The Brass Bonanza played. Kevin Dineen, Ron Francis and the little ball of hate that was Pat Verbeek made life miserable for opponents. Even Gordie Howe lent the team some pedigree during its days in the World Hockey Association and first years in the NHL.
Life was good for hockey fans in Hartford, until a guy named Peter Karmanos came into town in 1994, bought the Whalers, traded stud prospect Chris Pronger for a disgruntled Brendan Shanahan and started grousing about the lack of corporate support and the constraints of the Hartford Civic Center. Karmanos threatened to move the team if he didn't get 11,000 season ticket holders and a new arena. Despite a swell of fan support for the "Save The Whale" ticket buying campaign and negotiations for a new $150 million facility, Karmanos announced in 1997 that he planned to move the team to North Carolina.
The Carolina Hurricanes played two seasons in Greensboro before settling down in Raleigh. To add further insult, the Hurricanes made the franchise's first Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 2002 -- a loss to the Detroit Red Wings -- and won the cup in 2006. The team's last first-round draft pick -- goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere -- would go on to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Stanley Cup Finals' most valuable player in 2003 with the Anaheim Ducks before winning the cup with them in 2007.
The question that's still asked years later is simply this: Did it have to happen? After finance companies and banks spent much of the past decade turning Stamford into a glistening sea of money-stuffed offices by the Long Island Sound, it's somewhat tough to believe corporate support wasn't anywhere to be found in the state. As for Hartford's merits as a market, Nielsen ranks the combined Hartford and New Haven market
30th in the U.S.
, with nearly 1 million viewing households. That's smaller than the 1.15 million TV homes in Raleigh, but roughly the same size as the NHL's market in Nashville (1.01 million) and bigger than its markets in Columbus, Ohio (930,000) and Buffalo (632,000). It's also bigger than NBA TV markets in Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis and New Orleans and NFL markets in Buffalo and Jacksonville.
Oh, and when it comes to towns trying to land an NHL or NBA franchise of their own, Hartford draws a bigger television audience than either Kansas City or Las Vegas. While the New York Rangers' minor league team, the Hartford Wolfpack, jumped into the void when the Whalers left in the Civic Center, even the Wolfpack's efforts to retire the numbers of former Whalers including Dineen and its recently ended stint as the Connecticut Whale aren't enough to heal Hartford's wounds. So long as the Whalers' goal horn blows in Raleigh and the NHL sidesteps Hartford, the hurt can't be undone.