MAKING A RELOCATION: The True, Untold Story of How Hartford Lost the Whalers

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“Making a Relocation” is an eight-part series covering the (mostly untold) true story of how the Hartford Whalers left Connecticut.

It started one day when I got sick of hearing people who don’t live here say the Whalers moved because they were never supported. I thought I could tell the story in a few paragraphs and started back in the glory days of the late eighties (known locallly as “Whalermania”), when the Whalers were one of the most profitable teams in the league and favorites to win the Stanley Cup and worked my way forward.

I quickly realized that there was a lot of stuff I’d forgotten, twice as much that I’d never known in the first place, and that it was going to take a lot more than a few paragraphs to tell it. Three weeks and eight chapters later, it was done. The song of my people. An acquittal of the fans of Hartford, an indictment of the traitors among us and thieves who carried away our regional pride.

Say what you will about us – our city, our team or the people who live here – but no longer will it remain unanswered. This is our story.

 

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MAKING A RELOCATION, PART EIGHT: Requiem For a Pipe Dream

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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:


 

11-03-1951

My grandparents, 11-03-1951

I had a chance to talk about how the Whalers came to matter so much to my Grandmother, and by extension myself, this past Thanksgiving. I don’t get to see her as much as I’d like these days. She left the state a few years after the Whalers did, eventually ending up in (of all places) North Carolina.

My grandfather died suddenly in 1970, tw0 years before the Whalers began play in Boston. Five years later they came to Hartford, and the Whale came to fill the gaping hole that he left in my grandmother’s life.

She was a member of the Whalers Booster Club from day one, from the World Hockey Association days through the bitter end. She was a part of the “91 Club” that kept the team afloat when the Civic Center roof collapsed, driving back and forth to Springfield for the better part of two years for “home” games. She took bus rides to Montreal and Buffalo and Boston to root for the boys during away games for all of my life, and kept doing so for a few years after the team ceased to exist as the Whalers.  I grew up accepting Whalers fanhood and the attendant pride in my city as facts of life, a direct consequence the work my grandmother and the booster club did.

I never met my grandfather.

My father was only eleven when he died. But 46 years after his passing, everything I’ve written here still bears the mark of his loss in a very real way. It wasn’t just how we mourned. It was something bigger than that. It ingrained in us a sense of urgency to value the things which matter to us now, in the moment, rather than take them for granted. To take pride in the place where we’re from and who we are.

I can see it three generations later in my own children. My 8 year-old son, raised on the AHL Whale but born a full decade after the Whalers left, dutifully stood in line for over an hour to have Geoff Sanderson sign his jersey.

I asked him if he was sure he wanted to wait in the long line, not wanting to torture the poor kid with nostalgic tedium.

“Who wouldn’t want to meet a real NHL player from their own town?”, he said, slightly incredulous that I’d even asked. “Some people never even had an NHL team, Dad. We’re lucky.”

I just nodded and smiled, having been rightfully scolded.


 

Forgive me this personal detour in what has been an otherwise (more or less) journalistic endeavor, but I promise that there is a purpose.

While this particular story is unique to my family, there’s a certain universality to these kind of connections in a small market like Hartford. The details vary from person to person, sure. But in Hartford, as in Quebec and Winnipeg and Edmonton, these teams were focal points of the community. The names and logos weren’t marketing ploys and corporate trademarks; they were symbols of regional pride. The players weren’t interchangeable millionaires, they were real people whose kids went to the same schools. When things were bad, they thanklessly and literally bled on behalf of the cities they played for.

Twenty years later, if someone still wants to believe that we didn’t support this team, I’m not sure anything I could say will ever matter. When we did stay away, which wasn’t often, it wasn’t out of indifference. It was out of anger. These silly details that bigger markets treated like meaningless bits of marketing – colors, logos, goal songs – were bonafide cultural institutions in Connecticut.

The management was messing with our very identity, and we were pissed.

You can scoff and call this romanticism. The NHL is a business and I get that. But there’s no divorcing passion from the business of sports, as much as the league and player’s associations attempt to impose their mechanical systems on the messy, human chaos of it all. And sometimes romance and commerce collide. Sometimes a lame-duck city refuses to die and sells 9000 season tickets in the the 11th hour.

These things happen.


 

There’s a certain type of person who reads these pieces I’ve been writing and feels compelled to turn them into a catalyst for a debate, to argue the improbability of the pipe dream of the NHL returning to Hartford. I’m not sure why some people feel so compelled to argue against hope. For the record, I never said it will happen, nor do I feel qualified to speak to how probable it is.

I do think it’s certainly possible. Of course, I say that with the significant caveat that it would require Connecticut politicians to both work together and to put the best interest on the state first.

Having spent the last three weeks of my life immersed in this unsavory bit of history, I have to admit that I find my faith in politicians bordering on non-existent.

I do believe, firmly, that if Rowland or Weicker or Karmanos or anyone else with the power to put the kibosh on the relocation of the Whalers had chosen to do so, the team would still be there today, and they’d be fine. Arena and television revenues are the standard for the profitability of an NHL team in 2016. Our attendance was generally better back then than Carolina or Arizona today, but if that was a make-or-break issue those teams would be long gone as well. Hartford is the largest television market in the nation without a professional team. Revenue sharing and salary caps came into play a few years after we were out of the league. The argument that we didn’t support the team just isn’t true, and the tired “too close to Boston” or “too close to New York” arguments have never been particularly meaningful. Attendance and TV ratings in the non-traditional markets that replaced cities like Hartford aren’t exactly out-performing what we did historically.

But whatever happens, NHL or not, this story needed to be told. The fiction that had taken root in its place was toxic and has come to manifest as self-loathing.

I don’t know what will come next, but whether it’s the NHL or college sports or something entirely different, let us reclaim our history.

Let us reclaim our pride from these crooks.


FINAL DISPOSITIONS


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THE FANS

NOT GUILTY of failing to support the Whalers.

 

 

 


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RICHARD GORDON

NOT GUILTY of purchasing the Whalers with the intent to relocate.

GUILTY of numerous counts of mismanagement.

GUILTY of conspiring to sell the Whalers to out-of-state interests for personal financial gain.

 


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LOWELL WEICKER

GUILTY of conspiring to sell the Whalers to out-of-state interest in exchange for a promise of employment.

GUILTY of diverting state funds to a quixotic pursuit of the NFL at the expense of efforts to Save the Whale.

 

 


CONRDONA

DONALD CONRAD

NOT GUILTY of anything as far as I can tell, except maybe knowing that Colonial Realty wasn’t totally on the up-and-up when he involved him.

 

 

 

 


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BEN SISTI

GUILTY of buying the Whalers while operating a ponzi scheme, going bankrupt, and totally screwing over everyone involved.

GUILTY of running a ponzi scheme in the first place.

 

 

 


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ED JOHNSTON

NOT GUILTY of a damn thing. Framed by Gordon for a bunch of terrible trades.

 

 

 

 

 


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RICK LEY

NOT GUILTY of alienating Ron Francis. Acted with his hands tied by ownership.

GUILTY of inexplicably beating Valeri Kharlamov bloody during the 1972 summit series versus the USSR.

 

 

 


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BRIAN BURKE

NOT GUILTY of anything except getting rid of the Brass Bonanza.

Seriously, though, what were you thinking?

 

 

 

 


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PIERRE MCGUIRE

GUILTY of being human cancer.

GUILTY of busting Pat Verbeek’s balls.

GUILTY of making it difficult to watch hockey on TV.

 

 

 

 


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GARY BETTMAN

GUILTY of pushing Southern expansion as a solution to revenue problems at the expense of small markets.

NOT GUILTY (and I hate to admit it) of conspiring against Hartford or having any kind of special malice towards the city.

 

 


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PETER KARMANOS

GUILTY of purchasing the Whalers with the intent of relocating them.

GUILTY of conducting ticket drives in bad faith while negotiating with other cities.

