Play that Song Again
April 7, 2005 --Nathan Conz -- Hartford Advocate

There was a song that still plays in the back of Hartford's collective subconscious. If you listen closely and in the right places you can still hear it. It is ever so faint, barely audible.

"Brass Bonanza," as it's titled, is the theme song of the now defunct Hartford Whalers hockey team. Whenever the Whalers first stepped onto their home ice, "Brass Bonanza" blasted over the Civic Center speakers. Whenever they scored a goal, "Brass Bonanza" played again. As the Whalers' all-time win-loss record attests, "Brass Bonanza" was not heard as much as fans would have liked.

After 1997, it wasn't heard at all. It was then that owner Peter Karmanos moved the team to the hockey-crazed state of North Carolina. The Hartford Whalers, Connecticut's last and only major professional sports team was no more.

Lately though, the volume of the familiar tune has been rising. It can be heard at Fenway Park, after the Red Sox win a big game. For every day of the National Hockey League work stoppage, an ESPN Radio show plays the tune for 30 seconds. And during Hartford's St. Patrick's Day parade, a few local high school bands stopped outside of Mayor Mike's Restaurant and Bar and played "Brass Bonanza."

As "Brass Bonanza" has re-emerged, so too have hopes of a Whalers return. On Wednesday, April 13, a rally will be held at Mayor Mike's in support of the National Hockey League's return to Hartford. Think it's never going to happen? Minnesota lost their NHL team (the North Stars) after the 1992-93 season. In their last five years, the North Stars averaged 754 fewer fans per game than the Whalers did in their last five years. However, less than a decade after the North Stars moved to Dallas, Minnesota was awarded an expansion franchise that began play in the 2000-2001 NHL season.

David Roth is wearing a dark blue Whalers hat, the brim bent up awkwardly in the front. His tie is the same color blue and it is polka dotted with Pucky, the cartoon whale that once adorned the sleeves of Whalers jerseys.

"It's 1970s vintage," Roth says of the tie. "It used to be my dad's."

According to Roth, "Brass Bonanza" will be played "about 500 times" at the upcoming Whalers FANniversary, as the rally is called. Held on the eighth anniversary of the Whalers' last game, the rally is co-organized by the Hartford Whalers Booster Club. Yes, the Hartford Whalers still have an active booster club, even though there hasn't been an active team since 1997. And, there were a few seasons before '97 when the Whalers' play could have been described as "inactive."

The booster club has been holding a FANniversary event since 1998. The first was the idea of Brad Gilchrist, creator of the CT Fan comic strip that appeared in Whalers game programs and now can be seen Sundays in the Hartford Courant. He says the event came about "just to have a party to celebrate the fans and the friendships and everything else that we were missing besides just the hockey team."

But this year's FANniversary has taken a different tone -- less commiseration, more expectation. Recent events -- the NHL season cancellation chief among them -- has booster club members and other diehard Whalers fans hopeful for the Whale's return. This year's rally isn't a party celebrating what was, it's a rally supporting what could be.

"The goal of this rally is to show the people of Connecticut, to show the mayor, to show [former Whalers owner] Howard Baldwin, or any other person that wants to bring [major professional hockey] to Hartford, that Connecticut and Hartford are ready to get a team back," Roth says.

That's a tall order: to bring an NHL franchise to Hartford at a time when the NHL is in dire financial straits. Currently, the NHL owners and the players union are locked in a bitter collective bargaining dispute that has caused the 2004-2005 season to be cancelled. The upshot: the owners claim that player salaries cannot continue at their current levels. As the league expanded in the 1990s, to places like Miami and Phoenix, player salaries went up, revenues sagged, and smaller markets like Buffalo and Ottawa struggled to stay afloat. Many feel that a new collective bargaining agreement, when and if it is created, will contain significant changes to the way the NHL does business.

Marty Evtushek, vice president of the Hartford Whalers Booster Club, says the current NHL work stoppage only increases Hartford's viability as an NHL market.

"Under the new agreement they're going to have to sign, I'm sure it will be friendlier to a small-market community as opposed to what it is now," he says.

Both Roth and Evtushek say the man who represents Hartford's best chance to bring the NHL back is Howard Baldwin, who was among the first owners of the old Whalers. Baldwin has most recently been in the spotlight as the producer of Ray, the movie for which Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for Best Actor.

Reports of Baldwin's interest in bringing an NHL team back to Hartford have been just enough to get fans excited, but not enough for anyone to seriously expect the return of the Whalers. He's candid about his desire to put a team back in Hartford, but lacks any definitive plans. In a February 10 article in the Hartford Courant, Paul Doyle reported that Baldwin is interested in putting an NHL team back in Hartford, but that "the Connecticut Development Authority is cool to his overtures because he has no concrete plans to buy a franchise."

