By Andy Piascik
Major league hockey debuted in Hartford in 1975 with the arrival of the New England Whalers. During their time in Hartford, the Whalers featured one of the greatest players in hockey history in Gordie Howe, as well as two of his sons. The team played in Hartford for twenty-three years. Despite their unceremonious departure, their logo is still considered one of the best in all of sports and can be seen on tee-shirts, lawn flags, and bumper stickers around Connecticut to this day.
The World Hockey Association
The team began as the New England Whalers in 1972, playing in Boston as one of the original franchises of a new hockey league, the World Hockey Association (WHA). They featured more players born in the United States than any team in either the WHA or its rival, the National Hockey League (NHL). The Whalers won the WHA championship that first year.
The Whalers had difficulties with scheduling at Boston Garden, however, and with the Hartford Civic Center (now the XL Center) under construction, they agreed to move to Hartford in 1974. After playing the first part of the 1974-75 season in the Big E Coliseum in West Springfield, they played their inaugural game at the Civic Center on January 11, 1975 before a capacity crowd of over 15,000.
Gordie Howe Joins the Hartford Whalers
In 1977, the Whalers obtained “Mr. Hockey,” Gordie Howe, and his sons Mark and Marty from the Houston Aeros. Gordie, who turned 50 that season, led the Whalers in goals. He played three seasons in Hartford and wrote in his autobiography that he and his wife Colleen “liked Connecticut so much we stayed there for the next fifteen years.” Mark Howe, meanwhile, was a top-notch player with both the Whalers and the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Whalers had their best season in Hartford in the Howes’ first year as they advanced to the Avco Cup finals, where they lost to Winnipeg. For two years beginning in January 1978, the Whalers played home games at the Springfield Civic Center because of the collapse of the roof of the Hartford Civic Center. Fans who traveled the twenty-five miles from Hartford to Springfield during this time were known as the 91 Club, after Interstate 91 that connects the two cities.
In 1979, the WHA and NHL reached a merger agreement in which four WHA teams, including the Whalers, joined the NHL. The team changed its name from New England Whalers to Hartford Whalers and began wearing uniforms with the classic logo with the letters H and W and part of a whale’s body. The Hartford Civic Center re-opened on February 6, 1980, during that first NHL season.
The Whalers Leave Hartford
The Whalers had their best NHL seasons in the mid-1980s but were able to win only one playoff series. They regularly finished near the bottom in home attendance and an ownership group that took over in 1994 pushed hard for increased ticket sales and a new arena. In early 1997, owner Peter Karmanos announced he would move the team to North Carolina, where they have played ever since as the Carolina Hurricanes. The Whalers played their last game in Hartford on April 13, 1997.
Seven players who played for Hartford, including Gordie and Mark Howe, are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, as is general manager Emile Francis. Seven who played for Hartford are in the US Hockey Hall of Fame for US-born players. The uniform numbers of three Whalers – Gordie Howe, Rick Ley, and Johnny McKenzie — hang from the rafters at the XL Center.
Booster Club Carries On
The Hartford Whalers Booster Club still meets regularly to preserve the legacy of the team and to press for a return of NHL hockey to Hartford. In 2018, then Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy encouraged the Carolina Hurricanes to play some games at the XL Center. That has not yet happened but the Hurricanes have held several Whalers Nights at home games in which they wore the classic Whalers’ jerseys. Those games also featured appearances by Whalers’ alumni and one-time mascot Pucky the Whale.
Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is an award-winning author who has written for numerous publications and websites over the last four decades and is the author of several books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.