GUILTY of being an asshole, liar and terrible human being.

NOT GUILTY of hatching the conspiracy to kill the Whale. Can’t blame that one on anyone but our own traitorous politicians.

 


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JOHN ROWLAND

GUILTY of pretty much everything.

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

  • First and foremost, my grandmother Verna Rufini and my grandfather, James Michael Rufini who not only helped give me life, but instilled in me the lessons which inspired this series.
  • My children, whose future made clear to me the importance of the past.
  • Jeff Jacobs, who despite his tendency to frequently frustrate me, was (and is) the only professional journalist to persistently cover the Whalers with both passion and with clear eyes. His many articles written over the years provided an important outline for this work.
  • The LCS Guide to Hockey web site, in particular their Hartford correspondent Steve Gallichio, who pioneered amateur internet journalism so early that the Whalers still existed when they wrote their earliest pieces. They wrote about hockey and the Whalers with heart, humor and wit and preserved many details of the story that would have been otherwise lost. Their whole web site is a great read, but I particularly recommend Issue #66, which served as a eulogy to the Whalers: LCS Hockey #66
  • A Requiem For My Team, The Hartford Whalers by Aaron Gordon for VICE Magazine. It’s an amazing piece which really is the gold standard of Hartford sports writing.
  • The Hartford Whalers Booster Club, both collectively and the individuals who spoke to me individually while researching this piece. Pete Hindle, Matt Greene, Mike Glasson and Alan Looper in particular have been very patient and helpful in discussing my obsession.
  • The Hartford Courant Whalers Message Board – Often inane, often frustrating, occasionally brilliant. It is the wild west frontier of Hartford sports social media and a lot of my best leads came from searching the (often totally insane) conversations archived there.
  • Finally the Baldwins, who got me going to hockey games again with my kids stirred up the faithful with the CT Whale effort.

 


 

FIN.

 

 

 

 

 

 

MAKING A RELOCATION, PART SEVEN: Dead Whale Walking

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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:


 

In October of 1995, exactly one year into the his promised four-year reign  as owner of the Hartford Whalers, Peter Karmanos approached Governor John Rowland (successor to Compuware’s newest board member, Lowell Weicker) with both a request and a plan.

THE REQUEST

A conditional exemption from their their four-year commitment to remain in Hartford, a direct response to a home game versus the St. Louis Blues that drew only 10,000 fans.

The expectation was that a large crowd would turn out for golden boy Brendan Shanahan’s first home game against his former team. I’m not going to invest a lot of time trying to unravel why this one particular game only drew 10,000 (which is still a good 5000 more than a normal Friday in Raleigh these days, just saying), but the expectation that Shanahan’s history would be a matter of any special interest to the fans in Hartford showed how disconnected the ownership was from Hartford. Shanahan had been brought in with great fanfare and was handed the Captaincy immediately upon arrival. He responded by openly complaining about being stuck in Hartford. He was a guy who got booed every time he touched the puck. At home.

At any rate, it was a suspicious request. There were supposed to be three more years before the issue of relocation would be broached again. The attendance was not stellar, but it was up about 1500-2500 (depending on if you count luxury seating) since Karmanos took over, despite a continued play-off drought and years without any core group of players to rally around since Gordon gutted the franchised in 1990-91. Karmanos claimed they lost $11 million in the first year. This was significantly less than the $30 million of losses the state had agreed to subsidize in advance, not to mention the $30 million in losses Karmanos had pledged to withstand himself per the terms of the sale.

$11 million was also a $3 million reduction in loss from the prior year under Richard Gordon, in which the team reported losses of $14 million. Attendance was trending up. It wasn’t a good situation, but it was a good as could be expected by Karmanos as he knowingly took on a team with no modern revenue streams. In spite of the modestly positive trend, and the much touted competence of Peter Karmanos, he projected the next year’s losses to be $20 million.

I have no idea how a team whose main source of revenue was ticket sales saw a overall increase in attendance yet saw their losses double. I expect an answer is not forthcoming at this point. But it’s hard to overlook the convenience of that number. The combined total of those two years, $30 million, was exactly the amount needed to trigger a clause allowing Karmanos to request permission to relocate. Even more conveniently, it was also the exact amount of loss that the state had agreed to subsidize. In exactly one year, with two years left on the contract he signed, Karmanos was free to attempt to relocate the Whalers while claiming financial hardship while not having actually lost a dime of his own money.

I’m not saying he made up the numbers. I can prove no such thing.

I’m just saying it was awfully convenient.

THE PLAN

In that October 1995 meeting, a plan was proposed by Karmanos and accepted by the state, though the public remained unaware for almost seven months. The plan, now widely remembered as the April 1996 “Save the Whale” campaign, was to offer the Whalers all of the revenue from luxury boxes, concessions and parking which they needed to stave off the ongoing losses, in exchange for a commitment to stay. The condition placed upon this relief was a demonstration of viability of the fanbase, in the form of the sale of 5500 season tickets to meet an overall target of 11,000. The number was chosen as the minimum needed to guarantee profitability.

There are a lot of things that don’t make sense here.

First of all, the state was making a deal in which they gave something to Karmanos (revenue), and in return he gave them something he’d already given: a commitment to stay. In effect, the state was the one pulling the trigger on losing the Whalers by demanding a target be reached on short notice.

Why was the target necessary? There had been a respectable increase in attendance without any prompting or targets, just by removing the cancer of Richard Gordon. The fans had withstood a roof collapse, league merger, temporary home in Springfield and many years of bad play on-ice. It was bizarre, so late in the game, for the owner of the team, to be publicly questioning the viability of the market itself. After rolling out the red carpet for Karmanos and spurring a committed local owner in the Dowling Group, and after twenty years  in Hartford, we were suddenly being vetted by our own government and ownership as if we were a new market of questionable worth requesting an expansion franchise.

That aforementioned short notice is also puzzling. The “Save the Whale” drive was conceived in October of 1995. It wasn’t made public until April of 1996. When it was finally made public, it was following an increase in ticket prices and the elimination of partial season ticket and “flex” packages.

This is the sales pitch, as the faithful received it in April of 1996: They had exactly one month to sell 11,000 season tickets, and not only was the price going up, but the more affordable partial plans were gone. You bought a full-season ticket package and you bought at the new higher price, or you bought nothing at all. Failure to succeed in this task would result in the immediate relocation of the Whalers to an undisclosed location, despite the fact that we were only two years into a four-year lease that had been paid for with tens of millions of dollars in public funds.

In a case of shocking coincidence, the beginning of the “Save the Whale” campaign coincided perfectly with ticket office being closed, the staff sent away to Boston on a bus trip to “root for the team” during an away game. Fans who called to buy tickets under these onerous conditions got an answering machine.

Seven chapters in the mess, I can smell sabotage a mile away. This whole thing stunk.

Up until this point, the whole thing seems very neatly sewn up and perfectly executed. It’s like a professional wrestling match, all of the parties acting out protracted negotiations and taking turns playing heel, when in reality they’re all reading from the same script. It’s hard to believe, knowing what I know now, and looking at the ridiculous conditions put upon the campaign, to believe that the “Save the Whale” effort was supposed to succeed. It was just the final death blow, one last sad hurrah before everyone walked away with their hands clean claiming to have done everything they could do.

The problem with this plan is that it was built upon lies. In expecting it to play out smoothly and quietly, it was clear that they’d come to believe their own fiction.

Hartford didn’t win. But we didn’t go quietly into the night.

We damn near did the impossible.


 

hc-the-hartford-whalers-beginning-to-end-20130-044JOHN ROWLAND AND THE NFL

Despite having the dubious distinction of the being the only major player to reap the felony convictions and prison time that all of them probably deserved, John Rowland remains the biggest wild card in the story. It’s hard to say for sure what he knew or intended for sure at any point, and given his eventual disgrace, it’s hard to write off any possibility as being “too far” or to dismiss any speculation of malice as paranoia.

