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.
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!”
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:
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:
- 1972 – 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.
- 1975 – 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.
- 1976 – 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.
- 1979 – 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.
- 1997 – 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:
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.
- 2010 – 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.
- 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.
- 2014 – 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:
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