The 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:
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.
The 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.”