MAKE MY BLUE CHRISTMAS GREEN (And other songs about the Whalers)

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Photo courtesy Connecticut Historical Society: Christmas in 1959 showing the glittering G. Fox marquee.

 

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The original post.

 

I sat down this week feeling I needed to say something about a recent incident in which Nick Tarnasky of the Hartford Wolf Pack publicly berated a man with developmental disabilities at the Tilted Kilt in Wethersfield, got asked to leave by the bartender, who responded by refusing to tip her, and then later came back not to apologize but to complain about the bartender costing them his business. It’s pretty gross. The team, per usual, responding by pretending nothing happened. It ignored the bartender’s complaint, as well as the complaints of the several hundred people who shared her original post about the incident. They deleted comments and hoped it would blow over. Which is also gross.

That said, I’m not sure what I can add to the conversation. I’m not a journalist. I confirmed the story and the fact that the Wolf Pack refused to respond to it, got ignored by the Wolf Pack as well, and ended up with little to add. Sadly, it isn’t particularly surprising. You can’t control the stupid things that a 30 year-old minor leaguer does right after clearing waivers, staring down the tunnel at the end of his career. But you sure can do something about a culture where his awful behavior gets ignored and the people of Hartford get brushed off, yet again, as a bunch of whiners and complainers who should feel lucky to have a team at all. So instead I responded in song.

I’m not much of a musician either, but I think it makes my point better than some internet faux-journalism about minor league hockey gossip, and fills the gaping void in American folk music for Hartford-centric Christmas songs. It sounds kind of like Hank Williams Sr if he were a Whalers fan, less talented, and alive in 2015:

It’s a cold christmas in Hartford
and the plaza don’t shine no more
the sixty-six runs late
and the suburbanites hate
having to come here at all

I remember Christmas in Hartford
thousands crammed into G Fox
now we swim through a sea
of steam and loathing
then we get back on that bus

I don’t wanna be
Boston or NYC
my christmas tree is still whaler green
and my city ain’t noone’s rest stop

And the brass bonanza still echoes
off the tower where the mall used to be
the boys all left town
but we still pack the house
and wait for the whale to come home

You say you’re too good for this town
but you ain’t no Gordie Howe
we’ve been down and out since the team went south
so make my blue Christmas green

Oh, it’s a cold again in Hartford
so make my blue Christmas green
yeah make my blue Christmas green

My songwriting abilities being meager as they are, I thought I’d take this opportunity to list a few other songs about the Hartford Whalers. Yes, there is more than one. Yes, they’re all either angry or sad.

  • THE ZAMBONIS – “Bob Marley and the Hartford Whalers”

The gold standard by which all hockey-themed bands and songs will be judged. Nothing else needs to be said about the Zambonis.

 

  • JOEY BATTS & THEM – “860”

“Find identity, New York or Boston? Stuck in the middle and the team we lost ’em. Giants or Patriots? Red Sox or Yankees? Who cares, bring the Whale back, thank me.”

 

  • LIQUOR BARON – “Bleed Green or Bleed Red” and “Tea Bag the Rags!”

Connecticut-based hardcore band Liquor Baron coined the genre term “hockeyviolence” and is probably the only documented interpretation of the Brass Bonanza as a sleazy guitar solo. “We drink until we’re fucking mindless, get high on hockey violence. We raise the flag of Whaler nation in the name of Ronnie Francis!”

  • THE HARTFORD YARD GOATS – “Hype Song”

A strange and wonderful amalgam of “Brass Bonanza” and Andrew W.K. by Matt Deis of CKY.

 

  • THE HEXTALLS – “J.S. Giguere is a Robot”

Ok, technically this one isn’t about the Whalers and it isn’t very kind either, but as J.S. Giguere got his NHL start as a Whaler in their last season and was the final active NHL player to have played in Hartford when he retired last year, I figured this was worth an honorable mention.

If I missed any other songs, let me know. If you’re mad that I mentioned the Nick Tarnasky thing you’re terrible and I don’t care what you think, but I’m sure you’ll let me know anyways.

