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WHA Teams: New England Whalers

By Wikipedia

The New England Whalers (known as the Hartford Whalers in the National Hockey League (NHL)) were a franchise in the short-lived World Hockey Association (WHA) franchise from 1972-79. The team played in the NHL from 1979-97 as the Hartford Whalers. In 1997, the Whalers franchise was moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where it became the Carolina Hurricanes.

At a glance...
Franchise Facts
Established 1972
Located Boston
Hartford
North Carolina
Purchase Price $25,000 (1971)
Owner(s) Bob Schmertz
Howard Baldwin
John Coburn
Godfrey Wood
William Barnes
Postseason/Titles
Eastern Division Champions 1973,1974,1975
AVCO Cup Champions 1973
Stanley Cup 2006
 
Nicknames
New England Whalers (1972-79)
Hartford Whalers (1979-1997)
Carolina Hurricanes (1997-present)
Arena
Boston Arena (1972-1974)
The Big E Coliseum (1972-1974)
Hartford Civic Center Coliseum (1974-1997)

The Whalers franchise was born in November 1971 when the World Hockey Association awarded a franchise to New England businessmen Howard Baldwin, John Coburn, Godfrey Wood, and William Barnes, to begin play in Boston. The team began auspiciously, signing former Detroit Red Wing star Tom Webster, hard rock Boston Bruins' defenseman Ted Green (the team's inaugural captain), Toronto Maple Leafs' defensemen Rick Ley, Jim Dorey, and Brad Selwood, and former Pittsburgh Penguins' goaltender Al Smith. The Whalers would have the WHA's best regular-season record in the 1972-73 WHA season, with Webster leading the team in scoring and rampaging through the playoffs, and behind legendary ex-Boston University coach Jack Kelley (winner of the first Howard Baldwin Trophy as coach of the year), would win the inaugural league championship.

For the first 2½ years of their existence, the Whalers played home games at the Boston Arena, Boston Garden, and The Big E Coliseum in West Springfield. However, with sagging attendance related to the ebbing of the early Seventies hockey boom in the Boston area, ownership decided to move the franchise to Connecticut, an area which, except for various minor league teams in New Haven, had been largely bereft of pro hockey.

On January 11, 1975, the team played its first game in front of a sellout crowd at the Hartford Civic Center Coliseum. With the exception of a period in the late 1970s when the Whalers played at the Springfield Civic Center while the Hartford Civic Center was being renovated (due to the collapse of a portion of its roof after a blizzard), the franchise was located in Hartford until it relocated to North Carolina in 1997.

Though they never again won the league championship, the New England Whalers were a successful team, never missing the playoffs in the WHA's history, and finishing first in its division three times. They had a more stable roster than most WHA teams—Ley, Webster, Selwood, Larry Pleau, and Tommy Earl would all play over 350 games with the club—and scored a major coup when they signed legend Gordie Howe and his sons Mark and Marty from the Houston Aeros in 1977.

While the first two full seasons in Hartford were not glittering (the Whalers recorded losing records both years), the final two WHA seasons saw more success. They went to the finals again in 1978, with a veteran team spearheaded by the Howes—50-year-old Gordie led the team in scoring—future NHL stars Gordie Roberts and Mike Rogers, All-Star defenseman Ron Plumb, and forwards John McKenzie, Dave Keon, and Mike Antonovich, and possessed of the league's best defense. The next season was not so fine, but while age finally caught up with Gordie Howe, the slack was picked up by Andre Lacroix, the WHA's all time leading scorer, acquired from the folded Aeros.

As it was one of the most stable of the WHA teams, it was one of the four franchises admitted to the National Hockey League when the rival leagues merged in 1979, and Howes, Rogers, Ley, Keon, Smith, Roberts and Lacroix would go on to wear the uniform of the Hartford Whalers. Legendary goal scorer Bobby Hull would be acquired late that season in a trade with another former WHA team, the Winnipeg Jets, and play the last games of his career not only as a Whaler, but also as a member of the same team as his childhood idol, Gordie Howe (who also retired following the Whalers' first NHL season).

Career Leaders (WHA, 1972-1979)

  • Games: Rick Ley, 478
  • Goals: Tom Webster, 220
  • Assists: Larry Pleau, 215
  • Points: Webster, 425
  • Penalty Minutes: Ley, 716
  • Goaltending Wins: Al Smith, 141

The Hartford Whalers

Not many teams have marketed a 50 year old athlete, but Gordie Howe was unique in so many ways.

Unfortunately, the Whalers were never as successful in the NHL as they had been in the WHA. They only recorded three winning seasons in their eighteen years as an NHL team, missed the playoffs ten times, and only once won a playoff series, earning along the way the derisive nickname "Forever .500s." The team developed heated rivalries with the nearby Boston Bruins and New York Rangers—for home games against the Bruins especially, the Civic Center would have as many of a quarter of the fans in the seats from Boston, two hours drive away—achieving all-time records of 37-69-12 and 23-26-6 respectively against those clubs.

Their history was plagued by disastrous trades, especially in dealing stars for several mediocre players in an attempt to gain "depth": dealing star defenseman Mark Howe and their first scoring leader Mike Rogers in separate deals for players and picks who would never pan out, dealing hardrock defenseman Gordie Roberts for the remaining half-season of Mike Fidler's NHL career. All too often when the trades were sound—as in trading Chris Pronger for Brendan Shanahan—the players acquired were not happy in Hartford and left as soon as possible.

The team had a brief moment in the sun in the 1986 and 1987 seasons. It would make the playoffs both years, winning its sole playoff series in 1986 and its lone division championship in 1987, led by Ron Francis, emerging hardcore winger Kevin Dineen, superstar goalie Mike Liut, and troubled scorer Sylvain Turgeon. The team would drift back into its losing ways the season following.