Still, Baldwin, the man who brought hockey to Hartford back in the 1970s, is the man most likely to bring hockey to Hartford in 2000s.

"As of now," Evtushek says, "I don't know anybody on the horizon that would do as much as Howard has to bring a team back."

The Whalers began as the New England Whalers in 1971, when the upstart World Hockey Association awarded a franchise to an ownership group that included Baldwin. The team played home games in the Boston Garden. In the first year of the WHA, the Whalers won the championship -- the franchise's only title.

The Whalers moved into the Hartford Civic Center in 1975, playing their home games there until the Civic Center roof collapsed, literally. In the early morning hours of Jan. 18, 1978, the arena's roof gave way to the snow and ice on top of it, forcing the Whalers to temporarily relocate to Springfield. Two years later, they returned to Hartford and a Civic Center with about 3,500 more seats. In 1979, the Whalers and three other WHA teams joined the NHL. The WHA folded soon after.

The Whalers' last two years in the WHA and first in the NHL are best remembered for the play of Gordie Howe, who the Whalers signed in 1977. His sons, Mark and Marty also played for the team. Howe, who began playing professional hockey in the late 1940s, is widely considered one of the best players of all time. In his three years with the Whalers (during which he celebrated his 50th birthday) Howe played in 214 games, with 68 goals and 112 assists for 180 points. Howe retired after the 1979-80 season and his number 9 jersey was retired by the team in 1981. Discounting one shift he skated in 1997 (a publicity stunt that made Howe the first player to play professionally in six different decades) for the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League, Howe's last professional game was in a Whalers uniform.

Although fans enjoyed watching stars like Ron Francis and Kevin Dineen, the Whalers' time in the NHL was not marked by success. In fact, from their entry into the league in 1979 until their last game in 1997, the Whalers only produced three winning seasons. Their best season was in 1986-87, when their 43-30-7 record was good for first place in the Adams Division. In that year, and the year that followed, the Whalers enjoyed their highest average home attendance numbers (over 14,000 per game both years).

The team was sold in 1988 and again in 1989. The Whalers finished the 1989-1990 season with a 38-33-9 record. It would be their last winning season in Hartford. The franchise would see their attendance drop throughout the early 1990s, reaching a low of 10,492 per game in 1993-94. In June of 1994, a group led by Karmanos purchased the team for $47.5 million. Over the next few years, attendance rose steadily but Karmanos' fondness for Hartford did not. In March of 1997, he announced plans to relocate the team. The Whalers drew 13,680 fans per game in their final season, their highest average in seven years. Still, it was the third-lowest average in the league.

Sure, the Whalers were not the most successful team on the ice. Winning seasons were few and far between. More established franchises, like the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins, soaked up a large part of the Northeast fan base. Yet what they lacked in numbers, they made up for in other ways.

Remember in the 1980s and early 1990s, UConn's basketball programs were just then bursting onto the national scene (both Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma started at UConn in 1985). The Whalers were it for Connecticut sports -- the only nationally recognizable program. Besides, to many of the most dedicated fans, following the team was about more than the on-ice product.

Gilchrist remembers why he started the first FANniversary party in 1998. "What I found that was really tough about losing the Whalers was all the friendships we'd built, all the people that would get together," he says.

Gilchrist also remembers friendships with players. His favorite was Adam Burt, a long-time Whaler. Gilchrist used to draw a team caricature to be auctioned for charity at the team's annual Casino Night. One year, the caricature sold at a particularly good price. Burt's wife, Susan, who really wanted the drawing, lost out on the piece during the auction.

"So I offered to do her another copy of it," Gilchrist says.

As a show of appreciation, Burt drove out to Gilchrist's house, not long after the Whalers had played their last game.

"He dropped off his jersey and signed it to me," Gilchrist recalls. "I've got it hanging above my drawing board, Adam Burt's jersey. It says: To Brad, never forget, Adam Burt."

Hartford didn't grow too small for the NHL, the NHL grew too big for Hartford, and eventually too big even for itself. So, now that the league is being urged by some to go back to basics -- back to smaller, more dependable, more traditional hockey markets -- why shouldn't Hartford be among the first places it looks?

So the Hartford Whalers Booster Club have begun a grassroots effort to bring the NHL back to Hartford. If you feel like helping, stop by Mayor Mike's for a beer or two on Wednesday, April 13. Because Wednesday nights come and go, but Hartford, "The Whale," they'll only get an NHL franchise once, maybe twice in a lifetime.