Welcome to lost franchises, an offseason series that will look back at the NHL teams that no longer exist. Even though they're gone, they won't be forgotten. This week's installment: Fire up the Brass Bonanza, because it's time to remember the Hartford Whalers.
Unlike the Cleveland Barons, the first team we looked at in lost franchises, the Hartford Whalers did not cease operations or merge with another club and no longer exist. The franchise (and all of its records) still lives on today as the Carolina Hurricanes. They've even had a little bit of success since the move, winning a Stanley Cup and appearing in another Stanley Cup Final.
But they're not the Whalers anymore, and as far as we're concerned are one of the NHL's lost franchises.
They are also perhaps the most popular NHL team that no longer exists.
Everybody seems to love the Whale. And Brass Bonanza.
Pittsburgh Penguins Where they came from: The WHA. The Whalers were an extremely successful team in the World Hockey Association, making two appearances in the league Final, one of which they won in their debut season. In their early years they were simply known as the "New England Whalers" and played their home games in Boston. Scheduling conflicts at the Boston Garden naturally became a major issue and resulted in their move to Hartford in 1974. When the WHA and NHL finally merged in 1979, the Whalers were one four teams (along with Edmonton, Quebec, and Winnipeg) that were admitted into the NHL provided they were no longer referred to as "New England," a condition that was insisted by the Boston Bruins.
And with that, the Hartford Whalers were born.
Where they played: The Hartford Civic Center, which was the smallest arena in the NHL with a capacity that ranged from 14,500 in its early days to 15,500 in the early/mid-90s.
It was rarely needed. For most of the Whalers' existence in Hartford they played before average crowds that usually ranged from 10,000 to 13,000. Only twice (1986-87 and 1987-88) did they average more than 14,000 per season. The two biggest problems when it came to attendance probably centered around the fact the team usually struggled on the ice, and because they were located within a stone's throw of New York (where the Rangers, Islanders, and Devils take up residence) and Boston (where the Bruins play).
(Attendance data via Hockeydb)
Who coached them: Don Blackburn (1979-81); Larry Pleau (1981-82, and again in 1988-89); Larry Kish (1982-83); John Cunniff (1982-83); Jack Evans (1983-1988); Rick Ley (1989-1991); Jimmy Roberts (1991-92); Paul Holmgren (1992-1996); Pierre McGuire (67 games in 1993-94); Paul Maurice (1996-1997).
Were they any good? Not really. This is something that seems to have been forgotten over the years -- the Whalers simply weren't a very good hockey team. Ever. They qualified for the playoffs eight times (usually as the fourth-place team in their division), but only once advanced beyond the first round (they lost in the second round). They finished the regular season with a winning record just three times in 18 years.
Despite their lack of success the Whalers are still one of the most popular teams that no longer exists.
What they were known for: Perhaps the best logo in the NHL at the time (as shown above).
The way the whale and the "W" (for Whalers) came together to form an "H" (for Hartford) is just beautiful. I'm also kind of embarrassed to say it took me years to figure out that "H" actually existed in there.
There was also Brass Bonanza, which is perhaps the lasting legacy of the organization.
And, truth be told, we're still pretty big fans of Pucky The Whale, the team's mascot...
Best player: Ron Francis. It can't be anybody but Ron Francis. One of the best and most productive players of all time (for any team) Francis was the franchise's leader (and still is now that the team is based in Carolina) in just about every major offensive category.
Gordie Howe finished his career with the Whalers: After spending two seasons with the WHA version of the Whalers, Gordie Howe played one final season in the NHL with the Whalers, eight years after he last suited up for the Detroit Red Wings. Howe helped lead the Whalers to the playoffs during the 1979-80 season, their first as a member of the NHL, by scoring 15 goals to go with 26 assists.
It should also be pointed out that he was 51 years old during that season. That fact takes numbers that appear to be very solid and makes them look pretty unbelievable.