 

EDIT: We forgot this lost gem from 1996, produced by long-time Whalers announcer Chuck Kaiton under the unfortunate moniker “Kaiton’s Krazy Krew”:

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An Open Letter to Peter Karmanos (from Hartford with rage & squalor)

hc-karmanos-hall-of-fame-whalers-0630-20150629It’s been a while, Pete. I have to admit that while I sat down to write this with the intention of venting my anger for all the damage you’ve done to my city, for the heartbreak you caused when you stole our Whalers from us…the more I think about the more I think I’m as confused as I am angry.

It’s been eighteen years, Pete. Hartford should be a long-forgotten minor-league speed bump, long since receded from visibility in your rear-view mirror. You won your Stanley Cup. You clawed your way into the Hockey Hall of Fame, somehow. You even found a way to take Ronnie Franchise, the heart of Hartford, and keep him away from us in perpetuity. You murdered Hartford, razed the city, pissed on the ashes. So why is that as you achieve hockey immortality and reflect upon your legacy, the only subject that seemed to elicits any passion is Hartford?

In case you forgot, I’m referring to the remarks you made in the Detroit Free Press last week:

“When we went into Hartford, the season before they averaged 6,000 people a game — and that includes games against New York or Boston, where most of the crowd was New York or Boston fans. Hartford’s not a big city. Today, if there was a team in Hartford, it would be the smallest market in the league by a mile. You competed for business with all the New York professional teams, all the Boston profssional teams and even a little bit with the Flyers and Islanders. I don’t know why the people there are so upset. The team hadn’t ever won a thing. They had a celebration for a first-round playoff loss.”

My knee-jerk gut reaction, like that of most Hartford faithful, is to fly into a rage at both the arrogance and inaccuracy of your words about Our Fair City.

We averaged 6000 people the season before you came? Really? The only season I can find under 10,000 is 1979, which Hartford spent in an AHL rink in Springfield after the Civic Center roof collapsed.

Smallest market in the league by a mile? The Hartford metro area is home to 1,215,211, exactly 695 people more than Raleigh, and very few of those people put NASCAR before hockey.

5tDlQNever won anything? I know the World Hockey Association has become an obscure piece of sports trivia these days, but I imagine as a Detroit native you may have followed the exploits of Gordie Howe as he defected to the WHA. Or at some point it may have come to your attention that the franchise which you’ve owned for 21 years began its existence as the New England Whalers of the WHA, AKA the first national champions to claim the Avco World Cup for their own,

Finally, and I admit this is a bit nit-picky, but the parade which was thrown for the Whalers was for a second round  play-off elimination, NOT for a first-round elimination. I’d chalk this up to a mistake if that parade in the heyday of Whalermania wasn’t so unique in being the largest parade ever held in franchise history, outdrawing the Hurricane’s Stanley Cup victory parade by a good 10,000. But I’m sure that’s not news to you.

You’re a lot of things, Pete. The words arrogant, dishonest, destructive, and cancerous all come to mind. But you’re not stupid. Maybe you’ve come to believe the false narrative you had to weave to justify the crimes you’ve committed. We know the story well in Hartford, it’s been repeated so often that some folks mistake it for reality.

You know how it goes: Small-time city stumbles into major leagues, never fills the seats, is mercifully put out of its misery and relegated to minor-league status by the brave governor who stood up to a greedy billionaire and secured our future as New York’s favorite parking lot. Maybe you really have come to believe that, but like I said, I don’t think stupidity is counted among your many sins.

car_toiletIf we agree on nothing else, Pete, it’s the love of hockey. I may hate what you did to my city, but unlike Governor Weicker, who sold you our team knowing it would head south in exchange for a cushy job on the board of Compuware or subsequent Governor (and now twice-convicted felon) John Rowland who happily finished the job in order to chase a pipe dream of landing the New England Patriots, I think in some different world where you didn’t destroy my city we could sit down together and have a beer and shoot the breeze about Gordie Howe. I believe you love hockey. The many millions of dollars you’ve flushed down the toilet (much like the puck and Whalers history flushing down the toilet which is your team’s logo) are irrefutable evidence of our commonality as hockey fans.

