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Game Time: Whaler Fan Fest -- Houston Oiler Fans May Know How I Feel

whalerdessert.JPG
Hartford Whalers: They live on as a dessert
"Somewhere along the line, we will see you in another place in another time. God bless all of you fans. Remember one thing, you may have lost the NHL, but you have not lost the memories." -- Chuck Kaiton, the voice of the Hartford Whalers after the Whalers final game in Hartford, 4/13/1997

The iron-clad pact of the sports fan with our teams comes with an understanding that we will endure a disproportionate number of lows to experience that rare high, the exhilaration of feeling like we're part of something. Something great. A higher place. It's the addictive love affair between diehard fan and team.

Unfortunately, the hardcore follower never takes the time to read the fine print, and we realize the hard way just how addictive that love is when the highs, the lows, and everything in between are stolen from us.

Houston Oilers fans know this. Hartford Whalers fans know this.

I'm not afraid to say that of my ten fondest high school memories, the Hartford Whalers are involved in at least seven of them. (For the record, the other three would involve the Boston Red Sox, Rocky Balboa, and Atari. Not surprisingly, "losing my virginity" is noticeably absent from the list.) So when the Whalers left Hartford for North Carolina in 1997, a big chunk of my sports soul was summarily ripped out that day.

In actuality, by that time, I was an adult and no longer living in Hartford. By then I was living in Houston, where ironically in 1997 I had just finished watching Bud Adams crush the souls of my friends and neighbors by erasing the Houston Oilers from existence, moving them to Nashville to become the Tennessee Oilers for a couple years, before completing their sex change operation in 1999 and becoming the Tennessee Titans.

Whaler Fever: Completely catchable, unlike this puck
Whaler Fever: Completely catchable, unlike this puck

Watching close friends process the theft of "Luv Ya Blue" by a mercenary owner unfortunately didn't make the Whalers' exodus from Hartford (with owner Peter Karmanos playing the role of a pony tail-wearing cross between Bud Adams and Satan) any easier for me to handle. In fact, having to watch it from afar via long distance conversations with my dad and via articles on this then-fledgling technology called the internet made it more like being all the way across the country while a sick relative died. You hang up the phone with the latest bit of grim news, you know how the story is going to end, and you shake your head and say "I'm supposed to be there for this..."

If the criteria for determining your first love are spending all of your summer job money on them and doodling their name mindlessly in your notebook during geometry class, then my first love was a freaking hockey team.

The Hartford Whalers.

And to be clear, I wasn't alone. My close circle of buddies, equally hardcore for hockey (and also sufficiently inept with the ladies), all lived and died with the Whaler blue and green. Any self-respecting sports fan has a team that they loved a little too much as a kid -- for us, it was the Mighty Whale.

There were five of us that I would count among the most ardent, maniacal Whaler zealots -- the Insane Whale Posse, if you will. Here is the scouting report on my other four buddies in this group along with evidence supporting just how much therapy they were actually in need of back then:

ROB THOMPSON:
Rob grew up playing hockey, and his current brother-in-law Kris was actually the Whalers' assistant equipment manager back in the late `80's. (While "assistant equipment manager" may not sound like much, make no mistake -- any of us in our group of friends would have given our left nut to be Kris back then.) Rob cemented his place in the WTF Moment Hall of Fame when he scored a homecoming date with Laurie Lippincott (Hot Chick Scouting Report: Laurie was the Cindy Mancini of Simsbury High School at that time, gold standard.), and instead of "doing what high school students do" at the drunken after-party with her, he chose to watch the third period of the Whalers' 1986-87 home opener with a bunch of our inebriated buddies. Still the craziest waste of world class talent since Isiah Thomas organized the infamous "freeze out" of Michael Jordan in the 1985 NBA All-Star Game.

JOHN PERUGINI: John is easily the least rational of our crew of Whaler diehards, so much so that when he has actually picked not one, but TWO fights with future NHL Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan. To clarify, two things -- one, Shanahan spent one season in Hartford (1995-96) before bellyaching his way out of town and effectively landing the death blow for the franchise by trashing the city on his way out the door. If he didn't kill hockey in Hartford, Shanahan dealt it the blunt force trauma to put it on life support before Karmanos pulled the plug. Secondly, Shanahan is 6-foot-3, 225 pounds; Perugini is 5-foot-8, and can still squeeze between fence bars to sneak into minor league baseball games.

