The Hartford Whalers existed for just over 25 years as a professional hockey team, based out of one the smallest markets in the NHL. In this video we’ll look back at the rise and fall of the Whalers, and how a deal for a new arena fell through that could have saved the Whalers from leaving Hartford.
Formation (1972-1979/AHA Years)
In September of 1971, the World Hockey Association was founded as a rival competitor to the National Hockey League. This was the first time the NHL faced a legitimate competing league since the Western Canada Hockey League folded in 1926. The WHA began with 12 teams, which included a franchise based out of the Boston area known as the New England Whalers.
The Whalers ownership group was headed mainly by Howard Baldwin, a film producer and CEO of Baldwin Entertainment. Baldwin, apart from being the team’s owner, would also become the WHA league president in 1977. He would retain ownership of the Whalers for the next 17 years when he sold his remaining share in 1988.
The Whalers name itself is a nod to the maritime past of the New England area. But it’s also a subtle nod to the founding league they played in, as the first three letters in whalers is W-H-A, representing the World Hockey Association. Their first season was a huge success, achieving the best record in the WHA, and eventually going on to win the WHA championship over the Winnipeg Jets.
Initially, the team played games at the Boston Garden where the Boston Bruins, Boston Celtics, and even the Boston Braves (a minor league team for the Bruins) played. The Whalers were fourth in line in priority for scheduling, which meant the Whalers often received unfavorable start times and dates for games.
The Whalers ownership became frustrated with the situation and began to look for possible relocation sites. Just 100 miles away from Boston, the city of Hartford in Connecticut, was about to open their brand new convention center and arena in downtown Hartford. Originally, the city was hoping to attract a basketball team from the American Basketball Association. However, the ABA never showed any interest in Hartford, so the city went to plan B which was contacting the Whalers to see if they’d be interested.
The team and the city agreed to terms, and the Whalers officially moved to Hartford prior to the 1974-75 season. However, the Civic Center arena was still under construction so the Whalers played at the Big E Arena in West Springfield Massachusetts for the first half of the season until their new home arena could be completed.
The team played their first game at the Civic Center on January 11 1975, and the arena would serve as the home of the Whalers for the rest of their time in Hartford. However, in 1978 a massive snow storm caused the roof of the Civic Center to collapse forcing the Whalers to play in the nearby Springfield Civic Center Arena for 2 years until repairs could be completed.
Throughout their early years, the Whalers were perennial playoff contenders. The team never missed the playoffs during their WHA years, and won their division three times. This was due in part to the Whalers strategic signing of promising talent and former NHL stars, like Gordie Howe, seen here with a questionable depiction of himself on a birthday cake, and the signing of his two sons Mark and Marty in 1977.
Joining the NHL (1979-1989)
By 1979, the NHL and the WHA agreed to merge, with four of the remaining six WHA teams joining the NHL. The four clubs were the Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, and the Winnipeg Jets, with the Cincinnati Stingers and the Birmingham Bulls folding completely. Part of the merger agreement was the former WHA clubs would be treated as expansion clubs rather than a typical merger.
This meant that the four new teams rosters would be dismantled and the other NHL clubs could sign the majority of the players (with the exception of each WHA team being allowed to keep two goalies and two skaters.) The four clubs were also slotted as the last teams to draft in the 1979 NHL draft, putting the teams at a distinct disadvantage than usual expansion clubs that typically get to pick near the top of the draft. With the possible exception of the Edmonton Oilers who incredibly were able to sneak Wayne Gretzky out of being drafted by another team, but that’s a different story for another time….
At the time of the merger the Whalers were still officially known as the New England Whalers. This was an issue for the Boston Bruins, who opposed the merger of the two leagues because they didn’t want to have to share the same geographical market as the Whalers. The NHL insisted that as part of the merger, the Whalers would have to drop the name “New England” and instead be known as the “Hartford Whalers”.
Because of the new name change, and the NHL merger, the Whalers decided to make a major update to their logo. The team used Jack Lardis advertising agency to come up with a new brand identity. The Whalers initially wanted a simple graphic that steered away from anything violent towards Whales, which was in contrast to their older logo that had depictions of a harpoon in it.