I’m writing this today because of your recent harsh words about Hartford, but some other words of yours have stuck with me for many years. A year into the Carolina experiment, having sold a whopping TWENTY-FIVE season tickets for the first season, you came dangerously close to admitting defeat. Too late to help yourself or Hartford, but that quiet admission of guilt has always been some small comfort to me:

To his credit, Karmanos refutes the perception that Hartford is not a big league town. Any team could survive there, he claims, as long as the circumstances were right. “I think (pro sports) is more than capable of surviving in Hartford with the right kind of deal. The governor didn’t understand…how important having a major league team was. They can make all sorts of snide remarks about the Hartford Whalers and all that, but the fact was it was a respected NHL team.”

There’s no way to reconcile these two statements, my old friend. We’re a major league city or we aren’t. We were a respected NHL team or we weren’t.

Almost as telling as the unexpected rage towards Hartford in your remarks to the Detroit Free Press, is your dispassionate tone in discussing the remainder of your legacy.

2006 Stanley Cup? “I don’t live in the past.” 

Your inclusion in the 2015 class of HHOF inductees? “My stats are pathetic — zero goals, zero assists, zero penalties.”

Your future with the Hurricanes? “I don’t know.”

greenIt’s not just in these answers that I began to detect cracks in your facade of arrogance. While the Hurricanes have publicly disavowed their past in Hartford, there remains the matter of the not one, but two, minor league teams you’ve owned with a familiar color scheme and a predilection for the Brass Bonanza, the Plymouth Whalers and the Florida Everblades.

There’s a part of you, Pete, buried beneath that bravado and unwillingness to admit the error of your ways, which is still a true hockey fan. And like all true hockey fans, you know what your legacy will be. Not as the owner of the 2006 Stanley Cup Champions. Not as a 2015 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee. Not as the man who brought hockey to NASCAR country. You know what people think when they hear your name, what they will always think long after you’re gone.

Peter Karmanos? Isn’t that the guy who ruined the Hartford Whalers?

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THE PRESENT DAY: The Hurricanes play the Blackhawks in front of empty seats (left) A packed house for UConn hockey in Hartford (right)

In 1997, the final season of the Hartford Whalers, we drew an average of 13,680 fans to each game. 18 years later, the Carolina Hurricanes are currently averaging 11,412 per game in those greener pastures. Hartford Whalers merchandise has remained a consistent top-ten seller since it was reintroduced in 2010. Hurricanes merchandise, despite the team actually existing, is markedly less popular.

So I’m not going to rage at you, Pete, no matter how much part of me would like to. It would be like kicking a dying stray dog for growling impotently. You’re still talking about us all these years later for one reason: Hartford is the only part of your legacy that matters, and you botched it in as monumental manner as humanly possible, destroying our market, Raleigh’s, and your reputation in the process.

You want to make it right? Pull the plug on this abomination. Send Ronnie and the franchise home to Hartford. All will be forgiven. Your legacy will amount to something more than a punchline.

Maybe.

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A dishonest degenerate speaking to a young hero.

A Complete History of Pucky the Whale.

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This seems like a good time tell this tale of the Whale, as Hartford has been talking about mascots a lot lately between Puckygate and the unveiling of the Yard Goat’s new mascot(s), Chompers and Chew-chew. The two mascots were chosen from submissions gathered from a viral internet marketing contest and unveiled this past Friday at Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford.

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The got the colors right, at least.

While I’m not sure that Chompers or Chew-Chew will ever reach the same iconic status that Pucky the Whale has, the buzz was mighty loud in that auditorium. Full-disclosure: I attended the event with the intention of writing about it, and ended up filling in as a last-minute stand-in for Pucky himself. My view of the proceedings were from the disorienting vantage of a tiny porthole in a thirty pound fiberglass whale head while being mobbed by dozens of screaming school children and trying to dance. That said, I feel that I can reasonably testify as to the sheer volume of that auditorium. The crazed goats emerged immediately following my/Pucky’s entrance, and the whole place immediately started shaking as several hundred kids ranging from kindergarten to high school stomped their feet in unison while chanting “GO GOATS!”

The grown-ups didn't get it, but the kids went nuts.

The grown-ups didn’t get it, but the kids went nuts.

Such is the power of symbols.