So with that said, Shanahan-Perugini I occurred at a bar outside Wrigley, where John walked up to Shanahan, got in his face and drunkenly slurred "You killed hockey in Hartford, you son of a bitch!" Were it not for the intervention of one Doug Gilmour (who my buddies and I now call "Gandhi on skates"), Shanahan would probably be using Perugini's head as his hood ornament. Instead, Shanahan had to be escorted from the bar before John's dismemberment could commence.

About seven years later, Shanahan was at the United Center doing studio work for Canadian television on the Stanley Cup Finals. Perugini decided to go in for a rematch, sidled his way up to the roped off broadcast area and started dropping catcalls on Shanahan (presumably several involving derogatory female names). Fortunately, Shanahan chose the high road this time and just ignored Perugini, which is not always the easiest thing to do.

CHRIS COBB:
He is the sober yin to Perugini's yang, easily the most level-headed of all of us, and not surprisingly the only one in our group who has never required the services of a divorce lawyer. Every group of friends has one member whose house becomes Command Central, whose television room gets hijacked for sporting events, and whose parents have a grocery bill that is about five times what it should be. Chris' living room was the site of some of the highest sports moments of our young lives (Dave Henderson's home run in Game 6 of the 1986 ALCS) and some of the most depressing (Claude Lemieux's Game 7 goal in the 1986 Stanley Cup playoffs).

ROSS MANDELL:
Ross was the best actual hockey player of our group of friends, and easily has the best story to illustrate just how irrational his love for this team was. After the Whalers lost Game 7 of the 1986 conference semifinals against the Canadiens, a bunch of us went to the airport to greet the team to thank them for a great season. All except Ross, who decided it was a better idea to don his Whaler jersey and goalie mask, and wait for goalie Mike Liut at Liut's house to thank him in person. Ross even had a miniature version of a Stanley Cup tucked under his arm, I guess because he thought he could use it to post bail when Liut inevitably had him hauled off for trespassing.

Unfortunately for Liut (and fortunately for any fan of comedy), by the time he arrived home, Ross had passed out under a tree in the front yard. I mean, picture that -- you're Mike Liut. You just lost Game 7 in the Stanley Cup playoffs in the Montreal Forum in overtime and you come home to find some fool wearing a "Jason" goalie mask with a hand painted Whalers logo and with a tin foil version of the Stanley Cup residing at his crotch, and he's passed out under a tree. In 2010, this would have been on Deadspin within 15 minutes after the 9-1-1 call.

On an unrelated note, Ross is the only one in our group who has needed a divorce lawyer twice.

 

Just to give those outside of the Greater Hartford area a "brief as it can be" history of the Whaler franchise, the New England Whalers were founded by Howard Baldwin and some business associates in 1971 as the New England Whalers of the now defunct World Hockey Association. The Whalers run in the WHA was largely successful, including a championship in 1972-73, a handful of division titles, and the roof of their home ice arena (the legendary Hartford Civic Center) collapsing in the middle of the night in 1978.


In 1979, the National Hockey League chose to absorb four teams from the struggling WHA, including the Whalers. It was like a less celebrated version of the AFL-NFL merger, mostly because the four cities being absorbed into the league had a combined population less than that of one borough of New York City.

This merger was noteworthy for three reasons:

1. Another one of the teams absorbed by the NHL was the Edmonton Oilers who had a teenage wunderkind you might have heard of -- name's Gretzky. He wound up being a decent player.

2. The Whalers were coming into the league playing their home games in Springfield because the roof was still being rebuilt on the Hartford Civic Center in late 1979. Back then, sparkling new arenas weren't the buy-in to expansion that they are today -- "We're just gonna go ahead and re-install the roof on this arena that just collapsed" was good enough in 1979, I guess.

3. Of the four franchises that entered the league in 1979, three of them are no longer in their original cities -- the Quebec Nordiques, the Winnipeg Jets and the Hartford Whalers eventually became the Colorado Avalanche, the Phoenix Coyotes, and Lucifer's Hurricanes (based in North Carolina). If you're looking to write a thesis on American sports expansion in the 1990's (and its flaws), look no further than that.

