Hartford Whaler’s hockey and team exit resonate 25 years later

What we all remember from that Sunday afternoon exactly 25 years ago is this: No one left the arena when the hockey game ended. The scene lasted for what looked like an hour as the Hartford Whalers players circled up in the middle of the ice in the old Civic Center and greeted the fans.

It was over. A generation of major-league hockey, Connecticut’s great NHL team with the unforgettable green logo, ended in a 2-1 victory on April 13, 1997. The beloved captain Kevin Dineen scored the last home goal, the winner.

“I felt sad, and I drank it in,” said Dave Schneider, third-generation owner of Jimmy’s Army and Navy in downtown Bridgeport, and more importantly, co-founder of The Zambonis, the nine-record, 296-song hockey rock band – and still – about the sport of puck and ice.

“Luckily, I have some zen qualities to drink it in when available,” Schneider recalled Tuesday as we talked about the final game.

The Zambonis, formed in 1991, had gained enough fame that the Whalers asked the band earlier in the season to write a song that would be unveiled at a team-sponsored concert, perhaps even as the theme song. It never happened.

“Eventually, I wrote this song called ‘Bob Marley and the Hartford Whalers’ because I was so shattered that nothing came through. And more importantly, the whalers traveled,” Schneider said.

Like any large local institution, Whalers served as a connection, a touchstone, a cultural glue for a place called Hartford, for central Connecticut, and maybe, or maybe not, for this whole little state. That, along with some pretty good fights and a valued win in the playoff series, is what we lost a quarter of a century ago when the evil owner Peter Karmanos took over the team for North Carolina as the Hurricanes.

Former governor M. Jodi Rell, then lieutenant governor, was in the stands last Sunday with her husband. “I think I cried,” she said Tuesday. “It was so sad.”

The numbness that day in the Hartford Civic Center comes back to me now. I stood cheering the team in a kind of slow motion in the heart of the compact city where I had created a life where my daughter had been born two years before.

Rell had worked tirelessly for weeks to sell season tickets for the 1997-98 season, which never happened, as a way to show Karmanos that Hartford and Connecticut were a first-class fan base. Lobbyist Patrick Sullivan recalls that she sold 11,500 – remarkable for an arena that housed less than 14,000.

But it was not enough.

“I think Karmanos had already decided,” Rell told me from Brookfield, where she still lives part of the year. “I think he already knew he wanted to be somewhere else.”

Whaler’s exit echoes 2022 in many ways. Whalers logo hats and jerseys remain among the top sellers in the National Hockey League for so many years after the last Dineen goal. Whalers Fan Club members are still hoping for a return. The colors of the farm goats reflect the whale.

A year later, in 1998, he became governor. John G. Rowland won and then lost the New England Patriots to Hartford. Robert Kraft, owner of the NFL team, planned to play Connecticut against Massachusetts solely to get a better deal from the Boston subway station.

Connecticut, especially the Hartford area, has in many ways never recovered. We have lagged the nation in economic growth almost every year since these debacles in the late 90s.

Yes, of course I know that the economic reasons are many, as I have spent all the last 25 years, and some of them, on chronicling the fortunes of the state. But that whalers are leaving still stands as an emblem, if not a cause, on the state’s sputtering.

We’ve made a couple of mini-comebacks, and we’re in one now, after the pandemic. Connecticut seems to be back in style as events such as the Travelers Championship Golf Tournament and the Connecticut Sun of the WNBA – major league sports! – keep the torch burning.

We were always underdogs when it came to big leagues in many ways (not hedge funds, insurance or space production, thankfully), and Whaler’s exit seemed to highlight this status.

“It was demoralizing,” said Sullivan, a season cardholder who worked with his wife and business partner Patricia LeShane on the Save the Whale campaign. “I did not go to another hockey game in 20 years.”

Schneider, whose band goes strong with hockey rock – “In the last three weeks we’ve written three good ones coming on a record” – is not among Whaler fans with false memories of wild fans.

“I have no delusions about how the crowd was …. the crowd was never large,” he said. “We’ve always been underdogs.”

And yet, like everyone who listened back to that era, perhaps because we were young, “There was something beautiful about it. My favorite color is green to this day. I played mini golf yesterday, I always get the green ball.”

He bought $ 300 in whalers at the arena the last day – not easy for a clothing retailer – and still has the original shopping bags. And he shudders at the thought that he might have created a Whalers theme song to replace the iconic “Brass Bonanza”.

“It’s like messing with the Beatles. You don’t mess with pure gold …. We would have been killed.”

“I wrote a song to them, they loved it, and they said, ‘Let’s do it. We want you to play a concert.'” The team denied that it was on its way when Schneider asked about the rumors. .

Schneider is also not one of those “dreamers” with a deep-seated hope of a resurrection of an NHL team. “It’s definitely hard to lose a team. My mom lost the Brooklyn Dodgers, so I related to her a lot,” said Schneider, who moved from Bridgeport to Fairfield a few years ago.

Yes, the whalers were Connecticut’s Dodgers in many ways. And like the Dodgers in a fully revived Brooklyn, the team lives on in so many ways.

What did Rell make sure to include among the gifts for his grandson last Christmas? A team hat, of course. “He’s 11,” she said, “but he knows the whalers.”


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