In trying to discern the origin of Pucky I came to the conclusion that the key to his longevity and the visceral reaction that he elicits, whether positive or negative, stems not from his existence as a physical mascot (which began only in 2010 with the AHL Whale), but in his much longer tenure as a symbol (beginning in Boston in 1972) and when he was formally christened as “Puckie” in Hartford in 1976. The symbol of “The Whale” had become so ingrained in our collective consciousness that when I wrote the article about Pucky being ejected from a Wolf Pack game, people started to question exactly when Pucky began to exist and I started second-guessing my own memories. The costume version of Pucky seemed so familiar and so closely linked to the symbol that I recalled from my childhood that I started to question whether or not I had in fact seem a costumed Pucky in my youth. I wasn’t the only one suffering from this confusion:

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It turns out that this question has no simple yes or no answer. I pieced together the details over the course of a few weeks after speaking to former team staff from the WHA, NHL and AHL. Some pieces of the puzzle I found in archived versions of the Whaler Sports & Entertainment web site which has been offline for years, some in a long out-of-print children’s coloring book sold in the Civic Center Mall in the 1970s, which came to me by the way of a storage container auction on eBay. What I’ve ultimately been able to assemble, as far as I can tell, is the first complete timeline of Pucky (nee Puckie) the Whale. Part of me was reluctant to keep going as the rabbit hole got deeper and deeper, but whenever I began to get discouraged I reminded myself that we live in a world in which the Hartford Courant devoted actual man hours to track down the origin of the Brass Bonanza.

Some have pointed out that the amount of time being spent as of late by grown men, members of the media included, discussing silly animal costumes seems a little bit ridiculous. But in unravelling this story, I have found that when a mascot is truly effective it transcends the silly animal costume and becomes a vector for a symbol and a brand. In Hartford’s case, it is nothing short amazing that this ridiculous little Whale has endured as a symbol of a team and a city throughout four decades, three professional hockey leagues, and numerous catastrophes. It might be ridiculous that grown men with an irrational fondness for a goofy, green cartoon Whale have consistently continued to drive Hartford’s merchandise sales into the NHL’s top ten almost twenty years after the team left town, but it’s also remarkable.

It is, in my opinion, a great Hartford tale that deserves telling.

THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF “PUCKIE THE WHALE”, A TIMELINE:

  • 1972whalersAndCelticsTicketOffice1972 – The Whalers play their inaugural season in Boston, sharing ownership, an arena, a ticket office, and team colors with the Boston Celtics. Celtics owner Robert Schmertz moved on early in the team’s existence, but the colors have stuck to this day.
  • 1972 – Mrs. Virginia S. Phillipps, mother-in-law of Whalers assistant GM Ron Ryan, is commissioned to design a Whale which will be used as a shoulder patch on the new team’s uniforms. The Whale is green in keeping with the borrowed Celtics color scheme.
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The original form of Pucky as a shoulder patch in the WHA.

  • 12189693_1511449722514057_2903922277072555974_n1975 – The Whalers move to Hartford. George Ducharme, the Merchandise Manager and same man who is credited with popularizing the Brass Bonanza, capitalized on the popularity of the then-unnamed Whale by reinterpreting it as an alternate logo that was used on center ice and the famous entrance to the Whalers team store in the Civic Center Mall. This logo is the only one to have been used by the team in all three leagues, the WHA, NHL and AHL.
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The iconic entrance to the Whalers Team Store in the Civic Center Mall.

  • puckybook1976 – After only a year in Hartford, the identity of the Whalers has inexplicably become tied to the cetacean which their harpoon logo is presumably targeting. The team became to be informally known as “The Whale”, a nickname that is still in common use forty years later. Ducharme, whose ability to sense the pulse of the Hartford market can not be overstated, launched what may be the first viral mascot-naming campaign in sports history. Over 14,000 submissions were accepted through the decidedly low-tech means of a ballot box in the team store. The name “Puckie” was ultimately chosen and commemorated in a children’s book. The story, for the record, is a strange tale of an orphaned whale left abandoned in the backyard of professional hockey player in the suburbs of Hartford. His children Susie and Jamie adopt the whale, who enjoys swimming in the pool and eating minnows but suffers from severe depression. He is eventually able to find happiness by attending hockey games, and in an oddly meta turn of events, is named as the result of a viral marketing campaign kicked off by Chuck Kaiton.
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I wonder how Pucky felt about that harpoon…