Anyway, at the behest of their new neighbors and rival, the Boston Bruins, the New England Whalers changed their name to the Hartford Whalers, changed their logo to the enduring whale fin forming an "H" and a "W", and their color scheme to green and blue.

After making the NHL playoffs in their first season in the league (1979-80) with a team largely marketed around 51-year-old legend Gordie Howe, the bad times set in. Through a series of head-scratching trades, terrible drafts (save the selection of Ron Francis in 1981), and bad luck the Whalers plummeted to the bottom of the league, missing the playoffs five straight seasons. Keep in mind, that back then there were only 21 NHL teams and 16 of them made the playoffs, which meant it was actually harder to get into Tunxis Community College than it was to make the NHL playoffs.

The team bottomed out in 1983, finishing 20th out of 21 teams. This led to the hiring of respected franchise architect Emile Francis as general manager. Francis quickly started to clean house, and by 1986-87, every player from that 1982-83 roster was gone except Ron Francis (who was, without a doubt, the Earl Campbell of the Whalers franchise).

1985-86 and 1986-87 were glorious years, marked by a return to the playoffs in 1986 and an Adams Division title in 1987. Houston fans remember what "Luv Ya Blue" felt like in the late `70's; that's what the mid-`80's were like in Hartford, up to and including things like throwing a parade for a team that didn't even win its division. We didn't care -- we loved the Whale, the Whale loved us.

For my buddies and me, the joy was in the process of each game -- the drive over Talcott Mountain from Simsbury to the "big city" (complete with the view of the Hartford skyline in Bloomfield), Anthony Harrington's rendition of the national anthem, public address guy Greg Gilmartin's patented "Ladies and gentlemen, here are...your...HARTFORD WHALERS!", the Brass Bonanza, Kevin Dineen's clutch performances, Ron Francis' quiet dignity, Paul MacDermid's bone-crushing hits, Torrie Robertson's beating the piss out of Mike Milbury, and Chuck Kaiton's signature voice on the post-game show on the ride home.

Perugini and I had the same seats for every game of the magical 1986-87 season, our senior year in high school before both heading off to Notre Dame, where we continued to spread the mantra of the Whale via our life-sized Ron Francis "Milk, it does a body good" posters in our dorm rooms (Coincidentally, we each extended our contract with celibacy for at least another two years.).

Those seats at the game were special. Perugini and I went to the Civic Center after school one day in June 1986 to hand-pick our seats. We were escorted by a member of the Whalers sales staff into an empty arena, and we got to test drive the different sections like we were buying a new SUV. Honestly, I've spent less time buying houses than I did those seats that day. We sat everywhere in the arena, making sure we had the best seats to fit our budget.

Section 207, Row G, seats 5 and 6.

We spent virtually our entire summer money on those seats, so we could be there to boo Claude Lemieux, scrap with stray Bruins fans, go down to the concourse between periods and drink beer out of wax paper cups using the garbage cans as our countertop, and high five our next door neighbor in seat 7, a special needs guy who we called "Joey" who I could write 10,000 words about and who you almost had to be there to experience.

It was a glorious time. Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. Whalermania was no different.

The euphoria of the `80's gave way to multiple ownership changes in the `90's. Eddie Johnston was brought in as the general manager and as methodically as Emile Francis had constructed the core of a winning team in the mid-`80's, Johnston systematically destroyed the team from within so drastically that you'd think he was a mole inadvertently hired by CTU on 24, with the death blow being the trade of captain Ron Francis to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 (which felt even more like an inside job after Johnston became Francis' coach in Pittsburgh two years later).

We talk about shows, people, teams, entertainers "jumping the shark," reaching that point where you can palpably feel that the best of times are actually in our rear view mirror. The Whalers jumped the shark the day Ron Francis was traded. He was the heart and soul of the team. He was Ronnie Franchise.

From that point on, the 90's turned into a litany of largely nondescript seasons, no real playoff success, and a few moderately talented building blocks. If a star player found their way to Hartford, they were either not yet at superstardom (Chris Pronger), over the hill (Paul Coffey), or they hated the city (Shanahan). Eventually, Peter Karmanos, an outsider with no loyalty to Hartford, amidst season ticket sales ultimatums to the city (which were actually achieved) and demands for a new arena, decided to move the team.

All that was left was an empty Civic Center and a bunch of memories.

