ALL ABOARD THE ICEBUS (A New Hope)

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Mad Maxim Letunov, a hero emerging from the wasteland that is post-Whalers Hartford.

In Hartford, more so than most places, there exists the temptation to get stuck in the past. As the city has sunk deeper into economic decay and regional pride has eroded slowly into self-loathing, the halcyon days of Whalermania make for a potent dose of soothing nostalgia. But we all know what came just a few years later; a series of blows from crooked owners and dirty politicians which have left us staggering to this day.

But there is a new hope in Hartford. After the many false starts and disappointments, from the Patriots debacle to the unfulfilled promise of the Connecticut Whale experiment, I’m cautiously prepared to say that this time it’s for real. We are now one year into the journey of the Ice Bus and not only has it shown no sign of slowing, but a hero has emerged: a lanky 6’4″ freshman striding onto the post-apocalyptic wasteland which has become the XL Center under the snore-inducing reign of the Wolf Pack. Born halfway across the world in Russia barely a year before the Whalers left town, Max Letunov is an unlikely hero. He came to the Huskies late in the off-season as a last-minute recruit after a commitment to Boston University fell through due to administrative complications, and was only cleared to play for UConn this season in late August. He came through strong in his first game, not just scoring but netting a hat trick. Since then he has consistently been a multiple point-per-game player, earning 11 points in 5 games so far. It’s still very early, but anyone who followed the Huskies closely in their inaugural Hockey East season can already see the clear difference that his offensive ability has made in what was essentially the Rob Nichols Show just a few months earlier.

8000 Really Excited Guys in Whaler Hats: a fairly accurate sample of the crowd at UConn's Hockey East home opener.

8000 Really Excited Guys in Whaler Hats: a fairly accurate sample of the crowd at UConn’s Hockey East home opener.

The team we saw last year was better than they should have been, but in all honesty not a very good one. What they had was enough heart (and a great goalie) to win a few games they shouldn’t have. There could not have been a better introduction than the home opener, a sold-out crowd of 8000, many of them skeptical college hockey virgins who had been warned repeatedly to expect UConn to be trounced by Boston College. My expectations were similar to those of the many NHL refugees whom I call friends; we’d all found the downgrade to developmental AHL hockey underwhelming, and expected NCAA to be more of the same minus fighting. It sounded boring, and to be quite honest, I was mostly there because UConn had come to the Whalers Booster Club and requested permission to use Brass Bonanza on goal. I didn’t expect much from college hockey but it was nice to have a team that actually wanted us as fans again.

Like most people, I was blown away by the atmosphere. The streets of Hartford were packed in a way they hadn’t been for years. There were lines outside of bars, crowds spilling out into the streets a full block before we reached the arena. And then they did the unthinkable; they won. Not only did we defeat a nationally-ranked team, but it was hated Boston College, AND it was a shut-out. Their fans, who travelled well and infested our crowd with the same arrogance of Bruins fans of yore, were stunned. The Huskies played hard, they played above their heads, but above all they played for us.

My son met Rob Nichols at a fan fest this summer and told him he was his favorite player next to Gordie Howe. I'm not sure which one of them was more overwhelmed.

My son met Rob Nichols at a fan fest this summer and told him he was his favorite player next to Gordie Howe. I’m not sure which one of them was more overwhelmed.

The team unravelled later in the season, but it mattered little. Hartford fans are slow to embrace a team, but once we do we’re loyal until death. Losing teams with heart are something of a tradition here. We set an attendance record for our opening night, probably the first time anyone had been turned away from a hockey game in Hartford since 1997, and went on to lead Hockey East in average attendance. As of this writing, UConn has committed to calling Hartford home for another three years, and there has been earnest discussion of a long-term (20 year) deal with UConn pending completion of the XL Center renovations. The mythical on-campus arena that threatened to steal the Huskies back to Storrs where they would return to irrelevance as a distant fourth wheel of UConn athletics is all but dead, the conversation now having shifted to renovating Freitas Ice Forum to be suitable as a practice facility and to host the occasional game when scheduling conflicts arise in Hartford.

I’ll never understand the provincal mentality that leads residents of towns in this, the third smallest state in the Union, to see Storrs and Hartford as being warring nations with opposed interests. I’m just glad in this case that nay-sayers didn’t prevail. The Huskies have have captured lightning in a bottle in Hartford, and only a fool would try to let it out.