There is absolutely zero evidence that John Rowland accepted kickbacks or bribes to play along with the deal Weicker and Karmanos hatched to kill the Whalers. Even if it happened, I doubt it could ever be proven. That said, it’s exactly the sort of thing he was eventually convicted of doing.

What we do know is that in 1995, as Rowland was quietly arranging for the ticket drive that was likely to end the NHL in Hartford, he had resumed talks with the NFL that had been suspended a few years earlier when Robert Kraft bought the Patriots. At the time, Kraft insisted relocation was off the table. However, by 1995, he’d been spurned in an effort to reestablish the Patriots in the south end of Boston proper. Unwilling to tolerate the outdated arena in Foxboro any longer, Kraft publicly declared that relocation might in fact be an option after all.

The state capitol in Hartford kicked into high gear. The stadium offer was back on the table. By 1996, not only was Rowland in talks with Kraft and the NFL, but he’d been visited by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as well. Whatever other backdoor deals may or may not have taken place or factored into Rowland’s willingness to play along with the deal that Weicker had brokered, there is no doubt that he happily ignored the NHL situation while enthusiastically chasing professional football. Weicker’s open offer of $175 towards a stadium would swell to well over $300 million under Rowland as he courted the Patriots. The concessions revenue the Whalers were asking for seems laughably small compared to the no-strings-attached offer that was eventually thrown desperately at the Patriots: approximately $7-8 million.

For me, the real cognitive dissonance lies in the conflicting narratives employed in these two efforts. The impossible hurdle the Whalers were expected to clear before being considered worthy of those meager concession revenues we to serve as proof of the market’s fundamental viability. It was no longer a question of marketing or on-ice performance, but whether the market could sustain a major-league team at all. The population was too small, Hartford was too close to New York and Boston, there wasn’t enough corporate support. All familiar refrains today.

But at the exact same time we were seriously discussing spending hundreds of milions of dollars on a new major league footbal franchise. The parking and concessions revenues being used as a bargaining chip against the Whalers? There was no discussion, not even the passing mention, of either the city or the state retaining those rights.

It would have been laughable.

Everyone involved knew this, of course. It was a fact of life in professional sports at this point. The dog and pony show surrounding these revenues with the Whalers were just that, a charade. Whatever doubt remained about the possibility of the state retaining  these rights and keeping an NHL franchise had been dispelled in 1994 by the arrival of Gary Bettman.


WE WOULD HAVE GOTTEN AWAY WITH IT TOO, IF IT WASN’T FOR YOU MEDDLING FANS…

In early April of 1996, it began. Tickets prices were jacked up by 20%, partial packages eliminated, and the required deposit was increased by 750%. In case that wasn’t enough alone, an impossibly high goal was set: 30 days for 11,000 tickets.

When asked if he felt a month could possibly be enough time, Karmanos said “I find people respond best in the first 24 or the 11th hours”.  It would have to be the 11th, since the ticket office phone lines were conveniently out of commission for the first 24 hours of the ticket drive.

It was a classic screw job if there had ever been one. The cause was largely considered hopeless.

Something about the fatalism of the attitude towards drive, the way its failure was treated as a foregone conclusion, awoke something in the Hartford faithful. Maybe it was pure obstinance. For some, I’m sure, it was a rude awakening that however frustrated we were with the team, boycotting was no longer an option. Many folks had come to believe that between the state and the consortium of rich fools behind the team, there would always be deep pockets to save the team. Staying home was just a way to send a message. UConn basketball was a good distraction and made it fairly painless, at least until folks started realizing that there may be no team to come back to when or if things got better.

Defying all expectations, the drive started to work. The Whalers start selling tickets. A lot of them.

Though the campaign was officially being spear-headed by Governor Rowland (who embarrassingly admits in public at a rally that he hasn’t purchased tickets himself) and delegated as a special project to Lt. Governor Jodi Rell (who at one point towards the tail end of the campaign openly discourages people from purchasing tickets and publicly attacks the Whalers), the real thrust came (not surprisingly) from the grass roots.

Aetna and several other local corporations subsidize employee ticket purchases by buying one season ticket for every one bought by workers, an effective discount of 50%. The Hartford Whaler Booster Club, in its most heroic act since the Civic Center roof collapse, orchestrate a “buddy system” in which displaced partial-season ticket holders are able to find other fans who are unable to purchase full season tickets and pool their resources. A few particularly enterprising fans even managed to employ the nascent internet of 1996 to coordinate the “buddy system” ticket sales and to gather thousands of petition signature protesting the relocation of the Whale.

In the midst of this heroic effort, comes a report from Keith Olbermann of ESPN that the ticket drive is a ruse and that a deal has already been struck to relocate the Whalers to Nashville. The report is calmly denied by all parties involved, with the exception of Peter Karmanos. He explodes. In a public rage, Karmanos vehemently denies the rumors in a profanity-laden diatribe about “lies”. He attacks not only Keith Olbermann, but Nashville itself, referring to it as “a cruddy market”.

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Love him or hate him, he may well have saved the Whale for another year.

The next day Karmanos admitted to having been in talks with the owners of an arena in Nashville. In hindsight, Keith Olbermann may have single-handedly saved the last season of the Whalers by provoking the outburst which tanked the Nashville deal.

This is where it gets weird: A week later, the relocation deal dead, Karmanos hints that an extension of the drive may be possible, and that a renegotiated lease may be more important than obtaining the final 3000 ticket sales needed to meet the drive’s sales target. The state holds firm on the target of 11,000, and for the first time it becomes public knowledge both that the drive is the result of an agreement that was made months earlier, and that contrary to public perception, the state was a voluntary party. Until this point, it was widely believed that Karmanos and the Whalers had been putting the screws to a state that was desperate to save the Whale.

The complete breakdown between Rowland and Karmanos came as May approached and the drive neared it’s deadline.

On the eve of that deadline, with rumors circulating that about 7500 tickets had been sold, General Manager Jim Rutherford mentioned publicly that in light of the state’s unwillingness to budge on the issue of the ticket drive deadline, he had requested permission from Gary Bettman to shop the team to other cities. The next day Bettman publicly refused. The day after that, Governor Rowland announces that 7600 tickets have been sold.

On one side was Gary Bettman’s refusal to vacate the four-year contract. On the other were the local corporations who had played no small part in helping the Whalers maintain an 85% ticket renewal rate while selling 3500 new tickets, in spite the new and incredibly onerous conditions. Trapped between the two, John Rowland reluctantly agreed to a two week extension about ten minutes before the deadline press conference.

Now while the ticket campaign hadn’t met its ridiculous goal of 11,000, 3500 new season ticket sales in a month was probably some kind of record, and under the conditions imposed by the team it bordered on miraculous. No one would have been surprised if the drive ended in embarrassment by resulting in a net loss of ticket base. Given this impressive show of support and sudden change of heart by Karmanos, and Bettman’s denial of any immediate exit plan, Governor Rowland and the state were compelled to spend the two-week extension in talks to renegotiate the Civic Center lease. The negotiations, obviously, were fruitless, but the sticking points are very telling as to the intentions of John Rowland.

Rowland initially refused to yield on the matter of arena revenues, citing the drive’s failure to meet the target of 11,000. He instead pressed for an immediate exit at a reduced buyout fee, reportedly to avoid the losing the team as scheduled in 1998, an election year. Again, the local corporate interests who had invested so much both over the years and in the recent ticket drive, put the screws to Rowland and made it clear again that standing by while the Whalers limped away was not an option.

Rowland abruptly reversed course, publicly vowing to play “hard ball”. He demanded not just that the Whalers stay for the full four years of their contract, but that they agree to an additional year with no exit clause. This extension, it should be noted, would conveniently keep the Whalers in place until immediately following the aforementioned election.

I’m not saying the John Rowland’s primary concern in these negotiations was protecting his political career. I can’t prove that. Again, I’m just noticing things which are oddly convenient.


