioner, then and now, stood by and let Karmanos orchestrate the move out of town. In the mid 1990’s the NHL was still riding high as a hot sport not in small part influenced by Wayne Gretzky’s trade to Los Angeles. With South Eastern and Western cities expanding rapidly during the early 1990’s, the NHL, long a niche sport popular in cold winter locales, relocated or expanded into markets like Raleigh, Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta, Nashville, Miami, San Jose, Anaheim, and Tampa. Hartford, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Minneapolis (which would regain a team later) lost teams during this time.
Bettman was hungry to capitalize on the sports popularity and position it to compete with MLB, the NFL and the NBA in the U.S. sports markets. Instead the NHL over-extended itself into too many non-traditional markets and player salaries escalated out of control. The New Jersey Devil’s “Left-Wing Lock” became the most successful system (but a terribly boring system) and audiences attracted by the high-scoring, fast paced game played by superstars like Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Pavel Bure, tired of the NHL and sent their eyeballs and entertainment dollars elsewhere.
As it turned out, Bettman was overextending the NHL at its apex. When the bubble burst, player salaries didn’t match up with revenues and eventually the NHL cancelled the entire 2004-05 season. When the NHL resumed, the only network television deal the league could get was with NBC, in which the league didn’t receive any guaranteed money. Other national coverage was relegated to the Outdoor Life Network which changed it’s name to Versus. Today most mainstream sports media outlets barely cover the NHL. Surely a far cry from what Bettman expected from his forays into the South and West.
Still Karmanos would not have bought the Whalers if he hadn’t been confident he could move them. The badly sagging attendance is likely what gave Karmanos that confidence. During the 1989-90 season, Whaler attendance was 13,705, the following season it dropped to 12,404. During the 91-92 season average attendance dropped to 10,896. The average attendance wouldn’t reach 12,000 per game again until the Whalers final season, after the Whalers leaving Hartford had already been announced. During this period the average NHL attendance was never below 14,000 and had reached 16,548 by 96-97; with low attendance numbers, the Hartford franchise was a prime takeover target for someone looking to relocate.
The decline in fan attendance during the 1990’s can be attributable to the team’s decline in performance; the Whalers of the 1990’s were essentially a non-competitive team. Almost any Whaler fan you speak to will point to one day that was the beginning of the end, March 4, 1991.
On March 4, 19991, Hartford Whalers GM Eddie Johnston traded Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson to the Pittsburgh Penguins for John Cullen and Zarley Zalapski, a trade that a long-time Whalers season ticket holder described as “cringe-worthy.” Widely panned at the time by Whaler fans, the trade ended up one of the most lopsided in NHL history and the Whalers never fully recovered.
Curiously, Eddie Johnston had not only been head coach in Pittsburgh, he had been the team’s General Manager from 1984 to 1988. After being let go from his disastrous stint with the Whalers, Johnston found himself coaching in Pittsburgh for the 1993-1994 season. He continued to work for the Penguins until his retirement in 2009.
With the team’s play suffering, there was one reward to replenish the franchise; high draft picks. The Whalers drafted defenseman Chris Pronger number two overall in the 1993 NHL Draft. Pronger debuted with the team that season at 18 years old. Whaler fans, looking for a savior, grew impatient with the teenage defenseman and routinely booed him. After two seasons Pronger was traded to St. Louis for Brendan Shanahan. Pronger is one of only two former Whalers still active in the NHL today. (J.S. Giguere is the other.) Pronger has gone onto win a Stanley Cup, league MVP award and is considered a surefire Hall of Fame player when he retires.
In Brendan Shanahan, the Whalers received a truly elite power forward in the prime of his career having already twice scored 50 goals in a season. Shanahan was immediately named captain of the team and expectations were at their highest point in years. Opening night of the 1995-96 season was a truly wild scene at the Hartford Civic Center. Led by Shanahan, the Whalers scored an opening night victory as the crowd was at a fever pitch. The Whalers would start with four straight wins on the season, but then slump to miss the playoffs.
In the off-season Shanahan made it known that he no longer wished to play for the Whalers, citing the teams’ uncertain future as owner Peter Karmanos openly threatened relocation. Forced into a bargaining position with no leverage, the Whalers had to sell their best asset for pennies on the dollar. Two games into the 1996-97 season, Shanahan was traded to Detroit for Keith Primeau, Paul Coffey and a draft pick.
Coffey, a former elite level defenseman whose best days were behind him immediately and openly expressed his displeasure of playing in Hartford. Forced once again to sell an asset on the cheap from an unenviable bargaining position, Coffey was traded to Philadelphia for Kevin Haller after only 20 games in Hartford. The Whalers would leave town after the season.
Players’ unwillingness to play in Hartford kept forcing the Whalers to trade their best players for far below market value. In a matter of a few months, the Whalers had traded a Hall of Fame forward in his prime for what amounted to a pedestrian defenseman in Haller and a good checking line center in Primeau.
The blame really can’t be put on one or even two characters for the departure of the Whalers. Peter Karmanos actually moved the team, Eddie Johnston dismantled it and made it difficult for the fans buy tickets. Fans left the Civic Center empty and Governor Rowland and Gary Bettman never really cared if the team left. Players’ refusal to play in Hartford further diluted the product and kept fans away from the games. All these factors combined to give us what we have now, a minor league hockey team and fans pining for the glory days of the Hartford Whalers.