 

Howard Baldwin already brought the Whalers into this world once. If he has his way, he'll do it again.

Baldwin was managing general partner of the team until it was sold to local businessman Richard Gordon in 1988. While Baldwin was going on to become Chairman of the Board for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the `90's, and having a very successful run in Hollywood producing movies with his wife Karen, including Ray, the life story of Ray Charles which stars Jamie Foxx, the Whalers -- his baby -- were being bounced from owner to owner before eventually being kidnapped and taken to North Carolina.

To that end, Baldwin is well aware of the vacuum left in Hartford in the wake of Hurricane Karmanos. He now wants to return the Whaler brand to its rightful place -- a professional hockey rink in Hartford, CT. You get the sense that his efforts to bring the Whalers back to Hartford are part unfinished business, part reward to a region that deserves NHL hockey -- not entirely different than Bob McNair's eventually successful effort to bring NFL football back to Houston in the late `90's.

"This is something that means a heck of a lot to [Karen and me], this was a great period of my life, and it would break my heart to see it go away and nobody remember it. The legacy of this community is the Whalers and I want to put it back where it belongs," said Baldwin.

There have been attempts by factions in Hartford to tap into the Whaler nostalgia before, and they've fizzled. Truth be told, none of those had the leadership nor the backing of someone as charismatic as Baldwin, who is the perfect combination of historian, visionary, and mad scientist to lead this charge.

The Whaler brand is strong, ranking in the top ten in merchandise sales despite the team not even technically existing. Baldwin says, "The fact of the matter is this team became like the Green Bay Packers. The Whalers are a community team that belongs to the people here, and wherever you go there is a fondness for the brand. That translates to sales."

If you go to Wikipedia to learn about the Hartford Whalers, the very first sentence will describe them in the past tense: "The Hartford Whalers were a North American professional ice hockey team based in Hartford, CT." Hartford Whaler Summer Fan Fest this past weekend proved that statement to be false -- the Mighty Whale lives on in the hearts and minds of, at the very least, 4,700 loyal Whaler followers who turned out to relive the glory days with the likes of Gordie Howe, Ron Francis, Kevin Dineen, and Chuck Kaiton in a festive event at East Hartford's Rentschler Field (or as I like to call it "The House Orlovsky Built").

Three-fifths of the Insane Whale Posse made the trip to Hartford for the event -- myself (via Houston), Perugini (via Chicago), and Cobber (via South Windsor, CT). It's also worth noting that we awarded honorary IWP status for Friday's festivities to our dear friend, Rob Stone of ESPN.

The itinerary for the weekend consisted of a charity dinner for the Arthritis Foundation on Friday (complete with Chuck Kaiton, voice of the Whalers, as the emcee and tons of silent auction gear sold) and the Fan Fest at Renstchler Field on Saturday.

Highlights of the weekend included the following:

-- At the dinner on Friday night, each table included a former Whaler for guests to chat with about the good ol' days. Obviously, like any self-respecting Whaler fans, we were hoping for Ron Francis, Kevin Dineen, or Gordie Howe at our table. Instead, we wound up with former brawler Jeff Brubaker. Honestly, if you're not going to get a Hall of Famer at your table, the next best thing is to get a player whose sole purpose on earth is to blast other players' teeth through the back of their skull. Brubaker had some great stories about fights (Dave Brown of Philadelphia was the toughest guy for him to fight, for the record), the most poignant being a general answer to the impetus for most fights, which he said ironically was rarely a personal issue between players but instead a desire to show his coach he was there to do his job.

-- Also at the dinner Friday night, a woman who is friends with my father and used to organize events for the Whalers when they were still in Hartford told us a story about a charity event the team was conducting in 1995. Perugini's arch-nemesis, Shanahan, apparently spent the entire event in a back room literally sobbing about how unimportant he felt in Hartford. At one point, he actuallt lamented that no one recognized him and bought him drinks when he was out at the local bars. Needless to say, upon hearing this story, Perugini reacted like Ralph Macchio and Joe Pesci after the judge dismissed all charges in My Cousin Vinny. It was sweet vindication for John that Shanahan somehow deserved his verbal barbs.