Graphic designer Peter Good was assigned the task, and came up with several different designs featuring whales and a stylized W. One of the early designs that was actually picked by the Whalers front office was one that looked much like the Seattle Mariners trident logo from the same time period. Although it was approved, this version of the Whalers logo never was used because Good felt he could come up with better versions and offered to keep working on it.
Eventually, Good came up with the idea of placing a Whale’s tail on top of the stylized W, since the two shapes were symmetrical. The negative space between the whale’s tail and the W, created an “H” shape (that stood for Hartford.) The negative space coincidentally also created a shape that resembled two downward facing hockey sticks. The front office loved the new logo, and actually had Good help design new uniforms for the team.
Joining the NHL, and facing more diverse competition would prove to be difficult for the Whalers. Throughout most of the 1980’s the team struggled in the standings and making matters worse the front office started to develop a reputation for making bad trades.
It would take 7 seasons before the Whalers made the playoffs for the first time in 1986. They faced their old WHA rival the Quebec Nordiques in the first round, and ended up sweeping the series in 3 games. This would be the one and only playoff series the Whalers would win while in Hartford. In the next round, they managed to push the series all the way to 7 games, but lost to the eventual Stanley Cup winners the Montreal Canadiens.
The next season, the Whalers won their only division championship, winning 43 games and amassing 93 points. However, they would lose to the Nordiques in the first round of the playoffs. Over the next five seasons, the Whalers would make the playoffs but again, would be knocked out of the first round by the Montreal Canadiens twice and the Boston Bruins three times. The 1992 postseason, would mark the final time the Whalers would make the playoffs while in Hartford.
The Final Years (1990-1997)
Heading into the 1990’s, the Whalers were at a distinct disadvantage from the other NHL clubs. For one, the team played in one of the smallest venues in the league (the Hartford Civic Center) which seated less than 16,000 people. Hartford was also located right in the middle of two much larger markets in New York City and Boston. Issues started to mount, With players salaries steadily increasing, the team’s inability to attract free agents, and how the Whalers front office continually made poor decisions involving trades.
For example, in 1991 the Whalers traded three of their core players to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The acquisitions would help the Penguins win back to back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 92, as perfectly illustrated here in this photoshoot featuring back to back mullets. With one of the players, Ron Francis going on to have a hall of fame career. The Whalers in return received three players, and none of them played for more than three seasons with the team. In fact, one of the players Jeff Parker had a career ending knee injury after only four games with the Whalers. All of these factors contributed to the Whalers not only struggling on the ice but also struggling to attract fans.
Over the summer of 1994, the Whalers were sold to a group led by Compuware CEO Peter Karmanos, along with business partners Thomas Thewes and Jim Rutherford. At the time of the sale, Karmanos promised to keep the Whalers in Hartford for at least four years. But, over the next few years the Whalers continued to have issues with low attendance, and being able to attract corporate sponsorships.
The team announced prior to the start of the 1996-97 season that if they couldn’t sell 11,000 season tickets, the team would have to consider relocation. The front office decided that selling season tickets in full 41 game packages was better than trying to sell mini plans, which were typically more attractive to corporate businesses. Although season tickets sales were initially slow, a local campaign nicknamed “Save the Whale” began which drove up sales drastically in a short time period. In just 45 days the team sold 8,563 ticket sales, even with the Whalers increasing prices from the previous year by 20 percent.
During this time the Whalers were looking for funding in order to build a new arena in Hartford. The governor of Connecticut at the time John Rowland stated that he didn’t want to use taxpayer dollars to pay for a new arena. Negotiations between the state and the Whalers continued, with the Whalers wanting $147.5 million arena but also an extra $45 million that would be used to cover losses of expenses during the three year construction period. The extra $45 million would become the sticking point of a potential deal, with Governor Rowland not willing to put up the funds.
With negotiations breaking down, the Whalers formally announced that they would leave Hartford and look for relocation sites after the 1996-97 season, in a rare move where a team announces their departure from the city before securing a new home. The Whalers briefly looked at sites in Norfolk Virginia, but there was little interest in a season ticket drive from the local community. That, combined with the fact that Norfolk did not have an NHL ready arena built, meant that the Whalers would have to look elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Governor Rowland, seen here (and this is true) rehearsing dance moves to the song YMCA for a performance with the musical group the Village People, moved his interests from trying to keep the Whalers to possibly attracting an NFL team to the state. Specifically, he had his eyes on the New England Patriots who were also looking for a new stadium to be built. Rowland offered to pay the entire cost of construction, about 374 million, and offered the Patriots any left over money if it came in under budget.