Freshman and local boy Tage Thompson nets a hat trick in a 5-2 upset over #7 Boston University this past Tuesday. Listen to the crowd. Yes, this is Hartford. Yes, it was a Tuesday night.

Some have accused we Hartfordites of only embracing UConn’s hockey team because of a nostalgic goal song, or because we perceived their success as a means to the end of realizing our NHL pipe dream. I’d be lying if I said those things didn’t play a part in catching my interest, but whatever comes of the new arena or the NHL, this will always be our team. Watch the video again and look at that crowd and you’ll see your fair share of old Whalers refugees, but you’ll also see a whole lot of kids who were infants (if they were born at all) when the Whalers left town. Every one of them clapping in time to the Brass Bonanza and just as elated as the old men in green; not because of nostalgia but because they’d heard it ten times in the last two games. This was our team, our tradition. Kept alive by our heroes.

Those of us who remember the difference Ron Francis made, both in his coming and going, know how much heroes matter in a place like Hartford. Mark my words: Letunov, Naas, Thompson and Nichols are names that will be spoken of fondly over a beer at Vaughn’s for years to come.

We’re all aboard the Ice Bus.

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RUNNING FROM THE PACK (ALL THE WAY TO SPRINGFIELD)

indexI realize that there is nothing unique about what I’m about to say; if anything I’m late to the party. Except for the CT Whale years and a slight uptick last year following arena renovations and some carryover from UConn hockey, Wolf Pack attendance has plummeted every year since they came to town, culminating in a record low of about 1500 at only the second game of the current season. The modest inroads made by the short-lived Connecticut Whale effort were mostly lost after a lame duck season under AEG and a sudden rebrand to the Wolf Pack by MSG. The numbers don’t lie, the vast majority of Hartford Hockey fans see the Wolf Pack as either irrelevant or an outright insult.

Up until now, despite sympathizing with these many frustrations, I’ve been kind of an exception to the rule. I still hold partial season tickets to the Pack. I’ve felt a loyalty to Hartford that overrides my distaste for the indifference that MSG and the various management companies who have run the day-to-day of the Pack have shown towards Whaler fans. I was one of the 600 who drove up to Worcester for the play-off game that was displaced by the circus, and I was one of the 1500 who helped set that record low attendance number two weeks ago. I’ve always said that no matter how much I hate the Rangers or whatever corporation runs the operations, I’ll still root for my city. I’ll still support the players who hit the ice in our name and I’ll support the game day staff and businesses who rely on events in Hartford. Until today, that is. Tonight I find myself staring at a pile of season tickets and realizing that every single ticket feels more like a chore than a game, that I’m dragging my kid to see games that neither of us care about, more out of a sense of moral obligation towards my city than out of any sense of enjoyment. Hockey is one of my favorite things in the world, a love that has run through my family for four generations.

I can’t do it anymore: The Wolf Pack is making me hate hockey.

From Colin McEnroe's weekly news quiz.

From Colin McEnroe’s weekly news quiz.

There was a lot of fallout from the piece I wrote about Pucky being removed from the Wolf Pack home opener, some of it quite supportive from people who felt the same way, some outright hostile from the usual cast of characters, and a lot of it in between. Mostly there was just a lot of it, more than I was prepared for. It was the first thing I’d ever written and within 24 hours about 4000 people had seen it and a lot of them had something to say. My friend Pete Hindle of the Examiner disagreed sharply but respectfully in his piece, making some fair points about the behavior about the game day staff while casting some aspersions at the Baldwins and their intentions I thought were unfair, and missing the bigger point that whether this was a misunderstanding or a stunt or not, there was only one appropriate response from Spectra and the Pack after the fact: a public acknowledgement of the incident and the perception that the Wolf Pack is a Hartford team that doesn’t care about Hartford fans. The latter is something that was long overdue before the Pucky incident.

Springfield welcomes the 91 Club following the Civic Center's roof collapse.

Springfield welcomes the 91 Club following the Civic Center’s roof collapse.

Following the depressing 1500-fan game, I had a long talk with someone who I respect quite a bit despite our disagreeing vehemently on this matter. I don’t pretend to be non-partisan by any stretch of the imagination, but I consider myself fair and capable of entertaining a differing point of view. Following our conversation I agreed that in the interest of fairness I would reserve further judgement and send my ticket representative at the Pack a friendly email about my frustration, both with the Pucky incident and the situation in general, and give them a chance to address it or at least tell their side of the story.

