What Really Happened to the Hartford Whalers?
The Hartford Whalers played their last NHL game in 1997, and the franchise is more popular than ever. How can a team that won just one playoff series in 18 seasons still stay in the hearts and minds of hockey fans?
We're not the only ones taking an interest. A book about the Whalers was released in 2021, and a thriving social media presence online is dedicated to keeping their memory alive.
Here's a look at what made the Hartford Whalers so special to fans during their brief time in the NHL and before and why their popularity has endured almost three decades since they left Connecticut.
It All Starts With the Logo
Every discussion about the enduring popularity of the Hartford Whalers can be traced back to the team's logo. Hands down, it is one of the greatest logos in the history of North American professional sports.
The original Hartford Whalers design came into existence when the team joined the NHL in 1979. They were previously the New England Whalers in the WHA (World Hockey Association) and had an entirely different logo.
Designed by Connecticut native Peter Good, the Hartford Whalers logo blends a green "W" with a blue whale's tail and uses the negative space between to create an "H." So simple and yet so perfect.
Spending the Early 1970s in Boston
The World Hockey Association awarded a Boston franchise to a group of local businessmen led by film producer Howard Baldwin in 1971. That team became the New England Whalers, and they began play in the 1972-73 season.
The Whalers won the 1973 WHA championship in their first season. They played the first two years in Boston, splitting home games between the Boston Garden and Boston Arena, where they were the fourth team in priority booking behind the NBA's Boston Celtics, NHL's Boston Bruins and American Hockey League's Boston Braves.
Finding a Home in Hartford
Hartford, Connecticut, wanted professional sports in the worst way. The city was building the Hartford Civic Center in hopes of landing an American Basketball Association franchise but came up short.
New England Whalers owner Howard Baldwin, who had grown beyond frustrated with his team's situation as a fourth wheel in Boston, saw an opportunity.
Baldwin engineered the move to Hartford for the 1974-75 season, playing the first half of the season's games in West Springfield, Massachusetts, before opening play at the Hartford Civic Center on Jan. 11, 1975, in front of a sellout crowd of almost 15,000 fans.
New England Whalers Were a Decent Franchise
It's worth pointing out that the reason the Hartford Whalers ever even came to be was because the New England Whalers were a pretty decent franchise.
In seven seasons in the WHA, the Whalers never missed the playoffs and made the WHA Finals twice, winning in 1973 and losing in 1978.
They also grabbed headlines by having a stable roster and signing high-profile players like hockey legend Gordie Howe and his two sons, Mark and Marty Howe, away from the Houston Aeros in 1977.
The Time the Roof Collapsed
One of the craziest moments in Whalers history came when the roof of the Hartford Civic Center collapsed in the early-morning hours of Jan. 18, 1978, after heavy snow followed by heavy rain mixed with major structural shortcomings led to the collapse.
How did it come to this? Simply put, the people who built the Civic Center did things on the cheap, and their thriftiness almost ended with the loss of life. Just hours before the roof of the Civic Center collapsed, the arena was full of people for a hockey game.
The Whalers played games in the Springfield Civic Center while the Hartford Civic Center was being repaired.
Whalers Join the NHL
Following years of negotiations, the NHL and WHA finally merged in 1979. Although a closer look at the merger shows why the WHA ended up getting the short end of the stick in the long run.
Four teams from the WHA were permitted to join the NHL — the New England Whalers, Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques and Edmonton Oilers. Only the Oilers still exist in the form they entered the NHL in.
The Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes. The Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche. And the Whalers eventually became the Carolina Hurricanes.
How Did the NHL Screw the WHA?
When the NHL merged with the WHA in 1979, it started things off by taking some of the shine off the move by calling it an expansion instead of a merger. In the eyes of the NHL and NHL president John Ziegler, the four teams coming over never existed before they came to the NHL.
This included not letting WHA teams keep their rosters except for two skaters and two goaltenders. NHL teams were allowed to reclaim players from WHA rosters without compensation, and the four expansion teams were put at the end of the 1979 NHL draft.
Whalers Pass on Pair of Hall of Famers
The 1979 NHL draft was a sign of bad things to come for the Whalers. With the four expansion teams from the WHA given the final four spots in the 1979 NHL draft, the order was designated as the Whalers, Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques and the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers were given the final spot in exchange for keeping the rights to Wayne Gretzky.
The Whalers and Jets picked a pair of journeymen right wingers, Ray Allison and Jimmy Mann. The Nordiques and Oilers picked a pair of Hall of Famers, Michel Goulet and Kevin Lowe.
World, Meet the Hartford Whalers
The Boston Bruins were against the Whalers joining the NHL because of their proximity to Boston. Part of the compromise reached was the only U.S.-based team in the NHL-WHA merger had to change its name to the Hartford Whalers.
Along with that change came new colors — blue and green — and while most of the other three WHA teams saw their rosters picked over, the Whalers were able to keep most of their roster in large part thanks to the respect for Whalers star Gordie Howe, who was already 50 years old.
In the 1979-80 season, the Hartford Whalers were born.
First Season in the NHL
The Whalers were assigned to the Norris Division of the Wales Conference and picked up another NHL legend, Bobby Hull, ahead of the 1980 trade deadline. The team finished with the best record of the four WHA "expansion" teams in the 1979-80 season — their first NHL season.
The Whalers and Oilers both made the playoffs in their first season and were the most recent first-year teams to make the playoffs until the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017-18, when they made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
In the 1980 NHL playoffs, the Whalers were swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round.
Whalers Find Natural Rivalries
The Whalers had a trio of natural rivalries from the moment they entered the NHL — the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and New York Islanders.
