Hartford Whalers fan fest brings back memories, raises questions

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ronfrancishfd-getty-bennett.jpgThere was a heaping dose of hockey nostalgia this weekend surrounding a team that hasn’t been in the NHL since 1997. For the fans of what once were the Hartford Whalers this weekend provided a time to come together to celebrate not just the past glory of the Whalers but also to praise one of their own for winning the Stanley Cup this year. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is a former Whalers defenseman.

It also provided the opportunity for the fans in Hartford to show that they want the NHL to make a miraculous return to the city and resurrect the Whale as Jeff Jacobs of The Hartford Courant shares.

“It’s a first step and as a first step, my God, I can’t get over how great it was,” Howard Baldwin said. “The joy in people’s faces, the joy of being involved in something like this, it was a chance for people to express themselves. And that expression just grew and grew.”

Baldwin had said he would consider 1,500 a good showing. Privately, he hoped for upward of 3,000. He got 4,700. This wasn’t a final election, but it was a primary, an early referendum on whether folks believed Baldwin ought to keep pushing to rebuild the hockey marketplace, to keep alive the dream to one day bring the NHL back.

Consider the message sent.

Even if 15,000 had shown up nobody was going to drive up to the Rent and hand-deliver an NHL franchise to Connecticut. That’s a long way off. So many obstacles remain. Yet if 200 folks showed, you may as well have counted out Hartford on the spot.

“You know me better than to think I would have quit,” Baldwin insisted, “but I would have gone home and sulked.”

Instead, Baldwin has to feel empowered to keep building, to keep moving ahead. The NHL has to wake up this morning and, at the very least, say, “This is no joke.”

If you’re not familiar with who Howard Baldwin is, he’s the former owner of the Hartford Whalers and his love of the franchise has not waned. Holding a convention for fans that managed to break out former Whalers stars like Ron Francis, Kevin Dineen, Larry Pleau and Dana Murzyn shows that you mean business when paying respects to the team and to the fans. Whether it means you’re serious about trying to get the NHL back to Connecticut is another question entirely.

The nostalgia for the Whalers is palpable amongst fans everywhere. The logo is iconic, their hapless ways made them endearing and the only fans that ever seemed to hate the Whalers are Bruins fans. Take that for what you think it’s worth. Waxing poetic for the days of Pat Verbeek, Mike Liut, Ray Ferraro and Sylvain Turgeon makes it seem like the Whalers were a big time team. Even getting name-dropped in Kevin Smith’s movie “Mallrats” helps pile on the reflective love for the Whale. Make no mistake about it, I love the Whalers, their history and everything about them… But Hartford doesn’t deserve

Fact of the matter is, the Whalers were a mediocre team and the fans in Hartford had a hard time packing the place out game in and game out. We’d all love to see the Whalers come back somehow, someway but unless that somehow magically transforms Hartford back into a city worth having an NHL team, Hartford is going to have to be content with being one of the larger AHL markets.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Busy Blackhawks bring back Pokka, reportedly let Rasmussen walk

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A busy off-season for the Chicago Blackhawks continued with some smaller moves that may still surprise some.

The eyebrow-raiser, at least in some quarters, came when the Blackhawks decided not to hand Dennis Rasmussen a qualifying offer, thus allowing the 26-year-old forward to hit free agency. That news comes from The Athletic’s Scott Powers.

Rasmussen played in 68 games last season (along with three playoff contests), receiving almost 12 minutes of ice time per night. Both were examples of him seeing more of a role in his second year with Chicago.

Still, he didn’t put up big numbers at either the AHL or NHL level, so apparently the Blackhawks decided to spring him free. The Chicago Sun-Times’ Mark Lazerus reports that the team might have soured on Rasmussen after he rejected an offer for a contract extension back in March.

Powers also notes that Ville Pokka was signed to a one-year deal, opening the door for him to possibly make Chicago’s roster.

These developments aren’t likely to add to what’s already been a frustrating off-season for Joel Quenneville in particular, but this still lines up with a pattern of changes. In the latest edition of “30 Thoughts,” Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman shares some details of Coach Q’s irritation:

21. Joel Quenneville was at the draft Saturday after not appearing on Friday. He stormed out of a coach’s meeting — in full view of reporters — as news broke of the Chicago trades. It would have been very tough for him to lose Hjalmarsson, one of the NHL’s underappreciated great players.