Here is his last goal in the NHL. Probably not one of his prettiest, but it still works.
The day the Whalers died (March 4, 1991): Just before the 1991 trade deadline the Whalers and Pittsburgh Penguins completed one of the biggest trade-deadline deals the league has ever seen, and it forever changed the fortunes of both teams. The Whalers sent Francis, Ulf Samuelsson, and Grant Jennings to the Penguins in exchange for John Cullen, Jeff Parker, and Zarley Zalapski.
At the time there were some (like the Hockey News) that felt the Whalers managed to get the better end of the trade. Zalapski was a promising young defenseman who had put up some huge numbers, while Cullen was in the middle of a career year that had him near the top of the NHL's scoring race with an incredible 94 points in just 65 games. He would be a point-per-game player in Hartford for two more years before getting traded to Toronto for a second-round draft pick. Cullen and Zalapski proved to be serviceable, solid players. Useful, but far from impact players.
All Francis and Samuelsson did for the Penguins was serve as two of the final key ingredients for a team that would win Two Stanley Cups and a Presidents' Trophy over the next three years.
Trading two of the best -- and most popular players -- on the team, including the best player the franchise has ever seen, was a devastating blow for the Whalers both on and off the ice.
The Chris Pronger experience: Chris Pronger, one of the best defensemen of his era, started his career with the Whalers after being the No. 2 overall pick in the 1993 draft. He played just two seasons in Hartford before being traded to the St. Louis Blues, where he would become a superstar, for future Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan. Shanahan excelled during his brief time with the Whalers, scoring 44 goals to go wih 34 assists in 74 games during the 1995-96 season. However, given the team's uncertain future, and that he didn't want to play for a small market club, Shanahan asked for a trade and was granted that wish two games into the 1996-97 season. He was dealt to Detroit for Keith Primeau, Paul Coffey, and Detroit's first-round draft pick. Primeau stayed with the organization through its move to Carolina before being traded for Rod Brind'amour. Coffey played 20 games with the Whalers before he was traded to Philadelphia for Kevin Haller and a first-round draft pick.
What happened to them? Playing in the NHL's smallest market and in the NHL's smallest arena with some of the worst attendance in the league proved to be a strugle.
Two years after purchasing the team in 1994, both of which saw the team struggle at the box office, owner Peter Karmanos said indicated that if the team did not sell 11,000 season ticket packages (a number the team never achieved during its time in Hartford) the team would consider moving. The Whalers stayed in Hartford through the 1996-97 season, but after failing to reach an agreement on a new arena with the government the team moved to Carolina where the franchise still exists today as the Hurricanes.
Francis eventually returned to the franchise in Carolina and played three more years with the team.
After nearly two decades of lackluster performance on the ice in Hartford, the Hurricanes made two appearances in the Stanley Cup Final and actually won the cup during the 2005-06 season, knocking off the Edmonton Oilers in seven games. The team returned to the Eastern Conference Final in 2008 only to be swept by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
The last active link in the NHL: Jean-Sebastien Giguere, currently playing for the Colorado Avalanche, is the last player still active in the NHL to have appeared in the game for the Whalers. He was Hartford's first-round pick (No. 13 overall) in the 1995 draft. Giguere appeared in eight games for the Whalers during the 1996-97 season. He was traded, along with Andrew Cassels, for Gary Roberts and Trevor Kidd in August of 1997.
Craig Adams, currently a fourth-liner for the Pittsburgh Penguins, was drafted by the Whalers but never appeared in a game for the team in Hartford.
Will they ever return?: There's been a constant push to bring back the Whale ever since they left for Carolina, but given the arena situation, the way Hartford is sandwiched between major markets in New York (Rangers, Islanders, Devils) and Boston (Bruins), and the way the Whalers struggled attendance-wise during their first run through the league, the NHL's return to Hartford doesn't seem to be in the cards right now.
This is what they looked like in action: The last goal scored by the Hartford Whalers went to long-time captain Kevin Dineen.