Unfortunately for the Whalers, the disadvantages of playing in the smallest market of the four professional sports leagues in North America became evident early on. Aside from games against the three rival teams, the Whalers struggled with attendance early on.
It didn't help that the Hartford Civic Center was one of the smallest arenas in the league with a capacity around 15,000. And the Whalers rarely drew that number except when they played the Bruins, Rangers and Islanders.
Early Struggles and Bad Trades
The Hartford Whalers experienced a sharp decline after their first season in 1979-80. They missed the playoffs in the next five seasons and bottomed out in 1982-83, when they finished with a 19-54-7 record, which was 20th out of 21 NHL teams.
In that period, the Whalers also began to be known for a series of dizzyingly bad trades in which star players were traded away for draft picks who didn't pan out and handfuls of role players who did little to win games on their own.
Following that disastrous year, the Whalers hired Emile Francis to be the general manager, and things began to turn around.
Francis and Francis
The hiring of Emile Francis proved to be the second step that led to the glory years for the Hartford Whalers as a franchise. The first step was when they selected Hall of Fame center Ron Francis No. 4 overall in the 1981 NHL draft.
With Emile Francis as general manager and team president and Ron Francis as the team's star player, the Whalers made the NHL playoffs for seven consecutive seasons, beginning with the 1985-86 season.
It Was the Best of Times
The best stretch for the Hartford Whalers came over two seasons, from 1985 to 1987. The Whalers won a playoff series for the first and only time in franchise history in 1986, when they swept the Quebec Nordiques in the Adams Division semifinals before losing in seven games to the Montreal Canadiens in the Adams Division finals.
In 1986-87, the Whalers won their only Adams Division title but lost to the Nordiques in the first round. In 17 other seasons in the NHL, the Whalers never finished above fourth in the Adams.
Trading Away the Franchise
General manager Eddie Johnston became the Whalers' general manager in 1989 and would end up being as responsible for the team's ultimate exit from Hartford as any single person in franchise history, thanks almost entirely to a single trade.
On March 4, 1991, Johnston traded star center and longtime captain Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings to the Pittsburgh Penguins for John Cullen, Zarley Zalapski and Jeff Parker. Hartford owner Richard Gordon had a dispute with Francis and forced the trade.
Francis, the most popular player in Whalers history, teamed with Samuelsson to help the Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cups, with Francis scoring the Cup-clinching goal in 1992.
Cullen scored 39 goals in 109 games with the Whalers. Zalapski was a minus-54 in 229 games with the Whalers. And Parker only played four games in Hartford before suffering career-ending concussions and knee injuries.
New Ownership Ushers in Final Hartford Years
Computer software millionaire Peter Karmanos led a group of investors who purchased the Hartford Whalers for $47.5 million in the summer of 1994, ahead of the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season.
Karmanos immediately butted heads with Connecticut Governor John G. Rowland over the future of the Whalers. Not only did Karmanos want $147.5 million to build a new arena, but an extra $45 million to cover losses over the three years the arena was being built.
Rowland balked at the requests and, as we would come to find, had his sights set on another team coming to Connecticut. He was trying to lure the New England Patriots to the state with a new stadium. Karmanos grew frustrated with Hartford and announced before the 1996-97 season it would be the Whalers' last in Connecticut.
Final Season in Hartford
The Whalers weren't terrible in their final season in Hartford, going 32-39-11. They weren't eliminated from the playoffs until the next-to-last game of the regular season.
In their final regular-season game and final game, ever, the Hartford Whalers defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning, 2-1, on April 13, 1997, with the game-winning goal scored by longtime captain Kevin Dineen.
Less than one month later, owner Peter Karmanos announced the franchise had a new home in Raleigh, North Carolina, where they became the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Ballad of Pucky the Whale
No story about the Hartford Whalers would be complete without the mention of the franchise's cuter-than-cute mascot, Pucky the Whale.
Pucky, a green whale, was the team's secondary mascot and was on the shoulders of their jerseys from the 1970s through the mid-1980s.
Pucky's popularity extended beyond the team's existence in Hartford, and he continued to make appearances at area events over the years.
Hockey in Hartford After the Whalers
After the Whalers left Hartford to become the Carolina Hurricanes, the New York Rangers relocated their AHL affiliate team, the Binghamton Rangers, to Hartford and renamed themselves the Hartford Wolf Pack.
Former Whalers owner Howard Baldwin acquired the team in 2010, renamed them the Connecticut Whale and brought back Pucky the Mascot until the Rangers terminated the relationship with the team, which changed its name back to the Wolf Pack in 2013.
Hurricanes' Success Is Heartbreak for Hartford
Is true heartbreak watching your ex move on to an even better relationship, thriving and achieving all the things they couldn't do while they were with you?
If so, Hartford Whalers fans have experienced true heartbreak watching the franchise not only become the Carolina Hurricanes but become an elite NHL team in their new form.
The Hurricanes made the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 2002, losing to the Detroit Red Wings, then returned in 2006 to defeat the Edmonton Oilers and win the first and only professional sports championship in North Carolina.
More Popular in Death Than in Life
Something has happened in the last decade that no one could have anticipated. Decades following their departure from Hartford, the Whalers and their logo are as popular as they ever were.
That's thanks to the Carolina Hurricanes wearing Hartford Whalers throwback uniforms beginning in 2018. Some Whalers fans weren't happy about it, but the jerseys quickly became a viral sensation. The popularity of the throwbacks seems here to stay. They've been worn again in 2019, 2020 and 2022, with an Adidas "Reverse Retro" uniform worn in 2021 that honored the New England Whalers as well.
Want to know more? There's now a book about the phenomenon "The Whalers: The Rise, Fall and Enduring Mystique of New England's (Second) Greatest NHL Franchise" by Pat Pickens that was released in October 2021.