April 1997 -- Jeff Jacobs -- Hartford Courant
My, oh my, isn't this tidy?
The day in 1994 when Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. brought CompuPhony into our lives, he swore Peter Karmanos and Jim Rutherford were "real good at hockey" and had deep pockets.
On the day when CompuPhony told us they were leaving with the state's only major sports franchise on its floppy disk, who could have guessed Weicker had already joined the CompuPhony board of directors months ago?
My, oh my, isn't this tidy?
Hollywood Howard Baldwin, the godfather of Whalers hockey and maker of B movies, is a longtime friend of Weicker. Heck, Weicker's son Gray, a goalie, once tried out for Baldwin's Whalers. Unfortunately, the small matter of being able to stop the puck stood in the way of Gray being another Mike Liut.
Baldwin, meanwhile, already is well down the AHL path on his white horse in another Quixotic quest to save downtown Hartford. The man who brought big-time hockey to Connecticut is now bringing small-time hockey to Hartford. Hey, we live in an era of corporate downsizing.
Gov. John G. Rowland staged one press conference Wednesday.
Karmanos staged another.
For some reason, they needed two funerals to bury the same body. Negotiations to build a $147.5 million arena had fallen apart and the Whalers will leave Hartford. All those who hate lemon socialism will be thrilled that Karmanos agreed to put $20.5 million back into the Connecticut Development Authority coffers to escape this minor league rat trap.
Both spoke with as little passion as the Whalers have played with in the past three months.
All those who love hockey? You're nothing but a bunch of hot-headed, sentimental fools. All those who love downtown Hartford? Don't worry. We've still got the Blizzard and wherever an underaged Oksana drinks.
Rowland's appearance was almost breezy. You would have thought he was talking about installing parking meters on Broad Street. He flashed a bunch of numbers, bragged about what a great deal he had offered and lamented how former owner Richard Gordon had cost the state $60 million and made off like a bandit.
Everybody had a good laugh at Karmanos' outrageous moves.
The Whalers would not agree to any long-term lease.
The Whalers were demanding the entire $45 million - at a minimum - they projected to lose during the three years it would take to build a new arena.
"An impossibility," Rowland said.
The Whalers wanted the facility rent-free.
The Whalers wanted no surcharge or taxes on tickets or suites.
The Whalers wanted all the suites sold by May 1.
The Whalers wanted season tickets to reach 13,000 by May 1.
Ha. Ha. The Golden Greek and his little pony-tail are hilarious.
After Rowland had finished, 40 well-dressed hangers-on stood and cheered. They did everything except carry Lt. Gov. Jodi Rell on their shoulders and chant, "No more hockey!"
Yup. On the saddest day in Hartford sports history, they stood and cheered. It was disgusting.
The fact that Karmanos would later refute some of Rowland's claims didn't matter. The fact that Karmanos said the Whalers offered to absorb the losses next year and sign a 10- year lease with an option for 20 didn't matter.
All that mattered was that Karmanos had his wish. He made NHL history. He turned an entire franchise into a free agent.
Not to be outdone by the Republicans, Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin B. Sullivan issued a statement, praising the governor's efforts. Who could have guessed it would take a sports team to leave town for the Democrats and Republicans to stage a freakin' love-in.
"We have a lot of work to do and I, for one, am ready to roll up my sleeves and get down to the business of building a brighter future for the City of Hartford," Sullivan said. "I don't want a long wake over this."
"Roll up his sleeves?" said my good friend Randy Smith of the Manchester Journal Inquirer. "He ought to roll up the streets."
And they will, Randy, at 6 o'clock every night for eternity.
Nobody had the guts to stand up and say, "I'm sorry. We failed. We let Whalers fans down."
Karmanos, who has no problem boiling himself into a froth when the spirit sways him, was about as wired as a CompuPhony nerd on decaf. The fat cat had swallowed the hockey canary and wasn't telling anybody from under what manhole cover he'd pop out in Columbus, Nashville or St. Paul. With a bunch of expansion cities drooling for a franchise, he'll make out like the last bandit who owned the Whalers.
