MAKING A RELOCATION, PART TWO: THE THINGS THAT WE LOST

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“Making A Relocation” is an ongoing series exploring the inconsistencies between the facts and the public narrative surrounding the demise of the Hartford Whalers. If you’re new to the series, we recommend that you start at the beginning:


 

So when we left off in the last installment of “Making a Relocation”, I promised we would start explaining who these guys are and what part they each played in this:

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We’re going to get there, I promise. But as I’m picking this mess apart, it just keeps getting more and more complicated. It goes from bad trades to massive ponzi schemes, ties into labor disputes and an endless series of relocation threats, empty and otherwise. Professional football plays an indirect role, more than once. The pieces of truth are scattered through dozens of ancient newspaper articles, or in scattered off-the-cuff remarks made years after the fact.

It’s striking as I dig through history to see both how often the media was dead wrong about what was happening or misread the intentions of the parties involved, and equally striking to see those same parties swearing they would never do things they eventually did, often while setting the stage for the excuses they’d later give to justify the eventual betrayal. Twenty articles later, (former owner) Richard Gordon in particular is still an enigma to me. But we’ll get to that later.

One thing I can pinpoint is the exact day when things changed for worse: June 28, 1988.

On that day, the corporate consortium that owned the Whalers announced their intent to sell to a partnership consisting of local developer Richard Gordon  and Aetna executive Donald Conrad, the corporation which at that time was the largest stakeholder in the Whalers.

Unlike every other subsequent change of ownership, there was no air of desperation surrounding the sale. There is no evidence that there were any ulterior motives or backdoor deals in play. Howard Baldwin, a minority owner but founder and long-time face of the franchise, had grown restless and was ready to leave on a high note. He had successfully helped found the WHA, navigated the Whalers through a championship in Boston to Springfield and finally to Hartford, established a brand and fanbase there, brought the Howe family to town, survived the collapse of the Civic Center roof, negotiated a merger into the NHL, navigated a stretch of mediocre on-ice product without eroding the team’s young fan base, and finally come to see them enjoy stability and some measure of success. Hartford hadn’t won a Cup since their WHA days, and as we now know, they never would. But in those days under GM Emile Francis and Coach Jack Evans, they’d had some damn good runs and nobody was counting them out. It was a small market and one of the smaller arenas in the league, but between the dedicated fanbase, good management and the region’s wealth, Hartford managed to be one of the league’s most financially viable and stable franchises. It seemed like a good time to move on to other projects. Baldwin had no reason to be concerned about what would follow his departure.

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Donald Conrad was no stranger to the Whalers; Aetna was not only a majority stakeholder but had played a key role in building the arena. Gordon, by his own admission, didn’t “know from a puck” about sports or the business of hockey. What he did know was downtown Hartford. He loved the Whalers as many of us did, as a symbol of civic pride and a regional asset. With Baldwin moving on, it seemed to be a logical time to let the Whalers leave the safety net of corporate ownership and into the hands of private owners. The agreed-upon sum, $31 million dollars, was a record high at the time. Conrad, for his part, was unequivocal about the value of the Hartford market and the team:

“‘I’ve spent about 30 years in financial analysis of one kind or another, and I can assure you that if the franchise wouldn’t support $31 million, I wouldn’t be paying $31 million.”

Two months later, the sale was approved by the NHL. The deal was modified slightly to allow some of the corporations and Baldwin to retain a small interest in the team, but left the partnership of Conrad-Gordon with a controlling interest of approximately 75%. Thus, on September 7th 1988, dawned a new day.

That day is the last time in this story I believe any of the parties were completely sincere and transparent and operating without any hidden agendas. Just four months later in January of 1989, Richard announced his intent to dissolve the partnership, buy out Donald Conrad’s interest in the Whalers.

As I said, I’ve spent hours trying to make sense of this. I’ve read many, many articles about the Conrad-Gordon partnership. I’ve got as far as sitting down with a stack of court transcripts and a bottle of whiskey but I came out on the other side no better for it. I have no clue what possessed Richard Gordon to abruptly seize total control of the team just a few months into the partnership’s first season as owners. Court documents refer vaguely to a “falling out”. It’s true that Gordon invested the majority of the money, but he’d agreed upon an arrangement in which Conrad would have the managerial role from day one. Attendance was good, the team was competitive and they went on to make the play-offs again that year. There is no clear source of tension or any catastrophe which seemed to spur the sudden rift.

In the end, all I can do is speculate. Two things are consistent in every account of Richard Gordon’s tenure with the team: 1) His inexperience and 2) His unwillingness to let said inexperience stop him from micromanaging people who knew better than him.

In short, I don’t know exactly what it was that drove Gordon to seek control, but I know it wouldn’t have taken much. I’m also convinced that as much as he cried poverty and complained about how much money he was spending, that was rarely the real issue. My guess would be that Richard Gordon simply wasn’t capable of sitting by and letting someone else make decisions.

The months which followed were an unmitigated disaster. Thought the specifics are largely forgotten these days, I don’t think it can be understated how much damage the dispute did to public perception, or how it set the tone of cynicism and negativity that dominated the 1990s. Conrad, unable to raise the capital needed to equal Gordon’s investment in the team and maintain control, sought financial backing from Benjamin Sisti and Colonial Realty. At the end of the season, a bizarre compromise was reached in which Conrad was forced to sell his share to Colonial and Gordon was given the control he wanted.

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The former home of Benjamin Sisti, who went on to serve nine years in prison for his role in the Colonial ponzi scheme.

This would have been bad in and of itself, but it didn’t end there. Colonial Reality, after being introduced by Conrad and unexpectedly assuming a large ownership role, declared bankruptcy. It turned out that the company was built on a massive ponzi scheme that begin to unravel shortly after they became involved with the Whalers. The team was exposed not just financially by failing to meet the terms of Conrad’s forced exit, but also to the possibility of his return. The uncertainty surrounding the ownership and control of the team didn’t subside until the lawsuit was finally settled in the fall of 1992.

 

Gordon did not hesitate to wield fear recklessly as a weapon in this battle, pressing the NHL to investigate the validity of Colonial’s finances, which threatened the team’s status in the league. For the first time, relocation entered the public mind as a real possibility. Blockbuster Video made a pass to move the team to Miami, who were granted an expansion franchise shortly after. It’s funny to think now how a franchise in the hockey wasteland of Florida build on the shaky foundation of VHS rental might have fared; perhaps they’d have ended up back in Hartford by now. To Gordon’s credit, he refused this and any other offer that explicitly threatened the Whalers with relocation. On the other hand, he threw fuel on the fire at every chance by entertaining the offers and using the threat as leverage.

In the meantime, as the battle carried on in court, Gordon went into the 1989 season with full control of the team. With his new found power he immediately proceeded to make three terrible decisions which arguably proved fatal to the franchise.

EMILE FRANCIS

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Emile Francis with Howard Baldwin, right

Gordon’s first act was to hire Ed Johnston to replace Emile Francis as GM of the Whalers. While Francis remained with the team in the capacity of president, it remains completely inexplicable how this decision could have possibly seemed to have any chance of ending well. I don’t think I’m up to the task of effectively conveying just how respected Francis was, nor how brilliant his mid-eighties rebuild of the Whalers was. He fearlessly gutted the team, ultimately keeping nothing except rookie Ron Francis, whom would eventually become the core of the team (referred as “Ronnie Franchise” as often as not) and arguably the greatest Whaler ever not named Gordie Howe. The fans were loyal in Hartford and there had been good crowds before Emile Francis took the wheel, but it took the team Francis built to create the critical mass that came to be known as Whalermania.

I don’t mean to dwell on such a small point. But the guy was a goddamned genius, and Richard Gordon’s first move was to strip him of his powers as general manager. It set the tone for what followed.

MIKE LIUT

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LIUUUUUUT!

Most people are thinking of another trade right now, and if you’re a Whalers fan you already know what’s coming. But just as crucial to the team, and just as devastating in his loss, was goalie Mike Liut. The theme here is the word “inexplicable”. Trades happen, fan favorites move on. When Mike Liut was traded to Washington in 1990, he’d led the league in shut-outs and been an all-star as recently as 1987. He’d had some recent injuries and split more of his time with the back-up since then, but was on the upswing when Hartford dumped him. That year he went on to lead the league in shut-outs yet again.

In return, we got Yvon Corriveau. A guy who bounced between the majors and minors and had a career best of ten goals per season. He managed to score six in Hartford before he went back to bouncing between the farm team in Springfield and the press box in Hartford. Hartford’s goaltending? There seemed to be no clear plan there.

Yes, just to be clear: they traded away the starting goalie without finding a replacement. His back-up Peter Sidorkiewicz was thrust into the starting role briefly before being claimed by Ottawa in the expansion draft and having the dubious distinction of being their starting goalie during their infamously bad inaugural season (they won only nine, yes NINE games that year). We didn’t have solid goal tending again until Sean Burke.

THE WORST TRADE IN THE HISTORY OF ALL TRADES

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Hurts. So. Bad. Make. It. Stop.

I don’t need to say much about this. We gave up Ron Francis for John Cullen, who did nothing for a year before we traded him away. Ronnie Franchise. The undisputed fan favorite, the core of the team, the man who went on to immediately become the missing piece that led the Penguins to TWO Stanley Cups. With Baldwin running the show and Ulfie watching Ronnie’s back just like he did in Hartford, it was absolutely excruciating to watch from a distance, as if our team had been ripped from Hartford and transplanted somewhere else with a new name. (Which of course eventually happened, and as it turns out sucks even worse than this did).

