The Hartford Whalers Will Forever Be Linked to One City; Hartford
11,776. 12,203. 12,594 vs. 13,680. 11,983. 11,835. The first three numbers are the season averages in attendance over the last three years for the Carolina Hurricanes, no longer owned by Peter Kampanos. The next three numbers are the season averages in attendance of the now-defunct Hartford Whalers in their final three seasons, which compelled Kampanos (according to Kampanos) to move the franchise to Raleigh in search of greener pastures. Well, when Kampanos robbed Hartford and thereby Connecticut of its only professional sports franchise, he did so with the belief that he would find lush meadows of green (cash) in that hockey hotbed known as North Carolina, but instead settled into a field of crabgrass (albeit one that allowed him to sell a team valued at $550 million after buying the team for $47.5 million in 1994).
If you are to believe Kampanos (and you should not), Hartford was not a viable NHL market. The fans could only muster enough dedication to buy 8,500 season tickets (out of a laughably high goal of 11,000… and those were for all 41 home games, no sensible mini-packages because why make it easy Kampanos). Yet, in that final season, the “Save the Whale” campaign led to an average attendance of 13,680 (oh, wait, that number is actually more than 14,000 as it is not counting the executive suites nor the skyboxes “because the revenue streams went to the state“–Jeff Jacobs, November 2015).
Rehashing the way the Whalers left town invariably leads to an excess of whiskey and long stares into the distance (it is New England after all). But coming back to the Whalers injustices is necessary this week because Tom Dundun just bought 61% of the Whalers from Kampanos and is thinking about tapping into Whalers nostalgia (i.e. is ready to see his cash registers start to overflow). “I think that’s an unbelievably good look,” Dundon said on ESPN 99.9 The Fan in Raleigh. “I love it. I think we should have a store that sells that Whalers merchandise online. I think we should explore playing games in that jersey and selling that gear. It’s part of the legacy” (Jacobs, Februaru 2018).
But here is the thing that most businessmen turned sports franchise owners have yet to figure out. When you buy the team, you do not buy the memories. As much as I do not fawn over Robert Kraft because of how he blackmailed Hartford when it came to the Patriots, Kraft’s love of the Patriots is genuine. He has actual memories of going to games. For a team that won a Stanley Cup within 10 years of the move, the memories of the Hurricanes and their “storied franchise” pale in comparison to what is found in the hearts and minds of Connecticut residents when they think about the Whalers.
There are no memories of Hurricanes fans as children, at seven and eight, getting beer thrown at them and swore at by Florida Panthers fans (but you can bet Whalers fans have those thanks to Bruins fans). Where is the memory, seared into the brain, of Sean Burke coming out past the hashes and executing a perfect superman poke check to stop a breakaway (“oh my G-d… what is he DOING OH WHAT A PLAY!”). Or of Andrew Cassells scoring a goal off of his head while simultaneously getting knocked out as the horn sounds and Brass Bonanza blares throughout the Civic Center. There is none of that. There is nothing as simple as Gordie Howe, helmet off, skating in green bottoms and a green sweater, looking like everything a man should be, sporting the greatest logo in the history of sports on his chest.
Dundon smartly wants to capitalize on the perfection that is the Whale-Tail Whalers logo. There is nothing better in all of sports. A close second is the Milwaukee Brewers glove and ball. The problem though is that the Whalers, and everything to do with them, belong to Hartford. Just because the Hurricanes were once the Whalers does not mean the Hurricanes are the Whalers. For few years the Boston Red Sox played the Brass Bonanza after they scored their first run of the game. You will not hear anything of the sort when the Carolina Panthers score a touchown in the first quarter. The Whalers are intrinsically New England, but specifically of Connecticut, and of Hartford.
The logo resonated so well because it was perfect, but it was also perfect for Hartford. At first glance, a simple logo showing off the “W” for Whalers and a whale tail on top. But a second glance reveals the negative of the Hartford “H.” The logo, like Hartford, is simple yet effective. By not doing too much, it does exactly what it needs to. Do you want to go to Boston? Hop on I-84 East, a two-minute walk from the Civic Center. What about New York City? Sure, take the train or just continue down I-91 South. Hartford knows what it is. It is the pathway to everything else in New England.
It is the joke of the other five states, “does Connecticut even count as part of New England?” Yes. Yes it does. And at Connecticut’s heart is Hartford. And the heart of Hartford was, and still is, the Whalers. Tom Dundun might now own a share of the copyrights to the Whalers logo, but he does not own the Whalers. He does not own the heart of Hartford. Peter Kampanos took the Whalers down to Raleigh, North Carolina in 1997, but he left the Whalers, and the heart of the Nutmeg State, in Hartford.