Fifteen years later, the Whalers influence is still being felt

Banners honoring Whaler greats still hang in the arena of the XL Center, 15 years after the final Hartford Whaler game was played below.

The color is fading and the highlights on YouTube are a bit fuzzy and grainy. When you see your Hartford Whalers, they are a little wider and with more grey than you remembered. The heroes of our youth are aging with us.

They were young, energetic lads that skated at the Hartford Civic Center for the green, blue and white of the Hartford Whalers in the 1980s and 1990s. They didn’t win a lot – posting 15 losing seasons in 18 NHL campaigns. They won only one playoff series with a victory over the Quebec Nordiques in the spring of 1986 and one division championship banner in 1987. But they were our team.

It was 15 years ago this month that the Whalers played their final NHL game in a tearful final game at the Civic Center against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Kevin Dineen, currently the coach of the Florida Panthers, had the game-winning goal just 24 seconds into the third period of an emotional 2-1 Whaler win over the Lightning. There were tears welling up in my eyes as over 14,660 fans stood and roared over the last 3:34 of the game.

The fans cried. Kids cried. Long-time security guards cried. After the final horn, most fans refused to leave. They stood and cheered. And cheered. And cheered. They couldn’t bear to see it end. Players took their sticks and tossed them into the crowd. Some tossed their gloves. Many pucks were shared with the fans. The players finally left but they returned minus their uniforms for another wave. An hour after the game was complete, fans were gently being asked to leave the Coliseum. An estimated 500 fans gathered around the loading dock where the players would leave the Civic Center and cheered again when the players left the building.

“It is sad,” Whaler coach Paul Maurice said on that fateful Sunday afternoon 15 years ago. “The game was almost secondary to the ending of the Hartford Whalers. No, it wasn’t secondary. It was completely secondary.”

“It was a nothing game,” said Whaler forward Geoff Sanderson, discussing the game. “It meant nothing to us (in terms of a playoff berth). But it meant everything to our fans. So we put it into our minds to win it for the fans.”

“I never thought a final game could be so tough,” he said.

But it’s hard to root for a team that exists only in our memories and in fleeting YouTube highlights. While there are never any disappointing losses to fume over, there is nothing to cheer for. There are no games to go watch and no nervous nights with your stomach in knots watching your team battle for a victory.

I had to move on. I couldn’t root for the hated Boston Bruins, who treated the Whalers with little respect, like the little brother that could never get the upper hand. And their fans were worse with their arrogance and disrespect – at least in the mid 1980s. I was pleased for the long-suffering fans of the Rangers when they won the 1994 Stanley Cup after 50 years of futility with Connecticut’s own Brian Leech helping them get it done. But I couldn’t connect with them.

I found myself attracted to the red and black of the Chicago Blackhawks, coached by former Whaler Joel Quenneville. I was sold on the hard-working Hawks when a friend and I were able to scalp tickets to a Stanley Cup playoff game one May evening at the United Center against the Vancouver Canucks in 2009. He was a Canucks fan and wore his team’s jersey with pride. I enjoyed reveling with nearly 21,000 other Hawks fans as Chicago prevailed in OT. The energy was tremendous.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be searching the cable networks of NBC to find the Blackhawks and see if they can advance through the Stanley Cup playoffs. The games are in high definition and look fabulous on TV. I’ll be staying up late to see if Chicago and Quenneville can beat Phoenix, coached by another former Whaler, Dave Tippett. Quenneville and Tippett were part of those glorious Whaler teams in the mid-1980s.

Still, it’s always good to see that lone green shirt in a crowd – a Whaler fan refusing to let their team melt away into history. There was a fan with a green Whaler shirt on behind one of the goals during the memorable 2010 gold medal final in Vancouver between Canada and the U.S. that the Canadians won in overtime.

Fifteen years ago, the team left Hartford. But their influence continues to this day through former players sharing their knowledge of the game behind the bench, the passionate fans that continue to wear their green and white Whaler gear and the thundering melody of the Brass Bonanza – the Whalers anthem. It always brings a smile to my face.

Gerry deSimas, Jr., the editor, founder and publisher of Collinsville Press.com, has been covering sports in Connecticut since 1981.
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