 

kraftThe talks ended having resolved absolutely nothing. The Whalers were left where they started, two years into a four-year lease, though admittedly in a much better position having reached close to 9000 season tickets sold during the two weeks of pointless negotiation. It was an amazing achievement, soiled by being overshadowed in the end by a farce of fake negotiations and an embarrassing public back-and-forth between Rowland and Karmanos.

We’d achieved something remarkable. After years of being a laughingstock under Gordon, and then underestimated by Karmanos as being dead on arrival, we’d risen up and built one of the largest season ticket bases in the NHL. Not only did we do it completely through grassroots organization, but we did it with active opposition from both the state and our ownership. There can be little doubt that if the team had continued selling partial-season ticket packages, we would have easily broken the 11,000 mark. What we did in 1996 was a hell of a lot more than they’ve done twenty years later in Carolina, Miami and Arizona even with years of relocation threats looming over them.

The evidence is pretty damning that Karmanos purchased the Hartford Whalers for the express purpose of relocating them to a southern market. By his own admission, he had negotiated a deal with Nashville only halfway through the four-year commitment he made to Hartford. I find that difficult, if not impossible, to defend.

That said, I come close to feeling sympathetic toward Karmanos after all of this. He certainly can’t be blamed for the Gordon years, where most of the damage was done. He had no ties or loyalty to Hartford when he bought the team, and by ever indication it was offered up to him with with the explicit intention of relocation. Up until the “Save the Whale” campaign, he operated accordingly and seemed intent upon relocating the team using low attendance as a pretense.

When we surprised him by actually selling tickets, he seemed surprised (everyone did, to be honest). Keith Olbermann’s sabotage of the Nashville deal with certainly a contributing factor, but every piece of evidence I’ve found indicates that from that point, Karmanos negotiated in good faith. It was hard to ignore the success of the ticket drive. It was probably the first time he’d had any glimpse of anything worth saving. Nashville was gone. Bettman, if only responding to the public tantrum thrown by Karmanos, wasn’t allowing any talk of relocation.

In the midst of all of this, the Whalers ended their season with a victory over Boston but still no play-off contention. They averaged just shy of 12,000, close to 13,000 if you account for the luxury seating, which was downright respectable in an arena that held 14,000 and change.

So they made a go of it and fought for the only chance the Whalers had to survive in Hartford: the arena revenues.

John Rowland, for his part, went rogue. He responded with bizarre posturing in public, and political machinations in private. At the time, a lot of people perceived him as “standing up for the taxpayers”, but in hindsight it seems incredibly unlikely that Rowland every stood for anything other than himself. He already had a plan, which we’d find out in 1998, and he wasn’t going to derail it by rolling the dice with the Whalers in an election year. Nor was he going to endanger the $300+ million he was offering the Patriots by allowing them to succeed. The long-term success of the Whalers in Hartford meant only one thing, as we’ve established: a new arena.

 

Meanwhile, we had one last season to play.

The Whalers didn’t make the play-offs, but came closer than they had in a long time. They weren’t great, but they were competitive. There was optimism about the team’s future, and with at least a year left on the lease and sell-out crowds having become a regular occurrence again, reasonable hope that said future would take place in Hartford.

When the final season’s attendance is acknowledged at all by nay-sayers, it’s typically dismissed as a “last hurrah” or compared to rubberneckers stopping to look at the wreckage of a car wreck. I can understand how it might appear to be so in hindsight. But at the time, while there was certainly some apprehension about the future, there was no sense of impending doom. If anything, the prevailing sentiment was cautious optimism. After all the fuss made about ticket sales, it was hard to imagine a team that packed the house every single night being relocated. At the very least, there was one more season left.

Until there wasn’t.


 

At the end of the 1996-97 season, negotiations resumed. A year earlier and prior to the ticket drive, Jim Rutherford dismissed the very notion of a new arena as being 6-8 years premature. There was little sense, he noted, in building a larger arena to replace one that was never full. Things had changed quite a bit in the interim. This time, the negotiations centered entirely on that very issue.

There’s an alarming lack of awareness in the media surrounding this second round of negotiations. Rowland seemed to have cast a spell over the press, who fully embraced the narrative of him as a noble defender of the taxpayer from the whims of greedy billionaire sports magnates.

It was a big ask, to be sure. The Whalers wanted a new arena for approximately $145 million. It was slightly less than the open offer Weicker had extended to the NFL some years back. Factoring in an additional $45 million of anticipated loss during construction and revenue from concessions and parking, it was still well below the approximately $250 million the state had last offered the Patriots.

Rowland tanked those negotiations with aplomb. He stood before the press repeating the words “revenue neutral” as if they were a rallying call for the state of Connecticut as we took up arms against this robber baron owner for the last time. There would be no arena unless it was “revenue neutral”. As Rowland well knew, this was thinly-veiled code for “there will be no new arena”.

Karmanos abandoned his brief flirtation with committing to Hartford. Bettman, reading between the lines, did not stand in his way this time. The Whalers abruptly announced their intention to relocate, destination unknown. After a series of ridiculous proposals, one of which involved playing in an aircraft hangar, the Whalers settled in Carolina. They played in an AHL arena in Greensboro while a new arena was built in Raleigh, reportedly drawing in the hundreds for early games.

It is some small comfort, and I mean small, to know that they are currently drawing several thousand less on average than they did upon leaving Hartford. Peter Karmanos has paid dearly for crying wolf about his losses in Hartford in 1996; the Carolina Hurricanes have lost many millions of dollars since they left Hartford.


 

Against all odds, for one brief moment John Rowland had the power to stop a murder seven years in the making. Instead, he finished the job. And then he held a press conference to gloat and pat himself on the back for having done so. They clapped and brayed like seals.

A year later, Rowland announced a deal with the Patriots. He gave them everything Karmanos asked for, and a few hundred million extra for good measure. The same folks who cheered as John Rowland took his bold stand against the Whalers cheered against as he offered Robert Kraft $374 million with absolutely no strings attached.

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Six months later, the Patriots terminated the deal on a technicality. Hartford had been a bargaining chip all along. Kraft, at least, got the stadium he wanted in Massachusetts.

Within five years, John Rowland was indicted for corruption.

I can’t say it any better than Jeff Jacobs did, so I won’t even try:

“On the saddest day in Hartford sports history, they stood and cheered. It was disgusting.”


 

 

 

MAKING A RELOCATION, PART SIX: Dirty Deeds (Done for $45 Million)

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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:


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Much has been made of Peter Karmanos and the public drama leading up to relocation, but as we come to a close here I won’t spend much time on that. Besides being the most familiar and well-remembered part of the story, it was a farce. Bread and circuses.

What I find much more interesting is the year leading up to Karmanos purchasing the team in 1994.

It always felt a little too neat to me. Having filled in the gaps, it feels meticulously orchestrated. Like anyone else in Hartford, I’ve been over this part of the story dozens of times, but when I re-read it prior to writing this instalment it was with fresh eyes and the benefit of a lot of new information. It made me physically ill.

If you need a refresher before we begin, I recommend this article from sporttoday.org by Steve Gallich. It’s not an account I agree with, but it’s an excellent representation of the “official” explanation for the sale of the Whalers to Peter Karmanos.

Rewind to 1993. Following a series of failed attempts to relocate both the Patriots and Rams of the NFL to Hartford and for costs ranging from $175-$250 million, a deal was struck to keep the struggling Whalers afloat. The state gave Gordon $30 million to pay down debts and rent-free usage of the Civic Center, in exchange for a 20-year commitment to the state and the rights to all revenue from luxury seating.

When the deal was announced, all anyone heard was: The Whalers will be here for twenty more years. While a few cynics, most notably Jeff Jacobs of the Hartford Courant, were wary of a quick fix that seemed too good to be true, most people were just happy for an end of the dark years. The halcyon days of Whalermania and Ron Francis didn’t immediately resume, but things got better. The 1994-95 season saw an average attendance increase of about 1500 officially, which was more like 2500 if you factor in the luxury seating that now belonged to the state and was not factored into official head counts starting that year.