I wrote that while I didn’t think it was a great call to remove Pucky after selling him a ticket and letting him through security, nor was I convinced that removing him instead of arranging for a waiver and preventing the subsequent backlash (“Pucky Forced to Sign Waiver” would not have made much of a story!), it was understandable that in the chaos of opening night things were handled less than perfectly. I shared with them the alarmingly high number of hits my story about the incident had received, the overt attempts by Springfield’s AHL team to poach disgruntled Whalers fans from Hartford. I expressed a sincere desire to see the Pack address the matter publicly and in a way that healed the rift, rather than becoming the impetus for a second migration of Whaler fans to Springfield. I meant it. The idea of abandoning the arena I’d considered home all of my life and rooting against Hartford made me feel kind of sick. It was really a last resort for me, but I was close to having had enough. I cc’ed Chris Lawrence, head of Spectra’s operations here in Hartford, on my email and decided to give a week.

A little R-E-S-P-E-C-T from the Goats.

A little R-E-S-P-E-C-T from the Goats.

A lot of things happened in that week. The Falcons, in addition to their overture towards Whaler fans, invited Pucky up to Springfield for a Whalers night and offered a special group rate for Whalers fans. The Yard Goats, whose marketing saavy towards Hartford Hockey fans has made their brand an unprecedented success despite being the wrong sport and being embroiled in controversy surrounding their relocation, unexpectedly reached out to have Pucky present when their new mascot is unveiled. Colin McEnroe wrote about my piece in his column and sarcastically referred to this as an “excellent website”, and Jeff Jacobs used the Pucky incident as the closing metaphor (albeit a pretty poor one) in his article about the soccer stadium scandal. I’d argue the real trojan horse full of thieving sports executives is probably more likely to be the taxpayer-subsidizied farm team of an out-of-state corporation and not the grassroots group of diehard fans who spend their own money and time keeping Pucky in circulation, but either way, it’s kind of cool to get even a passing reference in the Courant. So many people have responded to the story of Pucky being unwelcome in his own home that he’s having to refuse appearances.

The coolest thing that came out of this whole mess was Pucky returning to the Hooker Day Parade for an impromptu Free Pucky rally. A small contingent was assembled on short notice and without an official support from the Booster Club or any other organization. The size of our group ended up not mattering when the marching band behind us (the excellent Hartford Hot Several) started playing Brass Bonanza, and the other parade contingents (as well as the crowd) stopped what they were doing and joined in the “LET’S GO WHALERS” chant all the way down Church St, outside of the XL Center. It was a powerful reminder that Pucky doesn’t have a contingent, he has a city.

After all of that, I found that more than a week (nine days to be exact), passed before I had  a chance to really think about the letter I wrote to Spectra about the Pucky incident. I had received no reply. I wasn’t necessarily expecting to hear what I wanted to hear, or for the team to capitulate to my will simply because I’m a season ticket holder, but nor did I expect to be ignored. I figured as a customer I would at least receive some cursory, if reluctant, acknowledgement of my concerns. I was totally unprepared to have heard nothing. I double checked my outgoing mailbox to be certain that I hadn’t made a mistake and failed to send the email, but there it was.

I went over all the conversations I’d had with people, on both sides of the fences, in the past week. I thought about what this fight really meant and what the point of it all was, if any. The Wolf Pack is probably on borrowed time regardless of what I say or do, and it’s success or failure have very little bearing on whether or not the NHL ever returns. It matters in a smaller way in where we draw the line in the meantime, what we’re willing to accept from the team that we subsidize and that bears the name of our capitol city. Last year we ate our fair share of crow (Jacobs, you might recall, was much more amenable to scandals when he got to be the one to break them), and the year before that when the Whale was abruptly re-branded to Pack immediately after the state agreed to pay MSG millions to keep that brand alive for a promised three more years.  But every year I do the math and despite the margins shrinking, still find myself deciding to stick it out in Hartford.

I feel for the game day staff and the downtown businesses and all of the other people who suffer as this brand inexplicably, and now it seems somewhat deliberately, tanks, but I don’t know how else to read this. One door down from the front gate of the XL Center, an AA baseball team with a laughingstock of a name and a stadium deal mired in controversy is setting merchandise sale records by honouring Hartford’s heritage and making the insanity even more glaring. What kind of team surveys the fans regarding their brand preference and then chooses the least popular option? What kind of team reaches out to potential season ticket holders and is rebuffed, over and over, by people who “don’t like the whole Rangers thing”, and then releases a shirt like this:

What the hell are they thinking?

