Whalers, gone nearly two decades, still cherished in Hartford

ByPaul Lukas ESPN logo
Thursday, September 1, 2016

With the Rams rebooting in Los Angeles, ESPN.com presents a series exploring the remnants departed teams have left behind in the cities they abandoned.

John O'Leary, a 38-year-old teacher and lacrosse coach who's lived most of his life in central Connecticut, has a collection of Hartford Whalers neckties. "I got them at estate sales and on eBay," he said. "I wear them to every function I go to, and people always notice them and comment about them."

And the ties are just the start. O'Leary, who was born into a Whalers family (his uncle had season tickets), has a large collection of Whalers ticket stubs, T-shirts, photos and more -- all for a team that left town in 1997. Or to put it another way, the Whalers were in Hartford for the first 19 years of O'Leary's life, and they've been gone for the subsequent 19 years. The tipping point is close at hand.

The Whalers franchise now operates about 600 miles to the south as the Carolina Hurricanes. But O'Leary doesn't follow the team in its current incarnation because he's still devoted to the original incarnation. "I'm as passionate about them now as I ever was," he said.

He's not the only one. It turns out that the Whalers still have a surprisingly large following in Hartford. People wear Whalers jerseys and other apparel (which has a large retail presence in the shops at Hartford's Bradley International Airport), the Whalers' banners still hang at the XL Center (at one point they were taken down during a facility renovation, but local outcry led to them being restored), autograph sessions with former Whalers continue to draw big crowds, and the team's booster club is still active, even though there's no team left for it to boost. Nearly two decades after the team moved away, it's not a stretch to say the Whalers are still part of the fabric of Hartford life -- and for some people, a big part.

One of those people is Joanne Cortesa, the booster club's current president. Like many Whalers fans, Cortesa can get sad or angry when discussing the team -- she talks wistfully of wearing a black armband on her Whalers jersey for the team's final game in 1997, and you can almost feel her blood pressure spike at the mere mention of franchise owner Peter Karmanos, who moved the team to Carolina -- but for the most part she accentuates the positive, finding creative ways to support a team that no longer exists.

"We have a mix of people in the booster club," Cortesa said. "You have some older fans who went to games years ago and also younger people. We even have some who are 10, 12, 15 years old."

The membership rolls are pretty small these days -- about 45 people -- but the club still awards an annual $1,000 scholarship to a Connecticut student going to a four-year college to play hockey, and there are also various outings and field trips. In January the club filled a bus and went down to New Jersey to catch aNew Jersey Devils-Dallas Starsgame. Why that game? "Because Daryl Reaugh, who's an ex-goaltender for the Whalers, he does the color commentary for the Stars, so we got to meet up with him," Cortesa explained.

This type of extended fandom by proxy is common for Whalers devotees, who seem to know where every former Whaler now coaches, broadcasts, lives or goes out for dinner. The enduring love affair is not just with the team, but with the players themselves. "Most of them had the best years of their careers here," Cortesa said. "A lot of them met their wives and got married here. A lot of them still live here in Connecticut."

At least two other factors appear to have been instrumental in keeping the Whalers in the public eye. The first is their logo, which is widely considered to be one of the best in NHL history. The team's merchandise continues to sell, and reader response to a ESPN.com Uni Watch story about the logo's designer, Peter Good, was overwhelming.

Then there's "Brass Bonanza," the team's earworm of a fight song, which is arguably as iconic as the logo. Much like the classic soundtrack music used by NFL Films, "Brass Bonanza" is the sound of highlights, the sound of action, the sound of sports:

Just as the Whalers logo and colors have been kept alive via retail jerseys, "Brass Bonanza" is still in active use in Hartford, where the UConn hockey team plays it after each goal.

That's the thing about the Whalers and the culture surrounding them: Nearly 20 years on, many fans simply refuse to accept that the team is gone. And a bunch of them are still holding out hope -- still holding out belief -- that the Whalers will one day return.

"We always march in Hartford's St. Patrick's Day parade," said Cortesa, referring to the booster club. "And every time we hear people chanting, 'Bring 'em back, bring 'em back!' Every place we go, it's 'Bring 'em back!'"

Could that really happen? Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin tries to be diplomatic. "It's probably not going to happen next week or next month," he said. "But we'd certainly welcome having the NHL return to Hartford." Left unspoken is the reality that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has shown no appetite for bringing the league back to the city.

Still, Cortesa does what she can to keep the flame alive. "Anytime I see someone wearing Whalers gear, I'll approach them and say, 'Hey, I like your jersey' or 'I like your hat,'" she said. "I want to give them that, uh, you know ..."

Positive reinforcement?

"Yes, exactly. We have to stay positive. And we will."

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