The optimism ignores two important problems:

First was the issue of the luxury seating. It largely ignored at the time, disregarded as an irrelevant detail buried in a story about a 20-year lease. What this arrangement actually represented was a final step in the wrong direction. With parking, concessions and now luxury seating revenue all out of the state’s hands, the Hartford Whalers were now completely out-of-step with any semblance of a  working, modern-day NHL business plan. There was a twenty-year lease, but in the absence of any means by which the team might turn a profit, it was toothless. The days of gate revenue from ticket sales carrying a team were over. There was no NHL television deal. The salary cap and revenue sharing were still years off. Arena revenue was the team’s only hope to turn a profit as a small market team in the nineties. This deal to “save” the Whalers was in fact a subtle death blow.

The second problem was the twenty-year commitment itself. While it sounded great, the fact that the lease’s natural termination in 2014 is not fresh in our memories says it all. Not only did it not last 20 years, but the promise was broken in less than a single year. The deal included a clause giving the state first right to purchase the team in the event that Gordon continued losing a money (in hindsight a certainty that all parties must have anticipated), and conversely gave Gordon the right to sell or move the team if the state declined to exercise this option.

Less than a month after receiving his $30 million bailout and pledging his two-decade commitment to Hartford, Richard Gordon exercised his option to move the team and put the NHL on notice as to his intent to relocate the Whalers. He dismissed it a mere “precaution” in the event that the state failed to exercise their option to buy the team.

Within six months of announcing his intent to sell, two competing bids had emerged. First came an offer from a group of local businessmen fronted by William F. Dowling. The second was from Peter Karmano of Compuware, a group which as we’ve previously established in this piece, was known to be seeking small market teams with the intent of southern relocation. When I first found that particular smoking gun, I believed it be the only surviving public mention of that history. Purchasing the Whalers with intent to relocate them might border on criminal given the significant involvement of public money and promises to the contrary; it certainly would constitute ethical grounds to invalidate the eventual inclusion of Peter Karmanos in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Since then, I was shocked to discover this article from the Courant archives which, among other disturbing details of sale, explicitly references the legal complications from an existing arrangement Karmanos had in Arizona and a failed expansion bid in Florida. Not only does this remove any doubt of his interest in southern relocation and expansion, but removes any doubt of the state’s knowledge of his intentions. There is a dizzying disconnect reading these ancient broken promises, the empty mantra of “committed to Hartford” repeated over and over, with the advantage of hindsight.

Peter Karmanos is a terrible human being. I’ve expounded at length in the past about the damage he has done to Hartford, if only in the lies he told in the moment and ever since to justify what happened in Hartford. He certainly dealt a near-fatal blow to our regional pride. But I can’t say he is responsible for what happened to the Whalers, not after all of this.

The deed was done before he ever stepped foot in Hartford.

Listen to how this went down. It’s nauseating.

Dowling made the first offer to buy the team. The price was predetermined by the deal made with Gordon, $45 million dollars. The offer had more to do with the size of the intitial down payment, length of commitment to Hartford, and whatever other added value the investors could bring.

Less than a month after Dowling’s offer, the Compuware group made one of their own. The original offer by Dowling is unknown, but was thought to be slightly lower than the $20 million down payment offered by Compuware. Dowling’s group immediately countered with an offer of $29 million down and a 7-year commitment to Hartford. Their original offer included no specific clause regarding relocation, which probably seemed unnecessary given the existing 20-year lease and Dowling’s local roots. However, the Compuware group had offered four years.

Here we have another one of those things that doesn’t make much sense until you figure out the angle being worked. Why it was necessary for the state to purchase the team and facilitate the negotiations?

The state’s role as middle man served two purposes: First, it quietly paid out the remaining 25% of local corporate ownership, severing the team’s strongest tie to Hartford. Second, it invalidated 20-year clause of the lease and prevented that commitment from being passed on to the new owner. Per usual, the public face of these deals rarely bears any resemblance to the actual intent or consequence.

On Tuesday, May 31, 1994 a surprise meeting was called for both bidders to present their final bids to the Connecticut Development Authority. The Compuware group arrived promptly at 3:00pm, spoke briefly with the CDA and headed out to the TPC Highlands golf course in Cromwell. Dowling’s group arrived at 4:30pm, and waited for three hours before discovering that the CDA had not just called a surprise meeting, but that they’d already voted. Without hearing Dowling’s proposal, and in spite of the fact that he was local and offering both a larger down payment and a longer commitment, the CDA has unanimously chosen Peter Karmanos as the new owner of the Hartford Whalers.

In the words of Dowling’s attorney, John Droney, “It was very discourteous and very unfair. They didn’t give us a chance to compete. It was ridiculous.”

Feeling sick yet? Ponder this for a moment.

Think about all of the agonizing we did in previous instalments about the endless series of bad decisions made by Richard Gordon. It was hard to escape the sense that he was deliberately sabotaging the franchise, but equally difficult to figure out why.

A few years later, it was all spelled out. The CDA, in defending a seemingly inexplicable decision on their own part, held up a laundry list of Gordon’s bad decisions as if it were a shield and hid behind it while shouting about the importance of “experience” and “knowledge of hockey”. He gave them the only justification possible for ignoring the substantially higher offer and local ownership offered by Dowling, an preemptive ace-in-the-hole to be used against any local fool passionate enough to outbid Karmanos or offer to bankroll a new arena.

Little was made of the fact that while Dowling had actual major league experience with the New York Yankees, the only NHL experience Peter Karmanos had was in several failed attempts to relocate or expand into southern markets. He had spent a lot of time indulging in his hobbyist’s passion for hockey as a benefactor of youth and junior hockey in Michigan, but there is no evidence that he’s earned a penny running hockey teams to this day. In 2016, the Carolina Hurricanes are still owned by Karmanos and average several thousand less in attendance than the Whalers did in their last season and lose millions of dollars every year. Of course, his competency was never an issue. He wasn’t going to be Hartford’s problem for long.

The case for Dowling can only be extrapolated from his offer and angry comments to the press, as he was never given a chance to formally make a case.

Gordon, for his part, had his debts erased at state expense and received more than twice his initial investment back in the end, this despite having turned the Whalers from one of the league’s most valuable teams to the one of the least.

It’s hard to say exactly when Weicker and Karmanos first spoke. I suspect the details will go to the grave with them. It’s safe to say an informal arrangement was worked out before Gordon received his $30 million, as that deal only makes sense if you assume the prior intent to eventually sell the team out of state, which would mean it was in the works more than a year before anyone in Hartford knew the name “Karmanos”. It’s possible, if not probable, that he’d been colluding with Gordon for years to turn the Whalers into a lame duck and attract a relocation buyer.

What’s not speculative in the least is that immediately following the sale of the Whalers, Lowell Weicker’s term ended and he was awarded with a job on the board of Compuware.

The deed was done.


 

 

 

 

 

 

MAKING A RELOCATION, PART FIVE: The Hartford Patriots

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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:


Now I know that I just spent the last four instalments making a really good case against Richard Gordon, and that I could probably just end it right here with everything wrapped up neatly; case closed, crazy rich guy bought the Whalers and immediately destroyed them in response to a crazy paranoid vision of the future, the NHL player’s association running roughshod over the league as salaries sky-rocketed and smaller markets were destroyed.

