Hartford Whalers hockey, and team exit, reverberate 25 years later

What we all remember from that Sunday afternoon exactly 25 years ago is this: Nobody left the arena when the hockey game ended. The scene lingered for what seemed like an hour as the Hartford Whalers players circled up at mid-ice at the old Civic Center, saluting the fans.

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

“I felt sad and also, 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 hockey rock band with nine records and 296 songs – and counting – about the sport of pucks and ice.

“Luckily, I’ve got some zen qualities to drink it in when it’s available,” Schneider recalled Tuesday as we talked about that last game.

The Zambonis, formed in 1991, had gained enough renown that the Whalers asked the band earlier that season to write a song, which would be unveiled in a team-sponsored gig, perhaps even as the theme melody. That never happened.

In the end, I wrote this song called “Bob Marley and the Hartford Whalers” because I was so broken-hearted that nothing came through. And more importantly, the Whalers left, ”Schneider said.

Like any great local institution, the Whalers served as a connector, a touchstone, a cultural glue for a place called Hartford, for central Connecticut, and maybe, or maybe not, for this whole, small state. That, along with some pretty good games and one cherished playoff series win, is what we lost a quarter-century ago when the evil owner Peter Karmanos usurped the team to North Carolina as the Hurricanes.

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

The numbness of that day at the Hartford Civic Center comes back to me now. I stood, cheering the team in a sort of slow motion, in the heart of the compact city where I’d carved out 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 that never happened, as a way of showing Karmanos that Hartford, and Connecticut, was a first-rate fan base. Lobbyist Patrick Sullivan remembers that she sold 11,500 – remarkable for an arena that held less than 14,000.

But it wasn’t enough.

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

The Whalers exit reverberates to 2022 in a lot of ways. Whalers logo hats and jerseys remain among the top-sellers in the National Hockey League so many years after that last Dineen goal. Members of the Whalers Fan Club still hope for a return. The colors of the Yard Goats reflect the Whale.

A year later, in 1998, then-Gov. John G. Rowland gained, then lost, the New England Patriots for Hartford. Robert Kraft, owner of the NFL team, schemed to play Connecticut against Massachusetts solely to fetch a better deal from the Boston subway.

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

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

We’ve made a few mini-comebacks and we’re in one now, after the pandemic. Connecticut seems 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 the underdog when it came to major leagues in a lot of ways (not hedge funds, insurance or aerospace manufacturing, thankfully) and the Whalers exit seemed to highlight that status.

“It was demoralizing,” said Sullivan, a season ticket holder who, with his wife and business partner Patricia LeShane, worked on the Save the Whale campaign. “I didn’t go to another hockey game for 20 years.”

Schneider, whose band is going strong with rock hockey – “In the past three weeks we’ve written three more good ones that are going to be on a record” – is not among the Whaler fans with false memories of wild fans.

“I have no idea what the crowd was like …. the crowd was never great,” he said. “We were always the underdogs.”

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

He bought $ 300 worth of Whalers swag at the arena that 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 one song for them, they loved it and they were like,‘ Let’s do it. ..We want you to play a gig. ‘”The team denied it was leaving when Schneider asked about the rumors.

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

Yes, the Whalers were Connecticut’s Dodgers in a lot of 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 her grandson last Christmas? A team hat, of course. “He’s 11,” she said, “but he knows the Whalers.”

dhaar@hearstmediact.com

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