-- We had a chance to meet several players on Friday night. Our favorite was easily Dineen, who if you had a contest online to select "Mr. Whaler," he should win in a landslide. Every goal he scored was an event, none more appropriate and sad than the final goal in Whaler history on April 13, 1997. His most famous goal was probably in overtime of Game 4 of the 1986 playoff series with the Montreal Canadiens, dipping his shoulder and flying past Hall of Famer Larry Robinson before flipping the puck past another Hall of Famer, goalie Patrick Roy. This was maybe the signature sports moment of my teenage years -- sheer jubilation on a night when the series could have slipped away, people dancing on Church Street outside after the game. Even better was Perugini at the dinner Friday night trying to find the words to express to Dineen how spine tingling the goal was, channeling his best Chris Farley Show from Saturday Night Live -- "Hey Kevin, remember the goal against Montreal in overtime in 1986?....That was awesome..."

-- If Dineen was our favorite player we met, Gordie Howe was the most surreal. I mean, if there is a Babe Ruth of hockey, then it's Mr. Hockey himself. Gordie Howe is 82 years old now. His hands look like they've done some serious manual labor, and they have. About 1,000 goals worth. But what I'll remember most from Friday night is Gordie Howe playfully digging an elbow in the rib cage of every person he posed with for a picture, and taking the hockey stick he signed for my sons and showing us his shooting technique. If Ted Williams broke down the nuances of his baseball swing for you, you'd freak out. Well...we freaked out.

-- Ostensibly, my father works for St. Francis Hospital in fundraising, but he was spending money at the live auction on Friday night like the Knicks just signed him to the mid-level exception. He bought the aforementioned hockey stick autographed by Howe, a Dineen game-worn jersey autographed by all of the players in attendance, and a poster of all of the players there, also autographed. He gave me the stick and jersey, prompting Perugini to ask me every fifteen minutes for the rest of the weekend if my dad was going to buy me any more stuff -- the implication being that I'm still twelve years old and living on my parents' dime. If Shanahan-Perugini III ever happens, I may have to reconsider my rooting interests. Anyway, unsung hero of the weekend was old man Pendergast, who doesn't work for UConn (anymore...he used to) or the state of Connecticut, but mysteriously knows everyone in both places, they all love him, and he can seemingly get tickets or access to anything. He's like a cross between Hesh from The Sopranos, Worldwide Wes, and Red from The Shawshank Redemption.

-- I said earlier that the Whalers jumped the shark the day that Ron Francis was traded. Well apparently, you know who also subscribes to that theory? Ron Francis, that's who! Perugini brought a navy blue Whalers jersey with him for autographs on Saturday; the navy blue jersey became part of the Whalers' uniform rotation in 1992, a year after Francis had been traded. When Perugini presented Francis with his navy blue gear for Ronnie's John Hancock, Francis quietly refused saying "I didn't play on those Whaler teams." While this left Perugini confused and a bit disillusioned, I kind of respected it. The navy blue Whalers are the guys who shipped him out of town for goddamned John Cullen and Zarley Zalapski. Screw them. Perugini just got caught in the crossfire, that's all. That's how I choose to see it.

Of all the things that Whaler Fan Fest was about, hockey was actually fairly far down on the list. There will be a time during Baldwin's efforts where the sport of hockey will be the focus -- that will come in February when Baldwin launches the next phase of his master plan, a ten day outdoor hockey festival with the Whaler name on the marquee.

For my buddies and I, this weekend was about reliving memories and someone finally giving us a reason to put aside excuses and geography and get together for a couple days, as if you ever need a reason for that. For Whaler fans in attendance it was about nostalgia and joy, remembering a team and a group of players whose likability was spawned from their insane work rate, from belief. Truth be told, a big part of why we loved these Whalers was because they lived in our neighborhoods, shopped at our stores, drank at our bars. In some sense, they were the last wave of player before the seven-figure salary created a figurative gated community around our heroes, putting them at an arm's distance where they became more fictitious superhero and less human.

For Howard Baldwin, Whaler Summer Fest was about hope and perhaps even a little redemption, the first step in recapturing something that we all wish he never gave up in the first place.

Andy Dufresne once told us that hope is a good thing, and no good thing ever dies. The Mighty Whale is not dead yet. Far from it.


Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on the "Sean & John Show" and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.
He'll be back later today with a report from the Texans-Saints practice in New Orleans.


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