“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:
- PART ONE: Who Killed the Whale?
- PART TWO: The Things That We Lost
- PART THREE: Four Years in the Wilderness
- PART FOUR: The Smoking Harpoon
- PART FIVE: The Hartford Patriots
- PART SIX: Dirty Deeds (Done for $45 Million)
- PART SEVEN: Dead Whale Walking
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.
NOT GUILTY of failing to support the Whalers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
NOT GUILTY of a damn thing. Framed by Gordon for a bunch of terrible trades.
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.
NOT GUILTY of anything except getting rid of the Brass Bonanza.
Seriously, though, what were you thinking?
GUILTY of being human cancer.
GUILTY of busting Pat Verbeek’s balls.
GUILTY of making it difficult to watch hockey on TV.
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.
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.
GUILTY of pretty much everything.
- 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.
You are a very fine writer. Hope you do more like this series.
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Pingback: MAKING A RELOCATION: The True, Untold Story of How Hartford Lost the Whalers | exile on trumbull street
Stellar. ‘Nuff said.
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Thank you for taking the time to research and write this series. I grew up a rabid Whalers fan in Glastonbury in the 70s and early 80s, and even as I remain a sports fan, will never feel the same way about another professional team again. I was only passingly aware of some of the players in this drama, and was certainly not familiar with the dastardly deeds, and in some cases bad luck, that conspired to steal the only team I’ll ever truly love. Even today I get a brief thrill when I see someone wearing Whalers apparel, or a Whalers hat or jersey in a sporting goods store. Thanks for shedding some light on the process by which fandom was forced to turn to nostalgia.
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A lot of people feel the same way, myself included. I learned a lot myself in writing this. It was a great team and great era in a city I love, and it breaks my heart that the blame for a lot of dirty business was shifted onto the loyal fans who suffered endlessly for decades. If nothing else, our names are clear now.
There are only a few things that are missing from this excellent piece. You did not mention that John Rowland had put Jodi Rell in charge of the negotiations for a new building and that the state had offered a $150m+ building rent free plus all concessions a and parking with the exception of UConn events. This was about the same price tag as the Verizon Center in Washington. Also, every time the state (Rell) offered more, Karmanos raised the bar. (I had a friend who worked for the Meriden paper and had all of the official documents that the state had on the issue and I read it all) Keep in mind that he insisted that he would put no money into any new building. However, he put $2m into the locker rooms in Raleigh. Also missing from this piece is that Karmanos’ wife was from Columbus. He was so desperate to get out of Hartford that he was willing to play in an abandoned hanger in Columbus until the building was built there.
As a side note, I was a young employee at Travelers about a million years ago and I can remember hearing the chairman of the company who was coming to do something in my department say as he was walking down the hall “when they stunk nobody wanted anything to do with them. Now that there good everybody wants them.” He’s also the same guy who sold the company to Primerica so there’s no love lost there.
As for the “Save the Whale” campaign. I edited the video for the Aetna employees to buy tickets. So I am speaking from experience.
I don’t disagree with any of that. If I glossed over that part of the story it’s because I feel that the events preceding it had far more to do with the outcome than the ticket drive. I think Rowland and Karmanos had both given up on any good faith effort by the time Rell took over the drive.
I just wanted to congratulate you on this great read. I’m a Canadian from Montreal who remembers the great rivalry between the Habs and your Whalers. A buddy and I even spent a weekend once in Hartford when the Habs played there, I remember being impressed with the atmosphere at the Civic Center.
There are many parallels between the story of the Whalers and of our baseball Expos, so I know exactly what the Whaler fans went through and my heart goes out to you. I’d like to offer best wishes to the Hartford sports fans and hope that one day the NHL wakes up from it’s sun belt pipe dream and one of those franchises finds it’s way to you.