Their team is long gone, yet they’ll be represented at next month’s NHL booster club convention in New York. During the hockey season club members travel several times as a group to watch an NHL game. They sponsor an annual scholarship for a deserving hockey-playing college student; young women were chosen the past two years. They march in the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. They meet monthly.
Each April, the Hartford Whalers Booster Club, now up to 59 members after dipping down to the 30s, commemorates the “FANniversary” of the last home game played by their NHL hockey team, a 2-1 victory over Tampa Bay on April 13, 1997. With a 1975-vintage downtown arena in need of major upgrades, and neither a rich benefactor nor a firm government commitment to a projected $250 million renovation in sight, they face the prospect of waiting indefinitely to recapture a reasonable facsimile of the team that got away.
For now the arena, the XL Center, owned by the city, hosts a minor league hockey team, the Hartford Wolf Pack, as well as University of Connecticut basketball and hockey games.
Some Hartford fans do root for the Carolina Hurricanes, the transplanted version of their Whalers. “It’s the team I follow, it’s the team I’ve followed since I was 9 years old,” says Mark Anderson, the 42-year-old membership chairman of the Whalers booster club. He doesn’t wear his Canes sweatshirt around town, however. “No need to stir up trouble,” he notes.
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Other Hartford fans also follow Carolina, if only to revel in its recent travails – one playoff appearance since the 2008-09 season, a last-place finish in attendance in the NHL last season, and ongoing legal problems for Peter Karmanos, the owner who moved the team. The litany of woe readily rolls off the tongue of Joanne Cortesa, president of the Whalers booster club. As is frequently the case with relocated teams, fans like Cortesa are convinced Karmanos lied about keeping the Whalers in Hartford when he bought them, only to betray the public’s trust.
“They do root against the Hurricanes,” Cortesa concedes about her fellows. “I’m not denying that. They’re very happy their attendance is very bad.”
Cortesa in fact was aghast when the Whalers moved to Raleigh, land of basketball, where the sport is called ice hockey. “I still have to laugh because they didn’t have any clue about hockey in North Carolina,” she says. “Go back to 1997, you’ll find newspapers there had to explain the game, what the signs are for the referees. It was just totally hysterical.”
Hartford fans do share a bond with the abandoned basketball supporters of Seattle, the unrequited baseball boosters in Montreal and, most recently, the spurned football fans of St. Louis. “I feel sympathy for the fans of any team that moves, no matter what sport it is,” says Cortesa. “In any sports, when you move a team it’s hard for the fans you leave behind.”
I feel sympathy for the fans of any team that moves, no matter what sport it is.
Joanne Cortesa, president of the Hartford Whalers booster club
These forsaken cities are just the latest victims in an erratic but ceaseless game of municipal musical chairs that once saw Colts owner Robert Irsay literally sneak his team out of Baltimore in the middle of a March 1984 night to resettle in Indianapolis. A dozen years later, Baltimore landed the Ravens when owner Art Modell moved his team from Cleveland.
Such unhappy facts of life are well-known in places like Oakland, about to lose the NBA’s star-studded Golden State Warriors to nearby San Francisco. Oakland is also in constant danger of seeing the NFL’s Raiders jump ship, or baseball’s Athletics get the go-ahead to build a new ballpark down the road in San Jose. Or both.
As for St. Louis, it swiped the Rams in 1995 from Los Angeles, which got the team from Cleveland in 1946. Once a community lures a pro team from somewhere else, it develops collective amnesia about the acquisition process.
Seeking greener pastures is an American tradition. In our part of the country colonial farmers moved westward in search of fresh soil, having depleted the land in order to grow lucrative, nutrient-hungry tobacco. Sports franchise owners literally mimicked that trend in the late 1950s, when baseball’s New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers migrated as far west as they could go in the continental U.S., landing in the unplowed major league markets of California.
Pressure to upgrade arenas
The payoffs for team owners can be astronomical. According to Forbes magazine, of 127 franchises in 2015 in the major U.S. sports of baseball, basketball, football and hockey, 41 were worth at least $1 billion. This is hardly a case of redistributed wealth – approximately four dozen owners of big-league sports teams are billionaires, 18 in the NFL alone, not to mention half of the major party presidential candidates.
Rising TV revenues and viewership keep fueling the money-making machinery. The NBA had more viewers for the 2016 Finals than in any year since 1998. According to Sports Media Watch, the Finals were the most-watched 7-game series in any sport since the Boston Red Sox broke their 86-year World Series drought in 2004. Next up to fascinate viewers: the Chicago Cubs, poised to make a run at their first World Series championship since 1908.
Despite owners’ wealth, more times than not pro teams, the Hurricanes included, prosper in facilities funded in part or in full at public expense. Concerns about retaining a pro franchise often drive cities to discard perfectly functional facilities for new digs that maximize profits – for team owners. This despite numerous studies showing pro sports merely reshuffle the entertainment dollars within a market at the expense of existing attractions.
A lack of teams
Then again, any edge in competing for jobs and prestige is welcomed by civic leaders. As Anderson of the Whalers Booster Club acknowledges, it’s “absolutely” a step down to be a major metropolitan area without a major league team. “It’s a huge difference to watch ESPN and not see Hartford on the ticker at the bottom of the screen,” says the Waste Industries executive.
About 80 percent of the top-50 American metropolitan areas by population have a team in one of the major sports. Among the few lacking any big-league presence is Hartford at No. 47, three spots below the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area in estimated 2015 population. Worse for Connecticut’s capital city, a 35-factor rating of the 50 seats of state government by wallethub.com, based on qualities from affordability to high educational standards to quality of life, placed Hartford dead last. (Raleigh ranked fifth.)
Most cities that lose pro franchises retain at least one top-flight team, like baseball’s Cardinals in St. Louis, or eventually cadge a replacement at someone else’s expense. So far, Hartford has had to be content with its memories, including the last three seasons (1978-80) of hockey great Gordie Howe’s career, when he ushered the Whalers from the upstart World Hockey Association to the NHL.
Hartford later retired Howe’s No. 9 jersey. Ron Francis’ No. 10 also hangs in the XL Center rafters. The current Canes general manager’s number was honored on Jan. 6, 2006, long after the Whalers were defunct.
Twenty-two days later, in a bit of soothing symmetry, Carolina also retired the popular Hall of Famer’s jersey at PNC Arena en route to winning the Stanley Cup.