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)