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The Hartford Whalers left a quarter century ago, but Connecticut fans keep the team alive

In the 1970s, Connecticut sports was all about the Whalers hockey team. They had their fair share of ups and downs, mergers, acquisitions, trades, and a roof collapse at their rink.

In fact, the Hartford Civic Center roof collapse may have attracted new supporters for the Whalers, as they temporarily moved north to Springfield, Massachusetts.

The book "Bleeding Green: A History of the Hartford Whalers" is written by Boston Globe sportswriter Christopher Price, who grew up in Connecticut.

The franchise moved to North Carolina in 1997. But Price explains how — for a long while — the Whalers thrived in Hartford.

Christopher Price, author: It really was something, Carrie, because when you bring a new team into the world, you need some sort of fan base, you need some sort of support. And in a very short time, the Whalers found some traction in Connecticut after spending the first couple of years of their existence in Boston. So it was a really exciting time to be a fan from a personal perspective, but also just to follow this team.

This was the first taste of big-time professional sports that the state of Connecticut had, and it was a very exciting time. You know, you could see these guys at the store. You could see professional hockey players who lived down the street or one town over, or whatever the case may be.

Speaking from a personal perspective, as a kid who grew up loving the team, it was a lot of fun to be a Whalers fan in the 1970s because that was the first real brush that we had with big-time professional sports.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: The Whalers had a history, not only with a strong fan base in Hartford, but they had a history with Springfield, Massachusetts, as well — and not just in relation to that roof collapse in 1978. It was a different place for them to play — Springfield — as opposed to Hartford.

Yeah, they were there before moving into the first iteration of the Hartford Civic Center, so they had really two different stints in the Springfield [area]. The first one was at the Eastern States Exposition, which was more of kind of the rustic old barn of an arena. And then when the Hartford Civic Center was finished, the first version, they moved down there and they spent a couple of years there.

And then the building collapsed in January of 1978, and it was very, very interesting the way the whole thing played out, especially in retrospect. I don't remember — with one major exception — an incident where a team, a community, the politicians, the fans, the media, all rallied around this building and the idea of, "We have to rebuild, we have to get it back." The only comparison that I can make as a sports fan and as a sports writer is what New Orleans went through with Katrina.

The roof of the Hartford Civic Center's sports arena, seen here on Jan. 19, 1978, collapsed, apparently because of the weight of rain and snow from a winter storm that fell on the city. The roof was the size of two football fields.
Bob Child
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AP Photo
The roof of the Hartford Civic Center's sports arena, seen here on Jan. 19, 1978, collapsed, apparently because of the weight of rain and snow from a winter storm that fell on the city. The roof was the size of two football fields.

It was fascinating to see the way that the people of Hartford responded to losing their building. They said, "Look, we have to rebuild. We have to get a new building." In the meantime, though, the relationship that the Whalers developed with the city of Springfield was very, very special.

And this is where you write the fascinating story of, what, the "I-91 Club"?

Yeah, fans who were in the Connecticut area could take buses up to Springfield. They could go back and forth.

One of my absolute favorite stories was from Jordy Douglas, who said that he remembers they would stop at Wendy's halfway up to Springfield and the whole team would get out of their cars — or they would carpool or whatever the case may be — and they would go into Wendy's. And, you know, you would look up from your Frosty and your french fries and there would be Gordie Howe and the Hartford Whalers walking in. They would sign autographs.

And so, while it was — you know, the real-world aspect of it — [the roof collapse] was a horrible incident. And it's still remarkable, and still blows my mind, that no one was killed in that. But it allowed them to kind of deepen their fan base a little bit. I think when you talk about the Whalers, obviously western Massachusetts and Springfield is probably not in the first paragraph, but you can't tell the story of the Whalers, all 25 years of the Whalers, without really kind of delving into what they meant to Springfield and western Massachusetts.

And the "I-91 club" came complete with its own kind of silly little certificate as well.

Yes, it did. You could get your certificate and it was signed by Gordie Howe — and I'll put signed in quotes, but it was "signed" by Gordie Howe. It's a very prestigious thing. While I was researching the book, I tried to go on eBay to see if anyone had copies or whatever, and I couldn't find them. And, you know, I talked to old fans and they said, "Oh, you know, I had one, but I tossed it out." So, yeah, having a membership to the "I-91 Club" was a very prestigious thing back in the day.

Talent on the team came and went with different trades over the years, but you know who stuck with me? No. 11, Kevin Dineen. He was a player I recall watching a fair share of. (I was watching the games on television.) He had a lasting impact on that team. And later on, of course, he left and then he returned. What is that Dineen legacy on the Whalers?

Toughness. Toughness. He was a guy who, when he came up, he was part of the great draft classes of the early 1980s. And he was not necessarily the biggest guy, was not the fastest guy, was not the strongest guy, but he was the type who could score you a couple of goals, get in a couple of fights and say all the right things to the media after the game.

One of my favorite quotes about Kevin Dineen was from Emile Francis, the general manager. He said, "He’s got more guts than a slaughterhouse." He was just that tough. He was smart. He embodied what the Whalers wanted to do.

Hartford Whaler Kevin Dineen watches the puck go skipping by after he is brought to the ice by Boston Bruins Ray Bourque, left, and Lyndon Byers (obscured behind Bourque) during first period NHL action at Boston Garden, Jan. 12, 1988. Hartford beat Boston, 4-3.
Carol Francavilla
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AP
Hartford Whaler Kevin Dineen watches the puck go skipping by after he is brought to the ice by Boston Bruins Ray Bourque, left, and Lyndon Byers (obscured behind Bourque) during first period NHL action at Boston Garden, Jan. 12, 1988. Hartford beat Boston, 4-3.

One of the things that I think that really endeared him to a lot of people was the fact that he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder when it came to the Bruins. Obviously, in New England, the Bruins are the No. 1 hockey team. You know, they've earned that right, they've been there for years. But at the same time, [Dineen] was a guy who wasn't afraid to kind of spit in their eye a little bit and kind of give them a hard time. And the fact that Hartford fans finally had a guy who was willing to stand up against the Bruins, both physically and from a goal-scoring perspective, it was fantastic.

He was one of those guys and, again, he was one of our guys, For me, anyway, he was a very important link to those teams back in the 1980s.

We can't talk about the Whalers without that song that marked the goals, the “Brass Bonanza.” So how did how did that tune forever become attached to the franchise?

There was a guy named George Ducharme. I'll say this: First of all, there's a couple of different stories, so I'll give you what I understand to be the truth.

George Ducharme, a marketing guy in Hartford, who had been there for years and years and years, worked with the owner, Howard Baldwin, for an awful long time, was looking for a fight song. And they found it on the B-side of one of the highlight records that they would sell in the 1970s. And there was a song called Evening Beat by a Belgian composer credited as “Jack Say” [Jacques Ysaye].

And it was the most innocuous thing that they just said, "OK, look, we have to find something to kind of get people out of their seats, get people excited about hockey, get people excited about the game."

Because, you know, Hartford ... wasn't the wildest city. And so they needed something to kind of light a fire into the fans. And so they started playing the song before the games, after the games, after goals. And it just stuck with people.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.