This is the point where I start to seriously consider sabotage. Call me crazy. Call me a conspiracy theorist. But I can only accept so many inexplicable and perfectly destructive choices as pure coincidence.

Still not convinced? I don’t blame you. But we’re not done yet. The Whalers had just begun to plumb the depths and alienate fans. There were a lot of things that made no sense at the time, and even more that smell fishy in hindsight. And while I could accept that some degree of incompetence and good intentions set the decline in motion, the further I dug, the harder it became to deny that the events of April 13, 1997 were both deliberate and long in the making.

Someone, or several someones, did this to us. And it was no accident.

 

 

 

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MAKING A RELOCATION, PART ONE: Who killed the Whale?

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“Making A Relocation” is an ongoing series exploring the inconsistencies between the facts and the public narrative surrounding the demise of the Hartford Whalers.


 

THE SCENE OF THE CRIME: APRIL 13, 1997: The Hartford Whalers were dead. The final game was something in between a celebration and a funeral, or so I’ve heard. I wasn’t there. I didn’t believe they would really leave, and I think a lot of people felt that way. 12480754_999660136743582_523598601_n

It felt like a cruel prank, as if at any moment Governor John Rowland and Owner Peter Karmanos were going to jump out from behind a curtain and let us know they were just pulling our leg. Folks lingered in the Civic Center as if they were actually waiting for something of the sort, but no reprieve was forthcoming.  After a very long and dragged out farewell, the Whalers left. The fans remained long after, until security gently ushered them out into the streets of downtown Hartford. Those streets have felt haunted to me to this day.

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HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

Just a decade earlier, Hartford was packed for another celebration: The Whalermania parade.

Yes, we threw the Whalers a parade for making it to the second round of the play-offs.

Yes, they only got that far once. Ever.

Yes, 40,000 people really did pack the streets to celebrate this dubious achievement.

The 1985-86 Whalers were the best team we ever had, a squad of underrated underachievers who arguably came within a single goal of the Stanley Cup. They took the Canadiens to game seven in the second round of the play-offs and pushed the Canadiens to overtime, only for Mike Liut to be famously thwarted by Claude Lemieux. The Canadiens blew through the next round and the finals with ease, needing only five games to finish both the Rangers and the Flames. The agony of the that one damned goal by Lemeiux was dragged out and amplified as we watched Montreal breeze their way to the Stanley Cup, all of us thinking the same thing: That should have been us.

It’s hard to imagine in these cynical times, but fans didn’t turn on the Whale following this tragic choke. Hartford was and is a small city. Most of us had met these guys, at least in passing. Everybody knew somebody who had benefited from their charities, or knew kids who played youth hockey scrimmages against them. We felt their pain. We knew how close they came, and how much it hurt to come short. They were our guys. We gave them a hero’s welcome.

So how did we find ourselves, a mere decade later,  mourning the team as they played one last meaningless game after missing the play-offs for the fifth time in a row?

How was it possible that we’d jumped through hoop after hoop as they raised ticket prices and season ticket quotas, meetings targets only to have them moved, over and over?

Why were they telling us this was happening because we didn’t support our team after a year of sold-out games? And why, some twenty years later, do people repeat that fiction so casually, as if they were merely pointing out that the sky is blue?

Who killed the Whale? And why?

This is a complicated question with a complicated answer. I’ve been tugging at threads and piecing the story together over the past year or so, checking my fuzzy memories against old newspaper articles, first-hand accounts, and random pieces of memorabilia from the nineties. If you asked me who to blame, I’d probably say a different name depending on the day of the week, and I’m not sure any of the possible answers would be wrong.  The “why” is a little more clear cut, but we’ll get to that later.

Two things, however, became clear to me immediately. They will be common threads throughout this sordid mess.

  1. As much as I despise Peter Karmanos, and have relished in lambasting his arrogance and failure in the past, Peter Karmanos is not the reason the Whalers left. He ultimately pulled the trigger, sure. He could have stopped it from happening, but for reasons that will become clear, there was never any reason to expect him to do anything other than what he did. The plot which led to the Whaler’s demise and the slow gutting of downtown Hartford began many years earlier with a conspiracy of nearly a dozen traitors and fools who were willing to let the city burn chasing pipe dreams in the name of green and/or ego.
  2. The myth of Hartford’s attendance problem, which has become something of an article of faith and has been casually repeated as gospel truth by the press as recently as this week, is badly exaggerated at best and completely false at worst. At any rate, attendance was not a deciding factor in the relocation of the Hartford Whalers. The stands were full when they left, and had been for every day of the final season.

In the next instalment, we’ll dive into the murkiest end of the pool: the events that began with the trades of Ron Francis, Ulf Samulesson and Mike Liut and ended with the purchase of the team by Peter Karmanos.

Until then, familiarize yourself with this rogue’s gallery. We’ll get to know them all better shortly:

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