But here’s the thing: Richard Gordon wasn’t totally crazy.

rams-4As I’ve said over and over again throughout this series, context matters. Before we can talk about what’s “crazy”, lets remember exactly how strange the early nineties were. A prime example (and something that will soon become central to the telling of this tale) is the fact that Hartford spent from 1988 through 1998 in some constant state of negotiation with the NFL. We entered into serious talks and came close enough to landing major league football that stadium plans were drawn up not once, not twice, but on three occasions. At one point in 1993 a bidding war broke out between four different partners, including former Whalers owner Howard Baldwin, for the chance to move an NFL team to Hartford and accept a standing offer by Governor Weicker to build a $175 million stadium just north of Downtown. Having just written thousands of words detailing the horrific decline of Hartford’s only professional franchise, what could be crazier than the fact that the failing of the existing NHL franchise was almost exactly concurrent with the negotiations to build the NFL in Hartford from scratch?

Two years, hell, even two weeks ago, I would have said it makes no damn sense. As of two days ago I think it might a hell of a lot of sense.

As a matter of fact, it fits perfectly. Like a missing puzzle piece.

Richard Gordon may have been wrong about the futility of operating a team in Hartford – as it turns out the league eventually instituted a salary cap and revenue sharing policy that made rising salaries manageable for smaller markets – but when he first met Bob Goodenow of the NHLPA in 1990, his fears seemed much more reasonable.

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Bettman in Hartford at the 1994 Entry Draft.

When Gary Bettman became commissioner of the National Hockey League in 1994, it was a mess. Out of 20+ teams, only a handful were turning a profit. Player salaries were, as Gordon predicted, sky-rocketing under the leadership of Bob Goodenow. Bettman, who answered first and foremost to the owners, had to find a way forward that didn’t accept losing money as a matter of course. The salary cap and revenue sharing were still years of negotiation away. A substantial national television deal, which would have proved a real boon to Hartford, which is currently the largest television market in the nation without a team, was non-existent. Not only were tickets hard to come by and expensive, but it was hard to watch the team on television. Hockey was a fourth tier sport in America and there was clear plan to rectify that.

Gary Bettman saw one common thread in the teams that were thriving: they owned their own modern arenas and all of the attendant revenue. They were built to make money through parking and concessions. It’s no coincidence that with Bettman’s tenure commenced a wave of arena overhauls and rebuilds. Cities who failed to comply with this new order were relocated. The conspiracy theory that Bettman “hated” Hartford and Quebec and Winnipeg and had a romantic obsession with the sunbelt isn’t TOTALLY off-base, but it makes what was essentially a business decision seem far more emotional than the evidence suggests it was.

Bettman’s interest in sunbelt expansion/relocation probably came down to three things:

  1. Demographics – Remember, this all happened before revenue sharing and television deals. More population and higher income was a crude but logical indicator of success if you were comparing the New York Rangers and the Quebec Nordiques.
  2. Growing the Game – This was a gamble which, in hindsight, largely failed to pay off. But it wasn’t totally unreasonable. Hockey was suffering financially for being a fourth tier sport. The other sports didn’t limit themselves to cultural/geographic niches, so it made some kind of sense to try to elevate hockey to the same level. What didn’t – and still doesn’t – make sense was to keep trying to force that to happen years after it became clear that demographics alone couldn’t make hockey work in a market that didn’t want it. But that’s an article of its own.
  3. What the Owners Wanted – Ultimately, as I’ve said already, Bettman answers to the owners. If the owners want expansion teams in the south that’s where they go. If someone buys a team with the intention of relocation, how much could he or should he have fought against that? When the ownership wanted to stay, he certainly didn’t force them to go south, to his credit. Thus Edmonton remains and Hartford does not.

 

THE UNINDICTED CO-CONSPIRATOR

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Weicker enjoyed the national spotlight for his role in the Senate Watergate Committee years before his role in Whalergate.

I will never be able to say with 100% certainty how it came to be that Lowell Weicker went from being a good friend of Howard Baldwin, a legislator who dropped pucks before Whaler games all the way back to the WHA, whose own son tried out for the team as a goalie, to becoming the crooked politician who accepted a job with Peter Karmanos as a quid-pro-quo for sending the Whalers south. But I have a theory.

The NFL is key. There are a lot of reason why Weicker, a guy with ties more in Fairfield country than Hartford, might not have been too hot on the Whalers in the nineties. In addition to all the aforementioned issues with the sport in general at time, we’ve established at length that the team was trapped in a weak ownership who had essentially given up any hope of saving the team as early as 1990. He’d also complicated any sale of the team by entering ownership with a partner, Donald Conrad, who he immediately and inexplicably forced out, which led to him owning the team along with a bankrupt real estate company and consortium of local corporations. The bankruptcy of and eventual criminal proceedings against Colonial Realty further complicated matters by tainting any effort to sell the team locally.

Furthermore, as hockey was a niche sport, the popularity of the Whalers was tied as much to Hartford the city as it was to anything else. Before the recession and the exodus of business and residents, they’d never needed to rely much on fans outside of the immediate area. When things changed, it was difficult to expand their appeal without the reach of a good television deal, and without an owner who was willing to invest any money in changing the status quo nor saw any point in trying. The arena was owned by the city, not the state, and so was the revenue it generated. In this lame duck condition, the state stood nothing to gain but debts that were currently a municipal problem.

Weicker’s lack of loyalty to Hartford, of course, wasn’t exclusive to this issue. In 1991 he championed the institution of a state income tax. It was purported on its face to be largely beneficial to the middle class by reducing the sales tax from 8% to 6%. In practice, it was a clever bit of misdirection. I won’t attempt to debate the merits of the policy here, but it’s safe to say it was poorly received in Hartford in the midst of a recession and with the downtown business community still reeling from unabashedly anti-business reign of Carrie Saxon Perry. Weicker’s constituency in Fairfield county, however, ultimately benefited. For a large number of folks who resided in Connecticut but worked in New York, the income tax had no effect at all. The bill also included a reduction of the taxes paid on investments, again, a benefit reaped disproportionately by the wealthy residents of Fairfield County.

All of that aside, I still think Weicker, and even Rowland after him, would have backed the Whalers if they were the only game in town. Unfortunately, in 1988 that stopped being the case when Bridgeport razor tycoon Fran Murray purchased a minority stake in the New England Patriots and spent the next six years aggressively negotiating their move to Hartford.

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When Fran Murray came knocking, it gave Weicker a way out. On one hand he had a laughingstock of a team in a niche sport, owned by an unstable millionaire who was desperate to sell with a real estate ponzi scheme as his main partner. The NFL came knocking with Walter Peyton and a cavalcade of celebrities partners including Tom Clancy, Tom Selleck and Paul Newman. The issues with municipal arena ownership, the lack of support outside Hartford, the limited appeal of hockey, non-existent television coverage…all of these problems were solved by swapping in the NFL.

So while the Whalers were dying on the vine and the imminent arena issue was ignored, the NFL was offered sweetheart deal after sweetheart deal. Years were spent negotiating a a relocation of the Patriots under Murray, offering them a stadium in the same area where the Hartford Yard Goats eventually settled, at a cost that exceeded what the Whalers would need for a new arena by tens of millions of dollars. There was no haggling over concessions and parking. Weicker and the Connecticut Development Authority handed the Patriots everything they wanted on a silver platter and the deal came so close to being completed that it took intervention by the NFL itself, unwilling to sacrifice the Boston-area market except as a last resort, 86’ed the deal. The standing offer to build a $175 million stadium immediately attracted interest from the Los Angeles Rams, who were actively seeking a new home. Hartford came close again, but lost their advocate in Murray, whose pending legal dispute from the previous Patriots deal. The Rams instead went to St. Louis. The Patriots were purchased by Robert Kraft and the relocation issue went quiet, for a few years at least.

Like a pathetic lecher working through a mid-life crisis, Hartford pathetically and doggedly chased women that were out of its league, neglecting a good wife of many years back at home.

Spurned for the time being by the NFL, Weicker reluctantly crawled back to the Whalers offering a paltry $30 million, a fraction of what he’d indiscriminately offered any football team desperate enough to bed the state, and the right to use the Civic Center rent-free. In exchange, the state retained all revenues from luxury seating and a promise from the team to remain in Hartford for at least 20 years. Gordon and Weicker began openly soliciting buyers for the team. Within a year’s time, the 20 year promise was null and void and a new owner had been chosen.