What the hell are they thinking?

What kind of team kicks out the mascot of the Hartford Whalers from the Hartford Civic Center? If Gordie Howe showed up to a sell-out game without a ticket in hand, does he get turned away? If in a moment of confusion something unfortunate occurred, what kind of team arrogantly refuses to address it? What kind of team ignores season ticket holders?

I’ve come to a point where I think enabling this indifference does more harm than good. When attendance numbers like 1500 become normal, how many people lose their jobs? When do the cutbacks begin? More importantly, what am I doing to myself and my kids forcing them to sit through games in an empty arena with the ambience of a masoleum, the 2000 or so people who actually bothered to show up all being bitter weirdos wearing wolf ears and shooting me dirty looks for wearing green. The Wolf Pack gives free tickets to super fans who take pictures of me and my kids at games and post about us on their anti-Whaler Facebook page. Our home has become the site of a 19 year-long funeral attended largely by degenerates. I don’t want this to be the version of Hartford that my kids grow up with.

So I decided that I’m returning my tickets. Like my forefathers before me when the roof collapsed, I’m heading north to Springfield. And like them, I hope that this will be only a temporary sojourn. Until then, I will let UConn be the memory that my kids keep of my home town and split the rest of my time between Springfield and the NWHL.

Here’s looking forward to better days:

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GORDIE, HOMEY, AND THE TIME I PISSED MY PANTS IN PUBLIC.

gordieandhomieThe single most prominent memory I have of the Hartford Whalers from my childhood is not any of the historical milestones that are typical of nostalgic anecdotes; no Ron Francis trade, no Adams Division titles, no Whalermania parades. I didn’t even go to the last game. I was a deeply troubled sixteen year-old runaway and drop-out by the time the Whalers said goodbye to Hartford. The Civic Center and the 15,000 or so mourners who packed it to the rafters that day seemed a million miles away to my teenage self. It was a dark time to live in Connecticut and a dark time in my life, and quite frankly I was far too concerned with cultivating my image as a miserably cool punk rock kid to be caught dead wearing kelly green and crying in public.

In a way it is perfectly fitting that the one thing I remember most vividly is a meaningless old-timer’s game in the early nineties, a cold day in Hartford on which I had both the chance to meet Gordie Howe, and I pissed my pants in public. I remember that day with equal measures of shame, pride and awe, and it has come to encapsulate everything it means to me to be a Whalers fan.

I don’t remember becoming a Whalers fan. My grandmother had been an active member of the Booster Club since before I was born, and it was just something I accepted as a fact of life. The sky was blue, the Earth was round, and the Rufini family rooted for the Whalers. I very much took it for granted. The unlikely set of circumstances which led to the Civic Center being built, the Whalers coming to town, surviving the Civic Center roof collapse, and somehow joining the NHL to become our first and only major league franchise were recent history in my childhood, but still history. I had no memories before the Whalers and even as I grew older and uncertainty about their future began to grow, I never really believed they would go. Kevin Dineen was this guy my grandma knew. They practiced at the same dumpy rec rink where my Uncle Jimmy coached the ECHO Stars and Mike Veisor was his buddy. They were completely and thoroughly integrated into our unexceptional suburban Connecticut world.

I don’t have a lot of memories of going to games, so it was notable when our entire family – grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and all – packed into several cars that day and departed for the Mall to see my cousin Jimmy’s youth hockey team play against the Whaler’s old-timer squad. My folks were blue-collar through and through, and tickets weren’t cheap or easy to come by. Corporations bought up all the good seats in blocks and our fans were derided as “nerds and actuaries” by our neighbors to the north in Boston. If we went at all, it was one of us at a time with Grandma Rufini.

On the ride over, somebody, it could have been my dad or my mom but I’m really not sure, suggested off-handedly that “Maybe you’ll get to meet Gordie Howe today”. I don’t remember who said it, but I remember with perfect clarity the revelation that followed:

This is a big deal.hccexterior2

There was a good crowd outside the Civic Center that day, even hours before the game. The atmosphere was akin to a street festival, as strange as that may seem now. I’ve asked various family members to pin down a month or even a year, but the answers I’ve received range from “had to be the eighties” to ” I have no clue”. The sole identifying detail I recall from that day is a surreal vision of a man on stilts impersonating Homey D. Clown, the character from In Living Color, which places this game firmly somewhere between 1990-1993. Gordie was over sixty years old at that point, and been retired for about a decade. I imagine that it really was a big deal to see him play a game at that point, even a meaningless one against my cousin’s stupid youth team.

