By Logan Smith
Current Dreams are a Past Reality
The idea of having a professional hockey team in Connecticut may seem outlandish to many people today. However, only 22 years ago, this was a reality. The Hartford Whalers competed in the eastern conference of the National Hockey League, and remained in Hartford from 1979 to 1997 before moving and becoming the Carolina Hurricanes. While they resided in Hartford, they provided the community with a sense of pride and also inspired the youth of Hartford to take an interest in hockey. To this day, Hartford Whalers gear remains one of the hottest commodities sold by the NHL, which serves as an indicator as to the resilience of the fan base that once cherished and cheered on their local Hartford Whalers.
Whalers with a Cause
The Hartford Whalers came into existence prior to the 1979-1980 NHL season. Before their life in the NHL, and even their life in Hartford, they were known as the New England Whalers of the WHA who called Boston their home. Upon the WHA/NHL merger they relocated to Hartford and rebranded themselves as the Hartford Whalers. Once the Whalers had arrived in Hartford, they worked to forge a bond with the city, as well as with the state of Connecticut. Such actions included an extensive youth outreach initiative from within the organization. This is evident in Jeff Jacobs’ article from 1992 which states:
The Whalers, through their alumni association, and the city, through the Department of Parks and Recreation and the police department, have linked arms to form a free street hockey program for the city's youth -- girls and boys, 5 to 18. They plan to have a gem of a street and roller hockey center at Colt Park ready in the spring (Courant, Nov. 21, 1992, C1).
This shows that the Hartford Whalers organization not only took interest in the development of Hartford’s youth, but that they were also willing to cooperate with many other Hartford based entities for the betterment of their community. This is something the organization embodied at its core, community outreach. There are numerous examples of Whalers players or the entire team promoting, or assisting in, many public outreach projects throughout Hartford. One individual, former Whalers goalie Mike Veisor, stated “…if professional hockey is to survive in Hartford, interest needs to be nurtured in children” (Hartford Courant, September 19th, 1993). This quote shows that the team was invested in Hartford and wanted to cultivate a certain level of interest within the youth of Hartford. Bob Crawford, who was at that time president of the Whaler's alumni association, stated in regards to the presence of youth hockey within Hartford, “It’s going to lead to something else positive in their lives, many people believe in what the Whalers are doing and want to be a part of it” (Hartford Courant, September 19th, 1993). This further emphasizes the mutual feeling of connection between the Hartford Whalers organization and its players, with the people of Hartford and Connecticut as a whole.
The Hartford Civic Center
The XL Center in Hartford
Good Things Never Last
Sadly, the Hartford Whalers, for a variety of reasons, found themselves relocating to Raleigh, North Carolina for the 1997 season and rebranding themselves as the Carolina Hurricanes. Naturally, not just Hartford or Connecticut residents, but also fans in the general Northeast of the nation were left with not just the loss of a team, but for many a loss of pride and regional identity. Many in the Hartford area began a “Save the Whalers’’ campaign (New York Times, April 13th, 1996) in an effort to end the possibility of the Whalers leaving the state. One man described the situation using the words, “It’s my belief that the engine that drives the train here in Hartford is the coliseum… and the engine that drives the coliseum is the Hartford Whalers” (New York Times, April 13th, 1996). This point of view, from a Hartford business owner, shows the belief that the Whalers were crucial in the economic sphere of Hartford, not just as a sports franchise, but as a driver of business and patronage to the area. Another individual, Philip Hopkins, the owner of the Hartford Brewery stated, “I have the sinking feeling the Whalers are not going to be here” (New York Times, April 13th, 1996). The Whalers were a crucial part of the community and it became even more evident as the prospect of the team leaving Hartford became a reality.
The Whaler Legacy
The Whalers identity is still alive and well today. Whalers apparel is still sold by the NHL and many of the Whaler items find themselves in the “best seller” category among all NHL merchandise. There have been talks of a hockey franchise returning to Hartford one day, but even without the physical presence of the team, the fans continue to show their support for what was once their team. Recently, the Carolina Hurricanes began selling Whalers merchandise within their arena and many in Hartford were conflicted about the prospect of the Hartford name being used for a monetary gain by a North Carolina based team. One man, Joseph Bajorski, stated, “The jersey belongs to Hartford and the hockey fans in Hartford” (Hartford Courant, December 23rd, 2018). This shows that the feeling of affiliation with, and connection to, the Hartford Whalers is still very much present in modern day Connecticut.
The Hartford Whalers were a great source of pride and camaraderie for the people of Hartford, and their exit from the city was met with anguish by many a fan and supporter. While they were in Hartford, they provided the community with youth outreach programs and also served as a catalyst for economic stability and growth. The rebranding of the Whalers into the Carolina Hurricanes still leaves a bitter taste in many fans’ mouths as the Hurricanes have attempted to profit off the marketing of Hartford Whalers merchandise. One thing is certain, the Hartford Whalers were cherished during their stay in Hartford, and remain so to this day.