(This feature will be released every other day this week, ranking the top ten highlights of the season in descending order. Today’s installment covers #7-10.)
While the NHL post-season may still be grinding out in late April, the season is over for all intents and purposes here in Hartford. Which means it’s time to begin our new annual tradition here at Exile on Trumbull Street: drinking copious amounts of whiskey and taking a painful walk down memory lane.
In that spirit, let us begin on this fitting note:
#10: YET ANOTHER GODDAMN YEAR SINCE THE WHALERS LEFT
2016 marks nineteen – yes, nineteen – years since the Whalers left town, a period marked by our slow descent from pathological underdogs into outright masochism. There have been bright spots for sure, occasional glimmers of hope and admirable displays of stubborn persistence. There will be a few of those on the list.
But any honest list about being a hockey fan in Hartford needs to first pay tribute to the elephant in the room: the gaping, open wound which everything else revolves around. Some of us get bitter. Some of us lose our minds and start frantically clinging to barest hint of a rumor.
Me? I’ve dabbled in both, but my favorite coping method is a carefully balanced mixture of hard liquor and black humor.
Fun drinking game for the folks at home: sit down to watch this video with a 750ml of Old Granddad. If you’re still conscious when Kevin Dineen scores the final goal, you win.
#9: UCONN HUMILIATES BUSure, a brutal eight-game losing streak followed immediately after, but for one brief and wonderful moment the latest of many painful seasons of hockey in Hartford started on a near-perfect note. Rookie Tage Thompson, an undrafted local boy of no particular renown, exploded that night. He scored his first career goal, then made it a hat trick. Brass Bonanza rang out, again and again…and then the fire went out.
Rookies Thompson and Max Letunov continuted to shine and soon earned spots on the top line, but nothing else clicked. It was a testament to how good that night had been that eight games later, as the team concluded their brutal skid with a 5-1 loss to Boston College, they were playing in front of 7,712 people on a Tuesday night.
Eventually, they made good on the promise seen that night. But that’s another spot on the list.
#8: THE AHL BECAME EVEN MORE IRRELEVANT AND BORING
Alright, between writing about how long the Whalers have been gone and that eight-game losing streak I’ve already had to knock a couple back, and I’m gonna be honest: I’m struggling to give enough of a shit about the AHL to even write this. There’s a reason that any hockey player would sell his left nut to get called up to a losing NHL team rather than win the Calder Cup: no one cares.
I could write a laundry list of things that sucked about going to Wolf Pack games this year, most notably the debacle in which Pucky the Whale was kicked out of opening night and the Wolf Pack made my kids cry, but who cares? We’re sick of pretending to care about New York’s prospects of tomorrow, and New York is tired of pretending to care about fans in Hartford. It’s a working hockey relationship that inspires all the passion of landlord-tenant agreement. The second game of the season pulled a record low reported attendance of 1,565. I was there and I’d say 500 is a lot more honest. As UConn shares the arena and leads Hockey East in attendance, the disconnect between the two fan bases is jarring.
Me? I’m a romantic. I’ll be holding out for the NHL to come back until my last breath. In the meantime cawlidge hawkey suits me just fine.
#7: PUCKY THE WHALE CAME BACK WITH A VENGEANCE
Since we’re doing the drunken honesty thing here, let’s just cut to the chase: Sonar sucks. If there was a contest for the most forgettable minor league mascot he’d be tied for first with 300 other boring furry nerds in suits.
Thank God for Pucky. A Hartford icon since 1975, Pucky was axed by the Hartford Wolf Pack in 2013 when they decided to stop caring whether anyone showed up to games. He was largely dormant for a few years before suddenly showing up everywhere in 2015-16. He was ejected by bitter Rangers fans in the employ of the Wolf Pack from opening night after being being admitted by security, citing a lack of a needed waiver. After some significant backlash he was invited back against as a guest on several occasions. At no point was anyone asked to sign a waiver. You can’t stump Pucky.
In addition to that small controversy, Pucky worked overtime this year, dropping off checks and visiting patients at the children’s hospital, attending baseball games, hosting blood drives, leading parades…
Dismiss mascots as childish if you will, but there’s something about the sheer insanity and stubbornness of a fan base and ownership (The Baldwins retain ownership of Pucky and make his continued appearances possible) that refuses to surrender ever after 19 years. The NHL left town and the team hasn’t hit the ice in many years, but sometimes it’s hard to tell on the streets of downtown Hartford.
(Part two, #4-6, comes out on Wednesday.)