Although it has been 22 years since they last took the ice, fans of the Hartford Whalers are keeping memories of the team alive.
The NHL’s Whalers played their final game in Hartford in April 1997, before the franchise relocated to North Carolina–first to Greensboro, then to its permanent home in Raleigh in 1999–to become the Carolina Hurricanes. Although Hartford has not been able to attract another NHL franchise, it has been apparent over the years since their departure that the Whalers are still fondly remembered–and celebrated–by the team’s fans.
A Hartford Whalers Booster Club remains active, and Whalers merchandise has been a popular item for many fans. With fans of the team and former players such Bob Crawford having fond memories of Whalers, it has helped bolster the legacy of Hartford’s NHL years and even stoked hopes for some of a possible return of the NHL in the future. More from the AP:
“There is still a smile when people say Hartford Whalers,” said Crawford, who played for the team from 1983-86, still calls Connecticut home and owns several rinks in the state. “People who come here feel that warmth. It’s a special place and they love their Whalers, even now. You still see the colors everywhere.”
The fans also still hold out hope for the NHL’s return. Between beers and glances at the big screen, the talk Thursday night, as it often is when Whalers fans gather, is how to make that happen. Two years ago, hopes were raised as the New York Islanders scrambled to find a new home — the governor even reached out to the NHL — but the team wound up settling on a new location near Belmont Park.
Club President Joanne Cortesa said she believes an NHL return is just a pipe dream, “at least while (Gary) Bettman is commissioner.”
Others, like Matthew Greene, 41, are more hopeful. If the state would agree to rebuild or renovate the aging XL Center, the 15,000-seat arena where the Whalers once played and the city promotes the Interstate 91 corridor between New Haven, Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts, as a viable market, well, there’s a path, he said.
It would take a lot for the NHL to return to Hartford, with future facility plans among the areas that would have be settled. The Whalers’ former downtown Hartford home–now known as XL Center–remains active today for the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack, UConn athletics, and other events, but its aging condition has created plenty of unresolved debate among local and state officials about whether to pursue a major renovation. It is apparent, however, that nostalgia for the Whalers runs high, and that the team’s fans are intent on celebrating its legacy.