Monday, May 14, 2012
A Whale Season Recap & Story Revisited
With the CT Whale being eliminated in overtime of game six in Norfolk this weekend, the book has officially closed on the 2011-12 hockey season in Hartford. If nothing else, it was interesting. We saw the Whale come storming out of the gate and control the division in the first half of the season. We saw the Bourque brothers face each other professionally for the first time with Hall of Fame dad Ray in the crowd on a Tuesday night, alas, that game would only draw just over 1,000.
We saw a Saturday evening draw over 11,000, a winless January, Howard Baldwin talk about the return of the NHL to Hartford, promotions to the Rangers, questions about the future of the XL Center, Cam Talbot shining in the first round in a surprising sweep of Bridgeport, and a "home" game in Bridgeport before bowing out to a juggernaut Norfolk team that the Whale defeated more time in six games than the whole league had since February 5.
We clapped, we shook our heads, we had optimism, we gave up, we rekindled childhood memories, we made new friends, we brought friends, we brought dates, we came alone, we brought ex's, and in the end, being true Hartfordites we were defeated by a heavily favored opponent.
In the end, it was the first full season of the CT Whale. Back in December when the Wolfpack were rebranded the Whale and poor Sonar was sent to the unemployment line, we ran a contest for the best Whalers game experience story. The winner follow. Do you have a good one? Send it to us! You too could be featured on Hartford's bastion of truth and hard hitting news!
It was Opening Night 1995 and hopes were pretty high for the Whalers going into that season. During the off-season the Whalers had traded young Chris Pronger in exchange for Brendan Shanahan. Shanny was the first legit superstar the Whalers had had since trading Ron Francis away half a decade earlier.
I was in my Sophomore year of high school and as luck would have it, one of my friends family couldn't use their four lower level season tickets to the game. I was lucky enough to be one of the three to get an invite. We of course locked in a friend with a driver's, a bottle of Goldschlager, and the four of us 15 and 16 year olds were ready for a night of Whalers hockey.
The Civic Center was raucous that night. Hartford had its new superstar, hopes were high, and the hated Rangers were in town only one season removed from winning the Stanley Cup. Being a 15 year old that had "sipped" Goldschlager liberally before the game, I don't really remember too many of the details except that the Whalers won 2-0 and the crowd was exceptional.
(Ed. Note: Confirmed that this game was played on October 7, 1995 and the Whalers did win 2-0.The Whalers won their first 4 games that season, tied the fifth game and then lost the next five on their way to yet another losing season.)
Now I'm not sure if this was the first year that smoking was banned inside the Civic Center or if this was the first season that the outdoor smoking area was in the location overlooking Ann Street, but given what transpired I have to believe it was one of the two.
The first period ended and of course being soaked in Goldschalger, we needed to suck down a couple Marlboro Reds to get the cinnamon taste out of our mouths. This was probably the first time for each of us to be at a game unsupervised so to say we were enjoying drinking and smoking without any worry of parental interruption would be a bit of an understatement.
During the intermission some enterprising gentleman down on Ann Street decided to take advantage of his captive nicotine addict audience and start playing his saxophone down on the street. A couple philanthropic fans donated to this fine artistic cause by attempting to deposit coins into the open saxophone case a good fifteen to twenty feet below the smokers deck. Some more civic minded patrons decided this was a fun game and soon a few dozen coins were being hurled down onto Ann Street. Hurled from wobbly, beer soaked arms, a few of these coins would manage to ricochet of parked motor vehicles below.
The real fun started after the second period when all of us smoking degenerates reconvened at the smoking shame spot. With the seed planted from the first intermission and another period of booze fueling brain function, it seemed that the smokers had gathered every piece of change in the Civic Center and was ready to really support the arts.
Sure enough the saxophone player had returned, but the pretense of trying to throw the change in the gentleman's case did not return with him. What followed was a barrage of coins onto Ann Street, aimed at cars parked on the street; the nicer vehicles receiving the brunt of the barrage. I hazily remember a Benz or Beamer being a particular target of abuse. The scene reached near mayhem as coins were joined by spit and the occasional bottle and can was hurled down below.
For four young teenagers attending our first game unsupervised drinking, smoking and seeing adults act in such a manner served as an unbelievable source entertainment. We could scarcely believe what we were seeing. Eventually the police came up yelling and shouting to disperse the crowd, an event that only increased the excitement for us.
That was the end of the smoking deck for the night as the Whalers won and the rowdy, but joyous crowd poured out onto the street. Whalers fans were hooting and hollering and meting out abuse to the numerous Ranger fans leaving the game. One of the group I was with hopped onto the bumper of a car stopped at a light with two dressed in Rangers jerseys and slapped their hood while chanting "Let's Go Whalers!" It really was a scene. There was a palpable feeling of optimism in the air that night.
We returned to a house where parents weren't present and spent the remainder of the night playing NHL 95, drinking out of his parents liquor cabinet and dancing in blacklight to Dark Side of the Moon. Remembering that now, it's the kind of high school night you want when you watch Dazed & Confused.
It's the last time I remember ever seeing the city so excited about the Whalers. The next time I was at a game a tall metal wall (that remains there today) had been installed on the smoking deck so smokers couldn't even see down onto Ann Street. I must have went to close to 100 Whaler games and that may have been my favorite. I don't talk to the other three all that much anymore but I think between the four of us there are already five kids. As much as our parents would have gone ballistic on that night at the time, they find it funny now and I hope our kids can experience something similar at an NHL game in Hartford one day.
Sounds like a great time. Wish I could have been there.