We got there early and killed time in the mall, as was standard procedure at the time. My folks let me go off by myself for a bit and I eventually found myself in some now-extinct chain book store, either a Bretanos or Waldenbooks, pacing nervous circles in the magazine section. I was an anxious kid and the offhand mention of possibly meeting Gordie Howe had grown from a flutter in my stomach to full-blown nausea. This was the greatest to ever play the game, the Babe Ruth of Hockey. I paced a circle in the corner of that book store tighter and tighter and faster and faster until I thought to myself “Oh Shit” and was certain that whatever it was I’d eaten for lunch, presumably Wendy’s, was going to come up. But it didn’t.

I felt a warm wet spot grow in my pants, looked down and saw I was standing in a puddle of piss in the middle of Bretanos/Waldenbooks/whatever it was. I was so nervous about meeting Gordie Howe that I had literally pissed my pants.

whalestoreThe details of what followed are understandably vague. As busy as the mall was that day, that corner of the book store was mercifully empty. I somehow covered myself up and found my father, who bought me a pair of grey sweatpants emblazoned with Pucky the Whale, took me to the bathroom and threw my pissed jeans in the trash. We sat close to the ice, far closer than I’d ever been, and I watched a sixty-something year-old Gordie Howe absolutely demolish my cousin on the ice of the Hartford Civic Center.

I’m pretty sure that I had a chance to meet Gordie Howe at some point that day, just as I’m equally sure I was too scared to go through with it. I’d be lying if I said I remembered either way. I wore those Pucky sweatpants to school the following week and one of my friends, a Bruins fan, asked me incredulously, “Dude, you like the Hartford Failers?”

Twenty years later, I was living in Hartford working 70 hour weeks in my first head chef job, when a friend invited me and the kids back to the Civic Center for a Sunday matinee. “The Whale is back,” they said. “Sort of.” The monster-truck rally vibe I got from the marketing of previous minor league team, the Hartford Wolf Pack, had failed to catch my interest in the same way that the Bruins and the Rangers failed to do so. They’d made so little impact that I wasn’t even aware that they’d gone. I liked hockey well enough, but above all, I loved Hartford. The was no replacing that weird underdog team that brought Gordie Howe to my backyard and made me piss my pants. I didn’t know much about minor-league hockey but I said sure.

So I watched a hockey game for the first time in many years, now a father with two kids of my own. It was familiar in as many ways as it was different. On that winter day in early 2011, in the span of just a few hours, the Whale had gone from a painful old wound from my childhood to my kids first hockey game. They lost, true to form.

We exited the arena at the corner of Ann and Church, where my toddler son abruptly pulled down his pants and took a piss right on to the stairs of the coliseum.

“Sorry,” he said sheepishly. “I just got really excited and had to go.”

THERE IS A WAR AND PUCKY IS WINNING

12108159_928652880505803_560024628364602709_nBefore I delve into the tiresome matter at hand, let’s skip to the good part and the only thing that actually matters here: Pucky won. However you feel about the now-infamous incident that occurred at the Hartford Wolf Pack’s home opener, it has ended in victory for the faithful of Hartford. Pucky is officially a VIP in the XL Center now and forever more. Credit must be given where credit is due to Chris Lawrence and Spectra for rolling out the welcome mat and hosting this event.

That said, I will now comment (hopefully for the last time) on the matter. The original post “Last Saturday, Pucky the Whale got kicked out of a hockey game in Hartford” drew far more attention than I expected or was prepared to respond to. The have been a lot of questions and a lot of criticism, some of it from folks I respect quite a bit and some not so much.

With that, I will cut to the chase and address the falsehoods all point-by-point. And then we’re all going to shut the fuck up and enjoy the first day of UConn Hockey.

  1. PUCKY WASN’T KICKED OUT

With all due respect to my good friend Pete Hindle of the Examiner, the linguistic contortions required to interpret the incident in any other way are painful to read. You can say he entered without permission (stretching the truth), say he behaved offensively (an outright lie) or say he wouldn’t have been kicked out if he had done X,Y,Z or complied with regulations A,B,C…but right or wrong, he was told to leave. It happened. I do believe it was a misunderstanding, but let’s not indulge in Orwellian language and call the truth of matter anything but what it was.