  • nhl_logos1979 – The Whalers merge into the NHL. The primary logo changes, blue is added to the color scheme, but Pucky remains.
  • 1985 Pucky is dropped from the shoulder patch in an effort to make the team look more “tough”. He remains as an alternate logo and in merchandising.
  • 1992 – The primary colors of the team are changed to navy blue and silver under the leadership of Brian Burke. The Brass Bonanza is dropped. Pucky is abandoned in lieu of the short-lived and wildly unpopular “Wally the Whaler”. Fan reaction to the wholesale torching of the team’s collective history and tradition, in addition to the prior year’s trade of Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson (where they immediately won two Stanley Cups and immortalized Hartford as home of the Worst Hockey Trade Ever) resulted in a period of fan boycotts and abysmal attendance which was eventually used as a pretense for the team to be moved.
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Wally the Whaler: The face of a franchise being sabotaged.

  • canes1997 – In spite of valiant (and largely successful) efforts by fans to keep the stands full despite jacked-up ticket prices, the elimination of partial season ticket packages and the complete disinterest of our governor (who has since become a twice-convicted felon), the Whale moves south. The greatest logo in sports is replaced by the grim visage of a puck being flushed down a toilet. Pucky is presumed dead.
  • 2010 – Under the direction of Mark Willand and Howard Baldwin Senior & Junior, Whaler Sports & Entertainment commissions the first physical mascot costume of Pucky the Whale. He is designed as a personification of the original Whale logo and the original “Puckie” spelling is altered slightly. He arrives hours before the Whalers alumni charity dinner scheduled as his first public appearance is set to begin. His unofficial debut to the public is walk across downtown Hartford from the WS&E offices to the dinner. By chance, as he walks to the dinner he encounters Sonar the Wolf at an outdoor Brewfest event coordinated by AEG, the current managing company of the XL Center and Hartford Wolf Pack AHL team. Rumor has it that AEG is blindsided by Pucky’s existence and he is snubbed by Sonar, a familiar scenario five years later…

From the official WS&E press release by Brittany Burke:

Pucky Lives!
Whalers Will Unveil “Pucky the Whale” Mascot on August 14 Fan Fest

Hartford, CT -Whalers Sports and Entertainment announced today that “Pucky,” the iconic secondary logo for much of the Whalers history, will come to life as a mascot on August 14, 2010 at the Whalers Fan Fest.

Standing over  6-feet, 6 inches tall in skates, Pucky will debut at the Fan Fest event and will be available to pose for pictures and interact with young fans and adults alike.   In addition, a Pucky coloring book will be available at the  official Whalers stores at Fan Fest.

After Fan Fest, Pucky will be visible at many Whalers and community events in the greater Hartford community.

The Pucky icon debuted as a shoulder patch on the Whalers game jerseys in 1972 and remained until 1985.  The Pucky graphic was the Whalers center ice logo when the Whalers moved to Hartford in 1975 and remained there throughout the club’s WHA years.

Pucky is being created by International Mascot Corp in Edmonton, Alberta.  IMC has manufactured a wide variety of corporate, entertainment and university mascot costumes.

  •  CT Whale Press Conference, 9/20/102010 – Whaler Sports & Entertainment assumes control of the Wolf Pack, which is rebranded as the Connecticut Whale as soon as new uniforms arrive. Pucky the Whale assumes his role as an actual physical mascot of a hockey team for the first time.
  • 2012 – Citing mounting debts and an untenable lease from former managing company AEG, as well an unwillingness to negotiate new terms on the part of either AEG or MSG, Whalers Sports & Entertainment ceases operation of Hartford’s AHL franchise after only two seasons despite significantly increasing average attendance and successfully marketing the team away from what seemed like an imminent demise prior to assuming control.
  • 2013 – AEG resumes control of the team and Pucky remains the mascot for one lame duck season in which all marketing efforts are abandoned. Attendance drops again but remains higher than it had been prior to the rebrand.
  • 2013 – The state of Connecticut, fearing the demise of the Connecticut Whale, reaches a deal with MSG to keep the Connecticut Whale in Hartford three more years with Global-Spectrum, an subsidiary of Comcast, running the daily operations of the team. Despite a record-high public expenditure of $1.4 million per year in affiliation fees to paid to MSG, the deal is celebrated as having saved the Whale.
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Unable to use a planned logo reminiscent of the original NHL logo, or the Whalers name, the AHL Whale embraced the identity of “The Whale”. Their primary logo was a modern and aggressive variation of the alternate Pucky logo.

