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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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. 

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

EMILE FRANCIS

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Emile Francis with Howard Baldwin, right

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

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

MIKE LIUT

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LIUUUUUUT!

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

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

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

THE WORST TRADE IN THE HISTORY OF ALL TRADES

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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


 

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

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

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HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

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

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

Yes, they only got that far once. Ever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who killed the Whale? And why?

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

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

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

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

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

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My Ephemeral Whaling Family

Great stuff. }3

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I have plenty of friends who are New York Mets fans. And while they by no means have a monopoly on suffering, it is a major (the major?) component of their experience. So much so that Jon Stewart could use it as a running punchline on The Daily Show. In essence: “This is horrible, year after year, and we are all going to feel a great deal of pain together this year, as we did last year, as we will next year. We are Mets fans.”

The majority of these fans are adults. Primarily grown men, with jobs and kids and houses and the deeply guarded fear, slowly morphing into knowledge, that their lifelong dream, whatever it may be, will remain just that.

True fanaticism as it applies to professional sports does not stand to reason. Multimillionaires who do not know you (nor particularly care to know you) play a…

View original post 504 more words

NEVER SURRENDER (JEAN MARIE FOREVER)

 

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The iconic poster. The wristband reads “Jean Marie”.

 

When someone asks me why I still care, I think of Jean Marie Colbert.

Jean Marie succumbed to neuroblastoma when she was only 3. As unfathomable as the idea of losing a daughter that young seems to me, Jean Marie’s father Hill Colbert did not give up. Hill partnered with the Hartford Whalers to found the UConn Children’s Cancer fund. Eight years later, when Hartford hosted the NHL all-star game, Jean Marie’s name was on the wrist band worn in the iconic image that came to represent the charity. A full generation later it still exists, and is in the words of WTIC personality Scott Gray, the “one part of the Hartford Whalers legacy that will always belong to us, and us alone.” Jean Marie lived.

I learned only recently that my friend Tom was one of those kids who benefited from the Cancer Fund. He had his first (successful) treatment for cancer at the age of one. In addition to helping fund his treatment, the Whalers invited him and other former patients down to meet the team after his cancer was in remission. A picture of him high-fiving Mark Johnson, Whalers captain and Miracle on Ice legend, made it to GOAL! magazine. A few years later, upon learning that he shared a birthday with Ron Francis, he wrote the greatest Whaler a letter telling him his story. Ronnie sent him a card and autographed memorabilia every year on his birthday until he left Hartford, including an autographed hockey stick which was tragically roughed up by a sibling playing street hockey. Tom is still alive today, and has kids of his own. He still has Ronnie’s stick.

 

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“I’m looking at this stick and thinking about how much I hate my brother.”

 

Karen Weeks died this year at the age of 53. She came to Hartford with her husband, goalie Steve Weeks in 1984. While I 11914020_10153505367605979_4696341768716117174_nremember the Whaler’s wives being very active in organizing charitable events on behalf of the team, I didn’t know until she passed away that Karen was the one who designed the iconic poster (first used for the 1986 NHL All-Star game) which is remembered to this day. Steve was traded away in 1988, but upon his retirement in 1993 came back to Hartford as part of the coaching staff. He and Karen remained a part of the community until the team moved. Though she passed away nearly twenty years after the team left, she was mourned by many in Hartford.

imagesIn 1978, the same year that Jean Marie passed away, the roof of the Hartford Civic Center collapsed overnight under the weight of a heavy snow fall. Though miraculously no one was injured, the timing could not have been worse and it threatened to be a death blow to the franchise at a critical time in its history. The WHA was becoming increasingly unstable, and Hartford’s only hope was a merger with the NHL. Hartford did not surrender. The Whalers Booster Club immediately reported for a 24-hour shift of office work, doing what was necessary to temporarily shift the team to Springfield while the Civic Center was repaired. The business community and the city rallied to repair the arena and make it bigger and better than it had been. The 10,000 seat arena, which at the time was a potential roadblock preventing Hartford from merging into the NHL, was elevated to a 15,000 seat arena and the team was admitted into the NHL for the following season. The fans and leadership of Hartford refused to quit and turned a near-fatal blow into a blessing.

The nineties were a time when irony and cynicism reigned, and maybe the Whalers were the wrong team in the wrong place for such bitter times. As the team’s ownership shifted from local businessmen to carpetbaggers with designs on southern relocation, the traditions of the team’s hey-day were discarded one by one. The Brass Bonanza, Pucky, and the color green were all replaced in an effort to seem “cool” and “edgy”, but just a few short years after the height of rabid-but-dorky Whalermania, no one was buying the Insurance Capital of the World as a sudden epicentre of hipness. Hartford was not and will never be cool, trying to play that game was either a fatal misstep or deliberate sabotage depending on who you ask.

This is what Tom and I were talking about when he happened to mention his brush with childhood cancer. If the eighties and Whalermania were our wide-eyed and innocent childhood, the nineties were our cynical teenage years. Which is literally true in the case of Tom and I, who are in our mid-thirties. Something Tom said as we talked about this which stuck with me is, “there’s a time when you need to stop worrying about being cool”.

I think that time has come.

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The standard uniform of all terrible bandwagon Bruins fans in the 1990s.

The notion of being too cool for the Whalers and being mocked at school by a fairweather Bruins fan seems downright foreign in 2015. Much to the chagrin of my better half, it’s impossible to go out in public in a Whalers hat without someone starting a conversation. It’s gone from the uncool little sibling of New England hockey to a cultural touchstone, Connecticut’s claim (along with UConn) to a distinct identity from Boston or New York. More importantly, with the benefit of twenty year’s hindsight, it’s a symbol of the important things our community lost along with a hockey team. Big things like the founding beneficiary of the Children’s Cancer fund. Little things like Ron Francis giving his game sticks to sick kids.

As I write this, UConn’s hockey team, in true form as the heir to our Forever 500s, just ended a brutal 8 game losing streak in a (less characteristic) sweep of nationally-ranked #5 UMass-Lowell. This time the crowds never waned. Game seven of that ugly losing streak set a franchise attendance record. On a Tuesday. When they did score, which admittedly wasn’t often enough, you saw three generations of Hartford on their feet clapping to the Brass Bonanza. No irony. Zero coolness.

Sports loyalties are ultimately not the important thing here, as much time as we spend debating them. It ultimately matters little whether or not you rooted for the Bruins or the Rangers or the Whalers, or what team has filled the void since they left, if any. What matters is how this team benefited the city, whether through the hundreds of thousands of people they brought downtown to spend money, the regional pride they instilled, or the charities they founded and sustained.

Do I still care after 18 years? You’re damn right I do.

Will I push back at people who, for whatever sick reason, feel the need to tear down both the history and the future of my city? You’re damn right I will.

Cancer, premature death, roof collapses, losing records, and a laundry list of crooked politicians have all conspired to kill us. As of yet, none have succeeded. I’ll be damned if I roll over and choose surrender after all that.

It’s the least we owe Jean Marie.

 

We aren’t done. In the spirit of Jean Marie and the charitable legacy of the Hartford Whalers, Pucky the Whale will be hosting a blood drive January 11th, 2016 at the Hartford Civic Center:

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