2. I HEARD PUCKY WAS DOING <insert awful thing here>

He wasn’t. Pucky was doing three things: Waving, autographing, and posing for photos. These are the only things Pucky ever does or ever will do.

3. CALLING THIS A WAR IS DIVISIVE

I guess that depends on who you see the “war” as being against. Attacking the game day staff? The players? Spectra? The fans, Whalers fans or otherwise, who support the Pack? Those things would be divisive. The “war” that I’m fighting isn’t against any of those people. It’s against 1) The out-of-state corporation which is being publicly subsidized by our state to piss all over our local hockey heritage and 2) The tiny-but-vocal minority of trolls who claim to speak for all Wolf Pack fans and work full-time spreading misinformation amongst everyone on both sides of this issue.

If you’ve had anything more than a passing interest in Hartford hockey in the past five years, you know exactly who I’m talking about. The people whose identity is so wrapped up in being the biggest fish in a small pond that they spend every day whispering in ears and sowing seeds of mistrust. These are the people who can’t stand the thought of Pucky at a Wolf Pack game and will say or do anything to pit Spectra staff against fans who feel otherwise. These are the people who spread the rumor that Pucky was harassing people, who claimed that Pucky was gathering signatures to get rid of the Wolf Pack on the concourse. These are people who spend hours online every day replying to every single post and comment on the internet that mentions the Whalers or Connecticut Whale.

These are people who consciously work every day to destroy everything we work for. These people are the reason that I’m engaged in a public back-and-forth with a man I consider a friend and ally, and the reason that a whole bunch of people who should be on the same side think that they’re enemies. Are we at war with these trolls? Damn right we are, and I’m not going to apologize for saying it.

4. PUCKY WAS JUST THERE TO CAUSE TROUBLE AND THEY PLANNED THIS ALL ALONG

Let me state this as clearly as possible: there was no grand master plan that I am aware of. Yes, I knew that Pucky would be at opening night. There was absolutely an element, as I wrote in my original piece, of good-natured ribbing targeted at the tiny minority of Whaler Haters. But the mission itself was a benevolent and simple one: enter the atrium of the XL, essentially a public space, and let Pucky do what he does among the people and see how it goes.

I was as surprised as anyone both that there was so little animosity towards Pucky, given the inflated sense of importance that trolls give themselves in online forums, and that Pucky ended up inside the XL Center. This was never discussed with me or anyone else that I know. It just happened on a whim in the moment. Pucky and his handler were surprised at how they were embraced, decided to give going inside a shot, bought a ticket and went through security. They didn’t read up on the policy or call ahead because they didn’t go there with that intention. Maybe they should have double-checked with brass, but it was a reasonable assumption that if the box office sells a guy in a costume a ticket and security lets him through, that they’re okay with a guy in a costume entering.

That said, it is understandable that Spectra may have had a lapse in procedure at the gate, or have overreacted later and asked Pucky to leave, given the chaos of opening night. I said from the beginning that a simple apology to fans or an invitation for Pucky to return would suffice to assure Whaler Nation that this was a misunderstanding, and the fact that the XL Center is hosting Pucky’s blood drive in January is a great start there.

5. THE BALDWINS DID THIS BECAUSE <insert evil motive>

The Baldwins are a touchy subject in Hartford. The Connecticut Whale ended in a manner no one was happy with and left some bridges burnt. On the other hand, they have a very long history of going to the mat for Hartford while standing to gain very little personally, and doing so at times when no one else would. But the suggestion that Howard Baldwin Sr, a man who has been in this business since the Philadelphia Flyers were a brand-new team, is so foolish as to think having a fan in a whale costume charge onto the concourse of the XL Center is a viable tactic to force two entities as large and as powerful as Madison Square Garden and the State of Connecticut to void a multi-million dollar contract is pretty silly.

Suggesting that my writing about it is part of some grand plan is equally silly. I didn’t even have a blog until the following Monday when I made it and wrote the original post. I am a nobody, a blue-collar hockey fan who happens to have a way with words.