Quenneville’s cage was already rattled by the firing of assistant Mike Kitchen, so here’s hoping he at least signed off on these latest moves.

Report: Red Wings grant Coyotes permission to interview Todd Nelson

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There’s some activity as far as the Arizona Coyotes’ coaching situation goes, and soon there may be some answers.

As noted during the weekend, the Coyotes were interested in speaking with Todd Nelson, who most recently coached the Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit Red Wings’ AHL affiliate) to a Calder Cup victory. The Red Wings granted Arizona permission to interview Nelson, according to the Detroit Free Press’ Helene St. James.

(Red Wings fans are greeting this news with despair.)

It’s not the only noteworthy development, either, as the Arizona Republic’s Sarah McLellan reports that the Coyotes parted ways with associate coach Jim Playfair today. (The Coyotes confirmed the news moments after this post went up.)

This is a time of change for this organization, and some are bristling at the way they’re handling things. Still, there’s also an argument that the team is ultimately making wise choices, and Nelson could end up being a big part of that.

Assuming they convince him to come on board, of course.

Gryba sticks with Edmonton on two-year, $1.8 million deal

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After spending the last two seasons with the Oilers, Eric Gryba has signed on for two more.

Gryba, the veteran blueliner that was set to go unrestricted on Saturday, has signed a two-year, $1.8 million extension with Edmonton, per TSN. The deal comes after the 29-year-old appeared in 40 games for the Oilers last year, and three during the club’s playoff run.

Gryba is the second UFA blueliner Edmonton has re-upped with, having previously inked Kris Russell to a four-year, $16 million pact. It’s the byproduct of available cap space GM Peter Chiarelli created by shipping out Jordan Eberle to the Islanders in exchange for Ryan Strome.

It’s likely Gryba will continue to play his existing role in Edmonton — a physical, hard-nosed depth defenseman that won’t play every night, but can jump into the lineup in case of injury or when the Oilers face a particular matchup.

This move also gives the Oilers seven defensemen under contract for next season: Gryba, Russell, Andrej Sekera (who could miss extensive time with a torn ACL), Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Matthew Benning and Darnell Nurse.

So, perhaps Chiarelli isn’t done signing blueliners.

 

 

Report: Kings in contact with Joe Thornton

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Yesterday, TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported 12 teams were in contact with San Jose’s Joe Thorton who, on Saturday, will become an unrestricted free agent.

Now, it’s been revealed that one of those teams is also one of San Jose’s biggest rivals — the Los Angeles Kings.

Per LA Kings Insider, the Kings have “been in contact” with Thornton, who just wrapped the last of a three-year, $20.25 million deal with a $6.75M average annual cap hit.

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On top of Thornton’s abilities are his relationships with key figures in Los Angeles’ front office. He played with Kings General Manager Rob Blake in San Jose, while Senior Advisor to the General Manager/Development Mike O’Connell was Thornton’s general manager when he played in Boston.

On top of these relationships, Thornton also remains very close with Glen Murray, a figure in Los Angeles’ player development, and I’m told the two, who played together with the Bruins for three and a half seasons, regularly communicate.

LeBrun reported that staying with the Sharks remains Thornton’s No. 1 option, but it’s pretty clear interest in him is sky-high — and coming from a number of different places.

Los Angeles has been making moves to clear cap space, recently buying out the remainder of defenseman Matt Greene’s contract. The Kings also lost blueliner Brayden McNabb to Vegas at the expansion draft.

What happens with Marian Gaborik‘s $4.875M cap hit remains to be seen. The veteran winger underwent an offseason procedure for a “chronic” knee issue and, depending on his recovery, could open the year on long-term injured reserve.

Thornton would give L.A. a formidable one-two punch at center along with Anze Kopitar (and a truly formidable 1-2-3 punch with Kopitar and Jeff Carter, for that matter). It’s also worth noting that as he’s gotten longer in the tooth, Thornton has successfully platooned as a winger — most notably during San Jose’s Stanley Cup run in 2016.