The Hartford Whalers are no more, but that doesn’t stop Aaron Gordon from considering the team a part of his identity.
On April 13, 1997, I attended a funeral along with 15,000 other mourners.
We angry loved-ones screamed in the agony of our loss. This was our last chance to demonstrate our deep and passionate appreciation for what had already been declared dead. We cheered until the funeral concluded, and then we cried. We cried for the loss of a sports team.
That day, the Hartford Whalers played their final hockey game in the Hartford Civic Center after 17 years of competition. One day later, the franchise would pack up their belongings, load their equipment into moving vans, and leave the state of Connecticut without a professional sports team.
After the players slid off the ice—and the fans were bludgeoned with the distinct realization that no professional hockey would be played in Connecticut again—no one could leave. It was as if the doors to the arena had been locked from the outside; we were all trapped. Mentally, we were chained to the sticky cement floors that allowed us a vantage point of an empty ice. As long as we stayed, our team couldn’t possibly leave.
After about 20 minutes, the crowd thinned significantly. I don’t remember actually seeing anyone leave, but it was clear less people were in the arena. The crowd and team’s departure were both sudden and gradual, predictable and unforeseeable, impossible yet present. There would be no more Whalers.
Seven-year-olds cry for irrational reasons quite often, and I was no exception. The departure of my beloved Whalers was a sensible reason for a seven-year-old to cry, like a favorite toy being smashed. However, the thousands of adults who also wiped tears from their faces on April 13 were slightly more puzzling.
The Whalers were a consistently bad hockey team. They lost a majority of their games 14 out of their 17 years. They won a grand total of one playoff series. Any rivals the Whalers developed were purely geographical. The New York Rangers and Boston Bruins were their most hated adversaries, because their respective proximities to Hartford assured the Civic Center would be flooded with fans from the adjacent metropolises. Much like Hartford itself, the meager voices of Whalers fans would be engulfed in an ocean of New York or Boston vigor.
Any talented player the Whalers were lucky enough to acquire usually demanded a trade soon thereafter. They wanted larger markets where their talents would be showcased and a young, physically fit adult could lead a celebrity life. In 1996, the Whalers’ captain, Brendan Shanahan (who was acquired via trade for the team’s talented, young defenseman Chris Pronger) demanded a trade himself after spending the summer with other Canadian players in a world competition—where he was shown the glamour of a professional hockey player in the biggest hockey towns—and realizing he wanted everything Hartford was not. The Whalers obliged and traded him to Detroit in exchange for a first-round pick and a few lesser known players, like Keith Primeau, who became fan favorites for embracing Hartford.
The attendance at the Civic Center reflected the Whalers’ inability to retain star players. The team averaged roughly 10,000 fans per game—consistently among the lowest in the league—during their final four years. The Hartford Civic Center was a poor venue for hockey, parking in the state capital was a disaster, and no plans to remedy either situation were seriously put forth.
It would be deceitful to suggest that the Whalers were widely supported, or that hockey enjoyed a rosy tenure in Connecticut. Fourteen years after the move, it is clear Peter Karmanos made the right business decision in taking hockey from Hartford.
However, a very peculiar turn of events occurred after the April 14th departure: Some fans stayed loyal to the Whalers. You can visit the official Hartford Whaler Nation website, or go to monthly meet-ups for fans. The original owner of the Whalers, Howard Baldwin, returned to Hartford from Los Angeles for the sole purpose of making Connecticut professional again.
I am one of these peculiar fans. My room is adorned with Whalers memorabilia, complete with signed posters, jerseys, and limited edition collector’s items. A teddy bear wearing a Whalers sweater sits on my bookshelf and greets me every time I enter my room. The Whalers are as central to my room as my bed and desk.
All of my Whalers material was acquired when the team existed. Ironically, Whalers gear is even easier to purchase now than when the team played. The Whalers have enjoyed perhaps the strangest resurgence in sports. Reports conflict, but at some point over the last four years, the city of Hartford’s trademark over the logo expired, and the NHL started selling Whalers gear as part of their “vintage collection.” Since, the Whalers have consistently been in the top five of NHL franchise merchandise sales across the country without playing a single game.
I’ve watched this perplexing phenomenon with great interest. The Whalers couldn’t give away tickets when they existed. Now that they’ve vanished, so too has their merchandise from store shelves. Most of all, it’s largely new “fans” who are buying the merchandise; fans of the old team know the NHL gets a percentage of the sales. The image of Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the NHL, making money from the logo he put into permanent retirement, has made evident what was true all along: there is something horribly off-balance in the sports world.
Anyone who has ever lost a franchise knows there is more to the situation than sunk costs. There is a very palpable sense of loss when a franchise moves away, a sense of abandonment and loneliness.
Many fans attest such extreme loyalty to a sports team that they declare “love” for it. But, love for a sports franchise is drastically different than love for another living creature. When an individual loves another living being, it’s largely an emotion of reciprocation. We derive great joy from love largely due to the very fact it can be reciprocated. (I love my mom because of her unwavering love for me. I love my dog because my dog shows tremendous affection towards me.) Surely there is more than this, but reciprocation is a vital ingredient for love. It’s hard to imagine that love for another being can persist without reciprocation.
Anyone who believes their sports team loves them back is wrong. Teams are businesses. They require money to operate, and profits are their ultimate goal. Anything else a team does is a path towards profits. Likewise, winning is the easiest path to fan-base growth, and therefore higher profits. Fan support—to the point of deep-rooted devotion or even love— is the perennial path towards bottomless profits. Love is the ultimate business model.
There is absolutely no reciprocation of love in the sports world. Fans love their team, and the teams love the money the fans give them. Everyone involved blindly marches to this beat until an elephant walks across the parade. If fans stop loving the team in large enough numbers, suddenly the circular flow of the business model becomes compromised. Fans are faced with the blinding reality that their team has no preference whether they make profits in Hartford or Raleigh.
The hordes of crying adults on April 13, 1997 were the climax of this realization. Fans came to the Hartford Civic Center one last time to shout their love and drape themselves in their devotion, even in the face of impending desertion. Not a mumble was uttered from the team, not a note of reassurance was offered. They simply left.
The first question I usually encounter is the most obvious one: how can I be a fan of a team that no longer exists? There is a logical answer I usually offer. It is the same thought process as a fan for a team that actually exists. A fan wants their team to win. In order to win, a team must exist. So, I root for my team to exist.
This answer fails to fully explain why I am still a Whalers fan precisely because it is logical. There is no place in sports fandom for logic. At first I scorned Hartford, Gary Bettman, and hockey in general, and I became emotionally jaded regarding the realities of the sports world. I rejected hockey, but it wasn’t long before I returned with newfound hopes for change.
I dabbled in supporting existing teams like the Devils and the Capitals, but it was unsatisfactory. I love the game of hockey, but above all else, I love the Hartford Whalers. I love the crisp logo, the Brass Bonanza theme song, the decrepit Civic Center, and the horrible parking in downtown Hartford. I never loved the Whalers because they were good; a man cannot love a woman simply because she is attractive. Nor did I love them because they were popular, considering they were firmly rooted on the underbelly of the sports landscape. Just like any other sports fan, I love the Whalers because they are me.
If you are a serious sports fan, the teams you support are a significant part of your identity. Conversations quickly migrate to your teams. In the modern Internet age, we can spend more time than ever learning every bit of minutiae regarding our team’s benchwarmers. We often become completely engulfed in the details of sports. More than ever, the team you support is a reflection of you. Unlike the love fans give to their teams, the identity of teams and their fans are reciprocated.
Identity is the crux of my love for the Whalers. Despite their disrespect for the state I grew up in, the abandonment of their fans, and the realities of the sports business, the Whalers are still a part of my identity. I spent too many nights of my youth in the very same seat in the Civic Center to reject them. Those experiences coincided with my development and intellectual curiosity, and so they are a part of me. Even though the Whalers physically moved, emotionally they never left.
To return to the pressing question, I can love a team that doesn’t exist because, as counterintuitive as it seems, existence is hardly what makes us fans. We are fans because our selves begin to overlap with our teams. After a while, our identity becomes entrenched in our teams. Even if you take away our teams, the identity they instilled remains.
I recently moved to a new house, and needed to decide how much Whalers paraphernalia to bring. Should I replicate my childhood room with team posters and logos, or transition into adulthood and leave those memories behind? It was hardly a debate; I gathered as many Whalers items as I could fit in my car and moved them into my new home.
The posters don’t stay on the wall very well. Almost every day I have to pick the posters off my floor, dust them off, and smooth them over the wall with my hands, running my fingers over the integrated logo of the H and the whale’s tail. The tenuous position of my posters 14 years after the Whalers left is an apt metaphor for the team’s tenure in Hartford.
On a subconscious level, perhaps I’m preparing for the possibility the Whalers will magically return to Hartford. The recent return of hockey to Winnipeg—who lost the Jets the year before Hartford lost the Whalers—has many hoping the formula has been set for any city to get their team back. But Hartford is very different. Winnipeg has a new arena; Hartford does not, and has proven resistance to the idea of building one. Boston and New York have not moved, and still limit the breadth of Hartford’s influence. Merchandise sales do not translate to ticket sales or TV contracts. For most people, the Whalers are a fad, not a trend.
To some remaining Whalers fans—or fans of other lost franchises in general—this is a troubling realization to embrace. But once you accept a team’s importance lies in us, not on the ice, it creates a peaceful equilibrium. The Whalers may never play another game, but they don’t have to.