Most offensive to me is the idea that the Baldwins would employ anything resembling a “scorched earth” policy in Hartford. Have they made mistakes? Sure. But suggesting that they have or ever would deliberately destroy our market out of spite is a bridge too far.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some day drinking to catch up on. LET’S GO UCONN:

UConn-college-hockey-image-ryan-Tyson-2.vresize.1200.675.high.66

A tale of two crowds.

freepucky

Hartford Wolf Pack versus Providence Bruins 10/14/15

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Connecticut Whale home opener, Stamford, CT


Hockey history was made twice this week. On Saturday approximately 1200 people crammed into a high-end rec rink deep in Fairfield County to watch the first profressional women’s hockey game on American soil, a sell-out crowd and then some in facility that was never intended to host a professional league of any sort. The stands, such as they were, were packed to the gills with young girls wearing a plethora of assorted youth hockey jerseys Connecticut-Whale-logoand waving hand-made signs featuring a slightly modified version of our beloved mascot Pucky, at least half of them featuring the hilarious and cute malapropism “LET’S GO WHALES!”. About half of the crowd crammed into whatever space they could, standing up against the glass wherever there was no seating or watching from the organic smoothie bar which overlooked the rink. Dani Rylan, the infant league’s new commissioner, made her way through the crowd looking awestruck by what she’d built and even younger than her scant 28 years. After a brief delay while league officials assembled a runner on the ice with various floor mats they had clearly confiscated from every corner of the building, Ms. Rylan made her way out to center ice, dropped the puck and so it began. Within a few moments, captain Jessica Koizumi scored the league’s first goal and the Brass Bonanza blared. The Whale drew first blood. Seconds after play resumed one of our girls threw a punch and the first instigator penalty was ours as well. Two hours from home in the unlikeliest of rinks, I’d found a familiar place. This was home.

New York fell to Connecticut 4-1.

Three days later in Hartford, a crowd of roughly the same size dotted the stands of the old barn sparsely, like weeds in a sand dune, to watch the Wolf Pack play the Providence Bruins. Officially reported at 1585 (though in reality closer to two thirds of that), it was the smallest crowd to ever attend a hockey game in Hartford.

I walked the concourse with my son, through halls I’d walked as a child with my father. I remembered seeing Gordie Howe play in an alumni game on that ice, I remembered the mall, and I remembered a city that was full of life. The same concourse I walked in then was mostly empty now, except for a few scattered Bruins fans and a card table full of t-shirts for sale. The same team that had banned Pucky the Whale from Hartford a few days earlier was selling an abomination of a t-shirt that could have only been designed as some sort of middle finger to the fans:

rags

We sat in our regular seats in 110, beneath the old banners. Ley, Ulfie, Howe, Francis, Dineen and McKenzie . After a few minutes of sloppy play and a t-shirt toss, Hartford scored first. Some awful modern rock song played on goal and my son suddenly started crying.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “We scored!”

He looked at me and said “I don’t know who I’m supposed to root for anymore, Dad.”

I didn’t know what to say. I looked up at the old banners again, and wondered how it came to be that I felt more at home three days and two hours away from here. We left after two periods.

freepucky2

Last Saturday, Pucky the Whale was kicked out of a hockey game in Hartford.

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Pucky at last Saturday’s Wolf Pack home opener.

Let that sink in for a minute. Forget about the context, forget about the Hatfield vs. McCoy war between fans of Hartford’s previous and existing pro hockey teams. Think back to your childhood and remember Pucky the Whale, the lovable personification of Hartford’s team. If you’re too young for that, think back to the more recent truce between factions when the Wolf Pack was briefly re-branded as the Connecticut Whale and Hartford’s two fan bases shared a team and a mascot.

In a city that was perpetually written off a rest stop or unnotable thruway between Boston and New York city, the Whalers were our rallying point. Our underdog city identified deeply with a team that was occasionally great but usually broke even at best. They hit the ice in goofy green uniforms to an anthem that sounded like something out of a seventies cop show, and despite this are remembered almost universally with fondness as one of the toughest and hard-working teams of their era. Humble heroes like Kevin Dineen, Pat Verbeek, and Ron Francis quietly built impressive resumes in Hartford, far from the spotlight. Throughout all of this, Pucky the Whale stood tall in Hartford as our spirit incarnate, surviving multiple leagues and mergers and attempts by management to replace him with short-lived experiments such as Wally the Whaler. Hartford and Pucky developed our “Boy Named Sue” attitude. A city and a team that no one else took seriously damn sure learned how to fight.

With that in mind, let’s say it again: Pucky the Whale was kicked out of a hockey game this Saturday. In Hartford. At the XL Center, née Hartford Civic Center, where he held court for 25 years between two teams and three leagues.

