“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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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: