As NHL Ponders Expansion, a Group of Loyal Hartford Whalers Fans Hasn’t Stopped Believing

Members of the Hartford Whalers Booser Club march in the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Members of the Hartford Whalers Booser Club march in the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade.

It’s been 17 years since “Brass Bonanza’’, the iconic ditty the Hartford Whalers used as a theme song, echoed throughout the Civic Center. In 1997, the Whalers as we knew them ceased to exist, moving to North Carolina, where they were renamed the Hurricanes. Connecticut sports fans, used to playing second fiddle to fans of professional franchises in Boston and New York, were left without a pro team in the four major American sports leagues. Seattle basketball fans, Montreal baseball enthusiasts, and football lovers in Los Angeles know the feeling.

There’s a very small chance that the NHL will come back to Connecticut one day. Despite the odds, a Hartford-based group of Whalers diehards hasn’t given up hope, shooting for the return of an NHL team to a city that’s never been good at defining itself.

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Membership in the Hartford Whalers Booster Club, which peaked at over 1,000 in the 1980s, is down to 34, according to club president Joanne Cortesa. That there is still a booster club at all is somewhat miraculous. The Montreal Canadiens, Calgary Flames, and Ottawa Senators — all viable NHL franchises — lack official booster clubs.

The annual membership fee for the Hartford Whalers Booster Club is $10. The club holds monthly dinner meetings, hosts Whalers alumni appearances, and puts on trips where members travel together to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and New Jersey to attend games as a group.

For lifelong Connecticut resident and booster club VP Joe Wysocki, 50, the pain that was inflicted when the Whalers moved still feels fresh.

“I felt frustration, disbelief. I basically gave up on hockey for all intents and purposes,’’ Wysocki said.

For the Bradley Airport employee, the club represented a way to get back into the sport. Wysocki said he thought the club had folded when the team left, but to his surprise, he discovered that they were still active a decade ago, and he has been a member ever since.

Part of what drew Wysocki in was the work the Booster Club does to better the community. He pointed to an annual scholarship awarded to a high school senior who plans to play hockey in college. They also organize events for Whalers fans, including autograph signings and an annual “Fanniversary’’ — a gathering marking the anniversary of the final Whalers game in 1997. The club marches in parades and makes appearances at sporting events around the state.

Club members show their pride during a parade.
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While the group is very active in its current state, it is understood that the ultimate goal is to bring a team back to town. Everyone involved with the effort has their own motivations. Wysocki remains optimistic this will happen.

“One of our members was a Whalers fan when he was younger,’’ Wysocki said, “and one of his sons just started playing youth hockey. The father wants the team to come back so his son has a team to root for.’’

Other members of the group are less optimistic about the return of an NHL team but are trying to make the best of the situation. When the Whalers left in 1997, the New York Rangers moved their AHL affiliate to Hartford and renamed it the Hartford Wolf Pack. For Jerry Carroon, a retired Episcopal Priest who ran the Booster Club in the 1980s and remains heavily involved, a commitment to whatever team is in town is critical.

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“I told the club, ‘It’s like a player being traded. You’re traded, therefore you go to the franchise that you are traded to,’’’ Carroon said. “That’s exactly what happened with us in the case of the Whalers and the Rangers. The Rangers wanted us and they moved their AHL franchise here.’’

“The Whalers were in North Carolina, so you go with the team that’s here. A lot of people didn’t agree with me but a lot did, and I stayed with the Whalers Booster Club through it all.’’

Carroon, 77, played for the International Hockey League’s Indianapolis Chiefs and Milwaukee Falcons in the 1960s. He moved to Hartford in 1981 and has supported the team ever since. However, he is still frustrated with the circumstances that led to the Whalers’ departure.

“(Whalers owner Peter) Karmanos told us that if we could sell 12,000 season tickets he wouldn’t move the team, but he did anyway,’’ Carroon said. “That was the end of the whole show as far as people were concerned.’’

A sign from the 1996-97 season, urging team owner Peter Karmanos to keep the team in Hartford.
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The World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers (as they were originally known) first moved to Hartford from Boston in 1974. They were admitted to the NHL in 1979, when the two leagues merged. Despite all of the heartache, Carroon has fond memories of the Whalers, from playing with Gordie Howe in the Whalers alumni game, to the team’s sweep of Quebec in the 1985-86 playoffs. But there is one story that sticks out above all others.

“I was driving on a very snowy day when it was announced on WTIC that Mark Johnson had been traded to the St. Louis Blues for Mike Liut. I almost drove into a ditch.’’

A few days later, Carroon ran into Emile Francis, the team’s general manager, and had a unique conversation.

“He was walking around the concourse and he spotted me, and you could see in his face, ‘Here comes the president of the booster club, he is going to dump on me.’ I said, ‘Mr. Francis, that trade you made, it is the best thing you could possibly have done.’ He looked like he was about to faint out of relief.’’

Wysocki and company’s mission is to create more memories for the people of Hartford, and he believes the club is making progress. A recent online petition collected 3,000 signatures, and the club works closely with the Connecticut government on bringing a team to the newly renovated XL Center. While cities like Las Vegas, Seattle, and Quebec are mentioned more often than Hartford as potential expansion locations, he is insistent that the NHL is taking notice.

“We had a fan reunion in 2010 when former Whalers players signed autographs and everyone got together, and that day 5,000 people showed up,’’ Wysocki said. “I did notice some NHL representatives there. We’re somewhat on their radar. I think eventually Hartford will come up, whether it’s an expansion team or a relocation.’’

The NHL did not respond to requests for comment about the potential of moving a team to Hartford.

When goalie Jean Sebastian-Giguere retired prior to this season, it marked the first time that no former Whalers were active in the NHL. This represented a milestone in the fight to bring the Whalers back. It has been 17 years since NHL hockey was played in Hartford, but for those who love the sport, they will not give up until the league returns.

“We want to see professional hockey in Hartford. Whether it’s the Whalers or they’ll be called by another name, we want to see the NHL back in Hartford,’’ Wysocki said.

Until that happens, the club continues to meet and trade great stories about the likes of Ron Francis and Kevin Dineen, or Joel Quenneville, or Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe. The people of Hartford love hockey, and no matter what, the memories that the Whalers left will span generations.

“I’ve made a lot of good friends,’’ Wysocki said. “We rehash old memories and talk about what’s going on in the NHL today. We keep a positive outlook, keep our heads up, and hope that a team comes here. We’re working for it.’’

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