Pickens, Pat. The Whalers: The Rise, Fall, and Enduring Mystique of New England’s (Second) Greatest NHL Franchise. Guilford: Globe Pequot/Lyons Press, 2021. Pp. 280. $26.00 hardback and ebook.
Reviewed by Łukasz Muniowski
The Hartford Whalers were an NHL team for 18 seasons, from 1979 to 1997, when the team relocated to Raleigh, North Carolina and became the Carolina Hurricanes. Until the 2018-19 season, the Hurricanes almost completely ignored their Connecticut heritage. During a December 2018 game against the Boston Bruins, the Hurricanes’ players took the ice wearing Whalers jerseys, while “Brass Bonanza,” Hartford’s beloved goal song, played whenever they scored. The way the Hurricanes decided to honor the Whalers was respectful and well-planned. While the team is not among the most decorated in league history, the Whalers’ legacy lives on, and their story is emblematic of the developments that shaped modern professional sports. In a sense, the Whalers were the victims of the changing business landscape of the NHL, as well as various other unfortunate circumstances that contributed to their eventual end.
Pat Pickens retraces this story in his book, titled The Whalers: The Rise, Fall, and Enduring Mystique of New England’s (Second) Greatest NHL Franchise, analyzing the historical and economic factors that led to their relocation. He begins the story in 1971, with the creation of the World Hockey Association (WHA). Boston is his point of departure, as the Whalers originally came into being as the New England Whalers. The first team president, Howard Baldwin, ran it for the first 16 years, serving as the face of the ownership group that controlled the franchise.
In 1974, Baldwin and company moved the team from Boston to Hartford. The move simply was a business decision, as the Whalers were behind the Celtics, Bruins, and Braves in the pecking order. Even though the team won the championship in WHA’s first season and brought in around 9,000 fans per game, it was losing money. Baldwin had no prior ties with Hartford, but, when the team moved there, he immediately embraced the sense of community that became the source of the Whalers’ identity.
Ahead of the 1975-76 season, the Whalers moved to a $70 million sports complex, which also served as a hotel and a mall. The proximity of the latter became a subject of mockery by away fans, whereas now every team sells its merchandise in stores situated inside of arenas. Plus, the Whalers were able to profit from the office space they were able to rent. The Civic Center, however, had no tenants; it was built to attract a American Basketball Association (ABA) franchise (which never arrived). No longer forced to battle for fans’ attention in sports-crazed Massachusetts, the Whalers became the only major-league team in Connecticut.
In 1977, the Whalers signed the biggest name in its history, Gordie Howe, along with his two sons, Mark and Marty. At 49 years old, Howe signed a 10-year contract with the team. “Mr. Hockey” was obviously past his prime, but he was still better than most WHA players. Furthermore, his name attracted fans, which allowed the Whalers to survive in “the insurance capital of America,” as Hartford was called at the time. When the team was absorbed by the NHL in 1979, it was the Howes who the fans of other teams were crowding to see. While utilizing the Howes’s hockey knowledge might have worked to the Whalers’ advantage, things instead devolved into confusion and discontinuity. Pickens even describes how the team purposely misled the legendary family, refusing to give them the respect they deserved. Howe’s unparalleled hockey knowledge was left underused.
While the team struggled in the NHL, players were embraced by the community. After games they would meet with the fans in stores and restaurants, where fans would celebrate, congratulate, simply thank players. Ron Francis was Hartford’s most beloved athlete. Drafted fourth overall in the 1981 draft, he would become the Whalers’ best player and team captain. He even met his wife during an event organized by the team, which further ingrained him into the fabric of the local community. But things eventually turned sour, as the team did not want to give him a long-term contract extension; they even took away his captaincy.
Trading Francis in 1991 widely is considered the beginning of the end of the Whalers in Hartford. Pickens notes that the attendance dropped by almost 50 percent following the trade. Revenues also were down by an estimated 94 percent from the previous year. In turn, insurance companies and stores moved out of the Civic Center Mall. The Whalers tried to adjust to the uncertain economic situation by rebranding, changing the color scheme and abandoning the “Brass Bonanza” in an effort to create a more intimidating team image.
The moves only backfired.
And with the changing circumstances in the NHL itself, which the author extensively explores in the ninth chapter of the book, “The Sun Belt Shift,” it became increasingly harder to keep the team in Hartford. Other, more successful teams, like the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres, barely avoided relocation. So when a new ownership group took over the team, with Peter Karmanos as the man in charge, it became obvious that the future of hockey in Hartford was in peril. When Karmanos announced the move to Raleigh––600 miles away––it was not a huge surprise. The decision to pick North Carolina was kind of surprising, as the state had no prior hockey history. And yet, the moved somewhat paid off, with the Hurricanes winning the 2006 Stanley Cup.
The author opens the book by imagining the championship parade taking place in Hartford rather than Raleigh. While an engaging opening, it is a work of fiction––nothing but a nice vision. The Whalers, however, live, mostly thanks to their beautiful retro jerseys, a feeling of nostalgia, and a sense of compassion for the underdog. They were never a small-market team that could challenge the giants, but that makes them all the more endearing and their story all the more real.
Łukasz Muniowski received his Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Warsaw. He is the author of Three-Pointer! A 40-Year NBA History (McFarland, 2020), Narrating the NBA: Representations of Leading Players after the Michael Jordan Era (Lexington, 2021), and The Sixth Man: A History of the NBA Off the Bench (McFarland, 2021).