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.