I couldn't be more honest when I say I don't give a flyin' CompuPhony where the Whalers go.
"We anticipated this all would happen," said Michael Largue, part of the group that had bid on the Whalers against CompuPhony in 1994. "We made an offer to stay for seven years minimum. We were willing to pay more money for the franchise. Silly us.
"I knew Lowell Weicker was a big political wheel, but I didn't know he was a computer expert, too. Maybe if he had spent more time on the sale of the Whalers and less time on his PC, the Whalers wouldn't be moving today."
Karmanos kept repeating that, hey, it's nobody's fault. The market's too small. Not enough fans. Not enough corporations. Not enough TV revenue.
The man who made $250 million on his CompuPhony stock alone last year droned on about the $91 million he sank into the team. The man who said he only wanted a chance to break even was consumed by numbers.
And this was his bottom line: Sorry, Hartford, you're minor league.
"I think if you ask Mr. Karmanos if he was the state would he accept his deal, I'd bet he'd say no," Rowland said.
"I don't believe that government should subsidize pro teams," Karmanos answered.
But, hey, as long as Columbus, Nashville or even Hartford are foolish enough to build Karmanos an arena, who is he to turn it down? Is there anything more disgusting than a supply-side multi-millionaire accepting handouts and being coy about it?
Karmanos kept saying nobody's to blame.
The NHL and Gary Bettman are to be blamed.
Ownership cheated players out of money for decades and did a horrendous job of marketing the sport. And when some of the brotherhood, such as the St. Louis Blues began spending like idiots, the league failed to control its payrolls. Although the NHL grew under Bettman, it never did nail down the big-time national TV contract to save the small markets.
Thanks for showing up in Hartford Wednesday, Mr. Commish. Word is he was so ecstatic about the Whalers folding that the little guy jumped up, hit the underside of his desk and was rushed to the emergency room.
The NHLPA is to be blamed. A cadre of top-level players - Paul Coffey, Brendan Shanahan and some other big-time blowhards - turned Hartford into Siberia. The union roots for big markets. Huzzah for you, Bob Goodenow.
Rowland is to be blamed. He lacked creativity. He didn't get bloody enough. He knew the political fallout around the state wasn't severe enough to battle to the end. So he didn't. We expected so little of him that when he did respond, many overrated his performance.
Why didn't he find alternative methods to help pay for the losses during the three years the arena is being built? The Pequots? The Mohegans? Could he have used bonds to cover the immediate losses, too? What about the corporations?
Deep in his gut, perhaps Rowland felt Karmanos would keep moving the bar. Quicksilver. Answer one problem. Find another.
We must reserve our wrath for CompuPhony.
The NHL didn't like Karmanos when he refused to pay the $50 million expansion fee for Tampa Bay several years ago. He knew exactly what he was doing in 1994. He grabbed what he correctly perceived as a lame-duck franchise, got a sweetheart arrangement from his future employee and bade time.
The NHL let Hartford rot on the vine.
Wonderboy Jim Rutherford and Doogie Howser coach Paul Maurice failed to resuscitate the franchise Gordon had destroyed.
All that was left between Karmanos and a new city was a semi-reluctant Rowland. Karmanos blew Rowland away Tuesday with one flat rejection. It was like Mario Lemieux blowing away a pylon like Gerald Diduck. Easy.
Mayor Mike Peters said he'd probably hit Karmanos on the back of the head if he walked by. "I'd be in jail," Peters said.
Watch out, Mayor Mike. Karmanos said he'd pull his offer of bringing CompuPhony jobs to town. "Depending on whether or not people wanted to beat me up every time they saw me here."
The Whalers died Wednesday. But listening to Rowland and Karmanos you wouldn't have known it.
There were no tears here.
Only real people cry.