The Hartford Whalers were in the deadly hands of Peter Karmanos.

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MAKING A RELOCATION, PART FOUR: The Smoking Harpoon

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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:


 

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Gordon taking the “Ice bucket challenge” while wearing a Whalers shirt in 2014.

So we have our smoking gun, or harpoon as it were. When Richard Gordon sold the Whalers to Peter Karmanos of Compuware, it was known that Karmanos and his ownership group were looking for a team to relocate. I don’t think there’s any reasonable argument to be made that Richard Gordon didn’t sell the team with full knowledge that it would be moved out of Hartford as a result. I think we can say when and how it happened. What is harder to say is why.

I was surprised at how the task of making sense of Richard Gordon’s motive came to consume the telling of this story. Twenty years later the conversation about the Whalers departure (when we aren’t blaming the fans) is really about Peter Karmanos and his betrayal. But the deeper I dig into this thing, the more old Ponytail Pete seems like nothing but a footnote. The deed was done years before Karmanos blew into town. The team was dead, gutted and trussed up, just waiting for someone, anyone, to come pick up the corpse and drag it south.

But as sure as I am of that, I am equally certain that Richard Gordon bought the Whalers with noble intent. He was a Hartford guy with Hartford roots. He believed in downtown, he loved the Whalers and I think saw himself as the steward of that tradition. As contradictory as that may seem, it really makes some sense out of the oft-indiscernible chaos that followed. Gordon sabotaged the team, with increasing deliberation as time went on, yet he fended off attempts to relocate the team to nearly half a dozen cities as Miami, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Dallas, Anaheim all circled like vultures.

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Gordon held on while Carrie Saxon Perry, the infamous socialist mayor of Hartford, colloquially known as the Hat Lady, refused to renegotiate the brutal lease the Whalers had with the city-owned Civic Center. In a time when concession revenues were becoming a major piece of how NHL teams turned a profit, Saxon Perry refused to budge an inch. She publicly questioned whether the departure of the Whalers would be a good thing for Hartford, making comments to the effect that “hockey is for white people”. It’s hard to fault Gordon for leveraging those relocation threats for help from the state when his pleas fell on deaf ears at city hall. Hell, even Aetna, who had formerly owned and help build the Whalers, was threatening to relocate, famously claiming that it was “us or Saxon Perry” if she won another term as mayor.

I could probably go back and forth forever, were it not for gem I stumbled upon: a 2004 interview of Richard Gordon by ESPN’s John Buccigross in which he spells it all out in absolute clarity.

Asked if he thought professional hockey could ever work again in Hartford, he said nothing about the recession or poor decisions. Gordon had a single-minded focus on the ascendence of the NHLPA and rising player’s salaries:

“Only on a subsidized basis and if you knew what your costs were…Hockey has no control of its costs because costs are players’ salaries. Goodenow says no one is putting a gun to the owners’ heads to pay these salaries. Arbitration is an automatic gun. That’s the thing that destroys the league as far as I can see.”

Most helpfully for me, the fool who has taken on the maddening task of discerning the truth from twenty year-old public relations spin, was Gordon’s uncharacteristically blunt and direct answer to the question of when he gave and decided to sell the Whalers:

“I bought them because the league was stabilized, I like hockey, and I had an investment in downtown Hartford. There was a commonality of interest between players and owners. I sold them when I met (head of the NHL Player Association) Bob Goodenow. I was convinced he would destroy the league.”

When exactly did Gordon meet  Bob Goodenow? According to this article by Jeff Jacobs, they met all the way back in 1990. Way back in the Ed Johnston days, before the disastrous Ron Francis trade. You can see Gordon setting the stage for the inevitable sabotage all the way back then, publicly refusing in advance to pay the $700,000 it was expected to cost to re-sign Francis, even as it became abundantly clear that a new day had dawned in the NHLPA and players of similar caliber were making $1 million or better.

Consider for a moment the irony that the Whalers, the flagship franchise of the World Hockey Association that famously battled the NHL reserve clause and single-handedly gave players the bargaining power needed to drive up salaries, was being destroyed by an owner fighting a losing battle against the player’s association.

Consider also what it means that Gordon was fighting this battle back in 1990.

He knew.

All the way back then, in 1990, he knew.

Everything that followed, from Ron Francis to Peter Karmanos, was premeditated. Before we’d had a single year of bad attendance, the deal was done, and nothing we did mattered one way or the other. Of course, it didn’t help that we played right into their hands by showing our frustration with empty seats. It gave them a pretense for the treachery that followed. That said, it mattered little that we rallied the filled the seats. Attendance climbed against all odds after the departure of Gordon, and as soon as Karmanos made a credible threat of relocation we packed the house. They made it harder and harder to buy tickets, but instead of shrinking the season ticket base grew by 3000. As everyone knows, this didn’t result in saving the team. Karmanos instead opted to depart early, only three years into the meager four he’d promised. It infuriated us and still does, in no small part because it made no sense.

If I’ve accomplished nothing else here, I feel like I’ve made some sense of that. It doesn’t turn back time or make things right, but at least I understand now. Karmanos didn’t keep the team here because he couldn’t. He was reading from a script that someone else had started writing years ago. When things go dicey it was because the fans didn’t do their part. We were supposed to stay away, let the Whalers limp off into the sunset with a shrug. We didn’t. He didn’t know how to respond to that, having written Hartford off years before arriving.

The real issue, a new arena and the attendant revenue streams, became the focus as the Whalers resumed selling out every game. Gordon was gone, the seats were full, and Hartford was within striking distance of forcing Karmano’s hand and keeping the team in Hartford. If Gordon had acted alone and the state had done the right thing, there was a real chance that things could have been made right even after all those bad years and bad decisions.

Twenty years later, it comes as no surprise that obvious solutions are easier said than implemented.

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In the next installment: The governors who made Gordon’s betrayal possible, the “Save the Whale” campaign that wasn’t supposed to work, and the sad ending you already know.

MAKING A RELOCATION, PART THREE: Four Years in the Wilderness

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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:


 

This thing is really starting to sprawl on me. I set out with nothing but a premise and a hunch: The narrative that the Whalers are gone because the fans didn’t support them is bunk. I never thought through the details much before sitting down to write about it, mainly because it just seemed self-evident. I’ve lived here my whole life. I remember the last season, and I remember how hard it was to find tickets. It was nothing like the scenes you see today in Phoenix and Raleigh and Miami, years of relocation threats answered with a shrug and a sea of empty seats. I can’t recall any time when the “lack of support” line felt like anything other than a pretense for some unknown ulterior motive.

Making sense of what actually happened? That’s much more complicated.

At this point, I can at least tell you who I know ISN’T to blame. It may seem like I was coming down hard on Eddie Johnston last time for all those bad trades, but if there’s one common phrase you hear when you start talking about those days with people close to the team, it’s “out of his hands”. I can’t prove anything and I doubt I ever will. But nobody who got within 100 feet of that locker room seems to believe that Eddie Johnston or head coach Rick Ley had any control over the tension and gutting of the that team. “It came from above,” they say, somewhat ominously.

“Y’know, like, someone in ownership”, they say. Whoever that may be.

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Average season ticket holder circa 1990.

 

Which brings us at last to this most dubious of characters: Wally the Whaler.

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Was Richard Gordon’s Fisherman traded to Long Island?

In 1991, hot off the senseless loss of Ronnie Franchise, this strange raincoat-clad thing was foisted upon the fans of Hartford as a sad sort of consolation prize. Written just a scant three years after the dizzying heights of Whalermania, this piece from the Courant paints a picture of that year’s season ticket holder party as a tepid festival of patience-worn-thin. Between the loss of key franchise players and the bottom falling out of Hartford’s corporate economy, it was remarkable that we’d lost only about 1700 season ticket holders, retaining a respectable base of 7,500. Asked what they would like to see, the same answers came up again and again. Stability. No more changes for change’s sake.