The two sides actually had a tentative deal in place that would build a 68,000 seat stadium right in Hartford. But the deal fell apart after it turned out there were environmental problems with the proposed site, mainly due to contaminated soil (as the location was home to a former coal plant). With the deal off, Patriots owner Robert Kraft decided to privately finance the construction of a new stadium that would be built in Foxborough Massachusetts.
Sadly, the deal that Rowland proposed to the Patriots could have been used to potentially keep the Whalers in Hartford. John Rowland would later be impeached and convicted on corruption charges in 2004, and would again be convicted ten years later on numerous charges on conspiracy and illegal campaign contributions.
On May 6, 1997 The Whalers officially announced their relocation to Raleigh North Carolina, to become the Carolina Hurricanes. The name was actually thought up by the Whalers owner, Peter Karmanos since time was short and the team would be moving immediately after the 1997 season. However, The team would play in Greensboro North Carolina for two seasons while their brand new arena, the Raleigh Entertainment Sports Arena, was being built.
The Whaler’s Lasting Legacy
Recently, The Hurricanes have started having an annual “Hartford Whalers night” where the team wears throwback jerseys to honor their club’s roots. For one night, they also bring back the team’s mascot Pucky the Whale, and play the team’s song “Brass Bonanza”. Back in Hartford, at their old stadium the Hartford Civic Center arena, (now known as the XL center), the Whaler’s team banners and retired jersey numbers still hang in the raftors.
And Whalers merchandise, featuring the iconic Whale Tail logo is still to this day one of the most popular selling items. In fact, Reebok and Fanatics have said that it’s their top selling defunct team from the NHL. Although the Whalers have been gone for over twenty years now, and are missed by their fans in the Hartford community, the legacy still lives on.
So that does it for this post on what happened to the Hartford Whalers, what did you think about the Whalers moving to Raleigh and becoming the Hurricanes? And what’s one of your favorite memories of the Whalers? Let me know in the comments below! If you’ve enjoyed this article make sure to hit the like button and feel free to share it with anyone else who might also enjoy it. For more Sports History, check out my YouTube channel, and thanks for visiting!
3 responses to “What Happened To The Hartford Whalers?”
I was lucky enough to meet The Great One in the bowels of The Hartford Civic Center, also known as the smallest barn in the NHL. My dad worked as a cameraman for the newly established ESPN, which was right down Interstate 84 in Bristol, CT. Now living in Chicago, I have twins playing high school hockey and still proudly wear my Whale Tail merch whenever hockey fans gather.
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Oh that’s awesome! Did you get to speak to Mr. Gretzky? Yeah I miss the Whalers, I know Hartford is a small market and the chances of them coming back are slim to none but man it would be incredible to see them play again.
I was brought to New England Whalers games in their late WHA days when I was a kid, and would go to many games each season up until the time they left in 1997. I saw many greats play, from the Howes on down. I have many great memories, but will share one here.
When the Whalers made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in ’86, I skipped work at my job , had my wife (then girlfriend) call-in sick for me so I could stand in line at the Civic Center for tickets against the now defunct Quebec Nordiques (game 3 of a 5 game series). The next day when I went to work my boss asked me if I got good seats – He had seen me on a TV news broadcast standing in line! Anyway, I went with my brother and friends, and by chance my brother in-law and his buddy ended up sitting directly behind us. He simply got his tickets over the phone, go figure. It was a blast as the Whalers routed the Nordiques 9-4 to win their only playoff series ever. We were all happy and hoarse. When the game ended I’ll never forget the streets of downtown Hartford that night – it seemed that thousands that didn’t even attend the game were out celebrating. We stood through the sunroof of my brother’s car, locked in a sea of partying people, everyone celebrating, high-fiving us (were were wearing our Whaler jerseys), handing us beers. It was a sight. And a night I’ll never forget.
Anyway, for years I’d go to the games and yell “Go Whalers Go!”, and sure enough they eventually left.
It was in 1997 my buddy and I attended our last game on tickets that were a gift from my wife. It also happened to be the day of my father’s funeral. I buried my father in the morning, and the Whalers that evening, and have NEVER watched an NHL (or AHL) game since.