The most psychologically damaging moment was the 1991 trade of superstar Ron Francis to Pittsburgh. While Francis was unhappy, and the trade made sense on paper, as usual the acquired players did not lead the Whalers to success, while the very popular Francis promptly helped the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cup titles. The reaction of the fan base was savage in condemnation. Coincidentally, Eddie Johnston, the general manager of the Hartford Whalers who orchestrated the Francis trade, subsequently followed Francis to Pittsburgh, as their coach a few years later. The Whalers would go on to the playoffs in 1992, behind Jimmy Roberts' coaching, but lose a dramatic double overtime Game Seven in the first round against the Montreal Canadiens as Yvon Corriveau heartbreakingly put a breakaway shot into the crossbar.

Roberts was fired thereafter, and while the Whalers had some stars in their remaining five seasons in Hartford—forwards Geoff Sanderson, Pat Verbeek, and Andrew Cassels and goalie Sean Burke—they would never again make the playoffs or approach a winning record.

Many ex-Whalers are still active in the NHL, including Pronger, Sanderson, Sami Kapanen, Burke, Keith Primeau, Shanahan, Jeff O'Neill and Cassels. Glen Wesley is the final Whaler still active with the Carolina/Hartford franchise.

The 1973-74 "Fact Book."

Whalers Career Leaders (NHL, 1979-1997)

  • Games: Ron Francis, 714
  • Goals: Francis, 264
  • Assists: Francis, 557
  • Points: Francis, 821
  • Penalty Minutes: Torrie Robertson, 1368
  • Goaltender Games: Sean Burke, 256
  • Goaltender Wins: Mike Liut, 115
  • Shutouts: Liut, 13

Departure from Hartford

The primary factors in the Whalers' departure from Hartford were market size (Hartford was not considered a major television market) and the lack of a modern playing facility. Additionally, Hartford's close proximity (two hours driving distance) to four other NHL teams limited their ability to garner significant corporate support. Many people also criticized the Whalers for long essentially conceding Fairfield County (one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S., and one with a large corporate presence) to the New York-area franchises.

The Hartford Civic Center was adequate, but small, and famously mocked for being part of a shopping mall. As teams in the NHL began moving into larger, corporate-sponsored stadiums with luxury suites and other high-end amenities, it became increasingly apparent that a team playing in an aging municipal facility with limited revenue streams couldn't compete.

On June 26, 1994, a new ownership group led by Compuware founder Peter Karmanos purchased the Whalers for $47.5 million, beating out an ownership consortium with a number of smaller investors. Though the competing group offered a higher price, the Connecticut Development Authority and Governor Lowell Weicker preferred to sell to a smaller ownership structure with a clear lead partner. Karmanos also pledged to keep the Whalers in Hartford for four years.

The 1979-1992 logo.

Upon purchasing the team, Karmanos quickly focused on addressing the team's two major business issues. Frustrated with lackluster attendance and corporate support, he announced in 1996 that if the Whalers were unable to sell at least 11,000 season tickets for the 1996-97 season, he would likely have to move the team. Furthermore, ownership only made season tickets available in full season (41 game) packages, eliminating the popular 5-game and 10-game 'mini plans', in a strategy largely designed to spur purchases from wealthier corporations and individuals. Sales were underwhelming at the beginning of the campaign, and at the end of the 1995-96 season it was still unknown whether the Whalers would stay in Connecticut or move. However, thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign that targeted the entire state (and specifically Fairfield County), and the creative efforts of many fans (who pooled together resources to purchase some of the full-season packages collectively) the Whalers were successful in coming very close to their goal of 11,000 season ticket holders. The Whalers announced that they would stay in Connecticut for the 1996-97 season and Karmanos then focused on the second prong of his strategy, gaining a new arena.

In early 1997, negotiations between the Whalers, and the State of Connecticut and Governor John Rowland to build a new $147.5 million arena seemed to be going well and an agreement appeared close at hand. However, negotiations fell apart when Rowland and the State of Connecticut refused Karmanos' demand to reimburse the Whalers for up to $45 million in losses during the three years the new arena was to be built. As a result, the team announced on March 26, 1997, that they would leave Hartford, eventually deciding to move to Raleigh, North Carolina. It marked one of the few times in American sports history that a team announced that it would leave its current home city without having already selected a new home city. During that last season, the Civic Center was consistently sold out and the Whalers played to more than 90% capacity. Alas, it was not enough to satisfy Karmanos. In addition, many suspected that Governor John Rowland did not want to keep the Whalers in Hartford. This is because Rowland had hopes of landing an NFL franchise which he tired and failed to do in 1999 with the New England Patriots in a deal with Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Ideally, Rowland wanted to use the state's resources to build an NFL stadium and did not have serious intentions of building an NHL arena for the Whalers.

On April 13, 1997 the Whalers played their last game in Hartford, against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Whalers won 2-1. Fittingly, team captain Kevin Dineen scored the final goal in Whaler history.

The Hartford Whalers never won a Stanley Cup, but did qualify for the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons from 1986-92 (they won the Cup in their new incarnation as the Carolina Hurricanes in June 2006). Their final post-season appearance ended with a seventh game, double overtime defeat by the Montreal Canadiens. Despite this lack of playoff success, and a relatively small fan base, the team was adored by its fans, and they were heartbroken when the Whalers left for North Carolina



WHA Bibliography
The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association by Ed Willes
The Complete Historical and Statistical Reference to the World Hockey Association by Scott Adam Surgent
WHA Pro Hockey '75 - '76 by Dan Proudfoot
WHA Media Guides (each team published one each year)

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It uses material from this Wikipedia article, which is probably more up to date than ours (retrieved August 12, 2005).

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