Pucky has been very visible recently. The Whalers faithful have begun to stir again as the Connecticut Whale, UConn Hockey, and talks of a new arena have begun to give people reason to be hopeful. Despite the unwillingness of the state and MSG to cooperate with their efforts to operate the city’s AHL team as the Whale, Howard Baldwin Sr and Jr have graciously allowed Pucky to continue his efforts as a mascot with no team supporting the fans of occupied Whaler Nation. Over the summer Pucky has held rallies at baseball games, walked the streets of downtown Hartford, and raised spirits at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. In that spirit he was present for opening night of hockey in Hartford this past Saturday.

In the interest of honesty, I will not pretend that conflict was entirely unexpected. The bitterness between the two tribes of Hartford Hockey is no secret. Whalers fans see the Wolf Pack as the pawn of an out-of-state corporation with little interest in the city, standing in stark contrast to the Whalers organization’s storied history of community involvement. We see the Pack fans as obstructionists to any effort to return the NHL and are confounded by their protectiveness of the minor-league status quo. Pack fans for their part see us as stuck in the past and responsible for the mediocre attendance of AHL hockey in Hartford. The one bit of common ground we all have is our frustration with the depressing, poorly-attended games in a market which should have been a slam dunk.

Surprisingly, there was no conflict. Pucky entered the atrium cautiously at first and was immediately surrounded by adoring fans. He posed for photos, handed out autographs and baptised new fans of the Whale. What had originally been intended, at least in part, as a good-natured ribbing of a rival fan base instead had become a love-in for Hartford’s hero. Pucky entered the concourse of the arena, embraced by Whalers fans and Wolf Pack fans alike. Hartford was united again, however briefly, by the Whale. He got as far as the lower bowl of the arena, where he posed for the the above homecoming photo and was finally accosted by team staff. Being in possession of a valid ticket and having broken no particular rule, he was given the choice of removing the costume and staying, or leaving the arena. Insurance reasons were cited but no waivers were offered. Pucky with no costume is no Pucky at all, so of course he left.

Unfortunately, the same tiny minority who complained to security about Pucky’s presence were also quick both to celebrate his ejection and to sully the event with misinformation after the fact. Even before the game was over, the internet was abuzz with absolute nonsense about Pucky crashing the game without a ticket or “harassing” fans. While I could assure you at length by spelling out the code of NHL mascot conduct which Pucky follows in public at all times, instead I will let pictures speak for themselves.

In closing I will say only this: we live in a world where Pucky the Whale is not allowed inside the Hartford Civic Center. If that doesn’t make you angry, it should.

Hartford loves Pucky. 12118640_1093895090622408_5787308235984917480_n 12115999_1093895387289045_2889967844604922148_n 12115993_1093895007289083_2811144307818654076_n 12115993_1093894940622423_4586479474591153276_n 12115924_1093895180622399_8424723894341855603_n 12115848_1093894980622419_5676892765355382665_n 12112127_1093895063955744_8362271632300743372_n 12109101_1093895277289056_7886630337524337302_n 12108953_1093895150622402_1937606862678159023_n 12096178_1093895037289080_3390584227842983637_n 12096040_1093895217289062_5892833568958498933_n 12079610_1093895233955727_5706015825691913225_n

CHASING THE WHALE FOR NINETEEN YEARS AND COUNTING

hc-the-hartford-whalers-beginning-to-end-20130-044I’m not sure exactly what I’m setting out to do here. I woke up at 4am today with my mind racing, unable to get back to sleep and struck with the inexplicable urge to do something I haven’t given much thought to in the past ten years: write. It’s something I used to do quite a bit, and people still tell me that I should give it a try from time to time, but I never sit down and actually do it. I’d like to say I haven’t had time, but I’m not sure that’s true. I just haven’t felt like I was ready to start writing again. Until this morning.

I’m not going to set out with any structure or strict guidelines here because I’m not really sure where I’m going with it. I’m nobody who matters, just a guy who loves my city (Hartford, CT if you couldn’t tell), and go back and forth between being hopeful and fearful for what comes next. To love Hartford is to be a cynic and romantic simultaneously.

It’s dangerously close to the time I need to leave for work, so let me sum up the mission statement of this thing I’m staring here with the words of a man much wiser than myself:

WHALERS IS NOT JUST A HOCKEY TEAM. ITS A SYMBOL OF RESISTANCE AGAINST THE CULTURAL IMPERIALISM OF BOSTON AND NYC.

Nineteen years and counting since this city knew who it was.