There is little question as to Gordon’s ability to deliver there; he absolutely could not. As the protracted legal dispute surrounding the ownership of the Whalers dragged out in public for years, Colonial Realty’s legal troubles both shamed the team and left it financially strapped. Stability was a distant memory. In it’s place was Wally.

Just two months after that trying season ticket holder meeting, less than a month into the season, Gordon issued a cash call for operating expenses in an attempt to seize control of Colonial Realty’s 37.5% stake. Colonial responded by filing bankruptcy. A ten-day player’s strike compounded the front office woes, and despite a strong seven-game playoff series against Montreal, attendance plummeted to a record low of 10,896.

Stability indeed.

Herein lies the kernel of truth buried within the lie I set out to dispel; we had a few pretty bad years. A lot of folks will look at the Whaler’s attendance without any context and are quick to see a team that was never supported. And yes, compared to today’s low end of about 15,000 average attendance, the Whalers might seem lightly attended.

Some context: the Hartford Civic Center, originally built to World Hockey Association standards, was only meant to hold 10,000 people. The collapse of the roof allowed us to retrofit it and cram about 14,000 people into the nosebleeds. Most years fell somewhere between 12-13,000 on average, which was respectable for the times. Throughout the eighties, Hartford outdrew Boston 50% of the time depending who was hotter on any given year. And those “years in the wilderness”, as I’ve so dubbed Hartford’s low point, never dipped below 10,000. League stalwarts such as Pittsburgh and Los Angeles sunk far lower in their darkest days. Does that make 10,000 okay? No. But it’s three years out of 22, coinciding both with the depths of a recession and a complete disaster in the front office. It truly took a perfect storm for Hartford to go from a model franchise near the top of the league in revenue to a laughingstock in less than five years.

These bad years are a blur of staffing changes. General Managers and coaches of varying quality came and went quickly, rumors of Gordon’s micromanaging swirling around every departure.

Rick Ley takes the fall for driving Ron Francis away, is replaced to great fanfare by Jim Roberts, who lasts exactly a year before being replaced by Paul Holmgren. Holmgren leads the team to it’s first season without making playoffs in years, and is rewarded with the additional position of General Manager when Brian Burke departs for a job with the league. Holmgren’s alcoholism leads to a drunk-driving arrest and a stint at the Betty Ford clinic, prior to which he steps back from the coaching position to serve only as GM. His replacement? Pierre McGuire.

Yes, THAT Pierre McGuire.

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At this point, I’m reasonably confident that the franchise is being deliberately dismantled in order to facilitate sale and relocation. There is no logic behind the choices being made, no possible expectation of a good outcome. Good people are scapegoated and fired for choices they didn’t make, incompetence is rewarded with rapid promotion. The Whalers front office descended into swirling chaos.

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To the extent that it’s possible to pinpoint the moment that Richard Gordon stopped trying to save the team and started tearing it apart to sell for scrap, it would probably be the brief tenure of Brian Burke. Burke is controversial in Hartford. It’s hard to argue his worth as a hockey guy. He brought in Sean Burke, the first and last solid goaltending the Whalers had since the glory days of Mike Liut. He drafted Chris Pronger. There was a sense of a legitimate rebuild occurring as opposed to the slapdash fire sale that had been gutting the team since 1989. On the other hand, he was an outsider. He walked into Hartford and correctly assessed the franchise as being deeply damaged and that its reputation had been badly sullied. He made off-ice changes in an effort to turn the page that were received with mixed reviews at best. The uniform and logo change, swapping the dominant kelly green for navy blue with with silver accents, was the least controversial. Many folks prefer the classic uniforms, myself included, but the new uniforms were undeniably sharp and modern. Much less popular was his decision to axe the Brass Bonanza, the goal song which is still in use today in Hartford for UConn hockey. In the end, however you felt about Burke, he had talent and made a serious effort to turn things around. When he left to take a job with the league amidst ominous whispers of interference from Gordon, it marked the beginning of the end. From that point on, it was hard to escape the feeling that the Whalers were deliberately failing on every front.

The one player I remember best from this era was Pat Verbeek, who later became to be known as “The Little Ball of Hate”, a name so appropriate that my mind has retroactively attached to all of my memories of him. He was the unlikely hero of the team, leading us in both points and penalty minutes two seasons in a row. This was an era where the Whalers couldn’t get much right, on or off the ice, and so they did the one thing they could to keep us entertained: Fight. Both on and off the ice.

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Pat Verbeek, Geoffrey Sanderson, Marc Potvin, Chris Pronger, Mark Janssen, Todd Harkins, and assistant coach Kevin McCarthy in court.

The infamous “Whalers Six” after-hours bar brawl took place in Buffalo in March of 1994. A few weeks later Chris Pronger, at the time still underage, was arrested again for drunk driving.

Shortly after that, Pierre McGuire was fired as coach. Speaking with shocking candour, Captain Pat Verbeek minced no words and proclaimed openly that this firing “was the best thing that could haved happened”.

By chance, a tiny blurb in a Philadelphia newspaper from March of that year provides me with the closest thing I have to a smoking gun. The article, which is largely about the bar fight in Buffalo, closes with a few “around the NHL” bullet point blurbs.

One blurb in particular, which I’ve seen nowhere else before or since, is extremely ominous in hindsight:

“The Quebec Nordiques denied a report from a Montreal radio station that they would be sold to Detroit-based Compuware Corp. and moved to Phoenix after the season. Team officials said they want to stay in Quebec. The team is trying to get a new arena with luxury boxes.”

Of course, as we all now know, the Nordiques did not get their new arena and they did in fact move. They were not purchased by Compuware and went instead to Colorado where they became the Avalanche and broke the hearts of Quebec City by immediately winning the Stanley Cup. Winnipeg followed next to Phoenix. There were rumblings of the same fate befalling Edmonton, but they survived by the grace of Gretzky and the cups of his dynasty. All but one of the small World Hockey Association teams that merged into the league in 1979 would fall in the end, each relocation hinging on league demands for a new arena in the midst of a recession, gleaming new sunbelt markets waiting in the wings to receive them.

hc-karmanos-hall-of-fame-whalers-0630-20150629With Edmonton safe and Quebec and Winnipeg both gone south, that left Hartford’s fate alone undecided, thought not for long. Within just a few days of Pierre McGuire’s firing, Compuware, the would-be buyer of the Quebec Nordiques, extended an offer to buy the Whalers. In less than a week, the state of Connecticut and Richard Gordon negotiated a buy-out of the remaining 25% still held by local corporations, and the franchise passed from Gordon’s hands to the state, and from there to Peter Karmanos, principle officer of Compuware. The deal was lauded as the end of Gordon’s reign of terror, salvation from instability and a new day of hope for Hartford. Compuware and Karmanos stated unequivocally that they were here to stay.

Fans rejoiced, however briefly. Attendance immediately began to climb again. We didn’t get the Philadelphia paper in Hartford back in those days.

Little is made of the competing offer made by an entirely local ownership group fronted by William F. Dowling. It’s unclear on the surface why the state committee charged with seeking a new ownership group for the Whalers settled on Compuware and Karmanos, especially when Dowling’s local group came with a 20-year commitment to Hartford and Compuware’s offer reduced that to only four years.

This final mind-boggling decision proved to be the one that ultimately sealed Hartford’s fate, though in hindsight the intent becomes crystal clear. Who headed that commitee which inexplicably chose Compuware over Dowling?

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The Honourable Lowell P. Weicker, former governor of Connecticut and current board member of the Compuware Corporation.


 

In the next installment: We enter the home stretch as we examine Richard Gordon’s breaking point, before delving into the shared tainted legacy of Governors Weicker and Rowland, the folly of NFL dreams, and a “Save the Whale” campaign that wasn’t supposed to work.