  • 2013 – Immediately after securing over $4 million in public funds for the express purpose of saving the Whale brand, MSG immediately kills the Whale brand. The team is renamed the Hartford Wolf Pack. Despite public outcry and significant media backlash, MSG refuses to comment. The subsequent opening night game is the lowest attended in Hartford’s history, and the following season is the lowest attendance in franchise history by a wide margin. Pucky is again presumed dead.
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A depressingly common scene in Hartford following the demise of the Connecticut whale.

  • baldwindpucky2014 – Pucky resurfaces making sporadic public appearances, most notably at Howard Baldwin Sr’s book singing in West Hartford.
  • 2015 – Responding to the growing discontent among Hartford hockey fans, Pucky begins more frequently appearing in public at sporting and charitable events. A Whalers night at a college summer league baseball game draws 1000 over average. Pucky delivers a  check to the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center on behalf of the Baldwins and visits with children. The aforementioned visit to the Wolf Pack’s home opener is met with such overwhelmingly positive response from fans that it briefly becomes a celebratory homecoming for the Whale without a team, until panicking game day staff asked Pucky to leave.

Despite claims in the media that the incident was overblown and that Pucky has an open invitiation to the XL Center at any time, the Wolf Pack has carefully avoided making an comment on the matter, even going so far as refusing to answer inquiries from season ticket holders and ignoring a very public attempt by Springfield’s AHL team to welcome disgruntled Whaler fans. Pucky has yet to receive any invitation.

Yet again, the Baldwins and the Whale have become convenient scapegoats for the dirty (and costly) backdoor dealings of Connecticut politicians and the complicit media. The same “journalists” who beat the drum on behalf of Peter Karmanos and a criminal governor that the fans were at fault for the Whaler’s relocation are still blaming the fans 20 years later, acting as if the out-of-state corporations pocketing millions of dollars of taxpayer money while failing to perform with even a modicum of competence are somehow the victims of a grassroots marketing effort being mounted largely by passionate pro-Hartford fans who stand to gain little but some regional pride.

As we approach the eve of one of the Wolf Pack’s two possible one-year options to remain in Hartford, maybe mascots and symbols aren’t such a ridiculous thing to be talking about. The regional pride and tradition that they represent come into sharp relief as UConn Hockey continues to exceed expectations, the Yard Goats sell record amounts of merchandise simply by paying homage to the Whalers (the Double A baseball team just announced that they are opening up a second store location in the Westfarms Mall in response to the demand for their swag), while the Wolf Pack’s most notable achievement this year was a record low attendance for a hockey game in Hartford on the second night of the season. When the Wolf Pack existed in a void, blaming the fans and the market was a convenient excuse. Those excuses aren’t flying any more.

At the time, the end of the Connecticut Whale felt like kind of a final blow to the market. A lot of people (myself included) were reasonably certain that we’d been knocked down for the last time and weren’t getting up. I should have known better. As many times as Hartford has been knocked down, we’ve gotten back up every time. Even the roof of our arena, crushed beneath the weight of a heavy winter’s snow and the short cuts of a lazy contractor, eventually defied gravity and rose from the rubble. Hartford is like a scrawny fighter who doesn’t know when to quit. It keeps getting up.

I’ll leave you yet again with the words of a man much wiser than myself, George Ducharme’s closing paragraph in the original Puckie book. He says it as well as I ever could:

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Special thanks for answering questions and providing information, sometimes at great length, for this piece:

  • Howard Baldwin Sr & Jr
  • Gregory Pacheco
  • Mark Willand
  • Michael Glasson
  • George Ducharme
  • Brittany Burke