Of all the (many) NHL teams with split timelines, the Carolina Hurricanes could be the oddest. A usual trajectory for a team’s existence is to suck for a long time, move, suck while building, win the title and become popular, and get a lot of attention and fans who stay on for the long haul. The Hurricanes broke with that tradition. It seems that the trajectory with the Hurricanes was to be popular everywhere but hated by their owner, moved, resented for moving, go to the Final, get outright rejected by the new home, return to the Final and win it this time, then go on to a nondescript existence while being atrocious and hated by fans telling you constantly to go back to where you came from.
When I say no one likes these guys, I’m not kidding. The Hurricanes have a little over 260,000 subscribers on their Facebook page. The Nashville Predators, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Arizona Coyotes all have more than that! In the meantime, the old version of the Hurricanes is still a team that longtime NHL fans loved and miss to such a point that there are fan clubs for them, and recent rumors of a return. The Hurricanes used to be the Hartford Whalers, who weren’t good for a whole lot back in their day, but people liked them because they were a lovable group that was always capable of reminding people of just how much fun hockey could be. While they were bad, they were also a victim of their own circumstances.
The Whalers were formed in 1972. They were originally called the New England Whalers, based in Boston, and a member of the WHA, which is how they were allowed to get into the Boston Bruins’ market. And as they would often do, they began their lifespan in one of the loudest, most obnoxious ways possible: They went roundabout, raiding every NHL roster they could in search of players pissed off with the league’s unbending corporate will. That’s how they ended up with Tom Webster, Ted Green, Rick Ley, and Al Smith. To really announce themselves, they also seemingly made it a point to sign as many American players as they could. Timothy Sheehy, Tommy Williams, and Larry Pleau were all signed with that philosophy in mind. Former Boston University coach Jack Kelley was put at the helm. Webster led the Whalers in scoring as they stormed through the league and playoffs to beat the Winnipeg Jets in the Finals to win the Stan – no, nope, my mistake. The Stanley Cup was the NHL’s property. The Whalers got to hoist the Avco World Trophy, which was the WHA’s big prize.
You’d think that title would have endeared the Whalers to a few disillusioned fans of the Bruins, but that was one of the troubles the Whalers faced. While the Whalers were winning the Avco World Trophy, the Bruins were pretty good too. And by “pretty good,” I mean they were at the peak years of their Big Bad Bruins phase, which culminated in two Stanley Cups. The Bruins had memorable players like Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. What the Bruins didn’t have were any disillusioned fans; hell, they were at a phase when they were creating and courting a new fanbase which would endure for a few generations. You know what else the Bruins had? Boston Garden, where the Whalers were also trying to establish their home base. Neither team was especially keen on that arrangement. And since the Whalers were the new kid on the block, they fell behind schedule priorities to the Bruins… And the NBA’s Boston Celtics… And the Boston Braves of the minor league AHL. Yeah, team owner Howard Baldwin didn’t like where this was going, so he was the one who got going. He went to nearby Hartford, which had just opened a new, modern downtown arena and convention center.
That arena had been built by the city in the hopes of getting a team in the newly-established American Basketball Association, but that never went anywhere. So the city happily took the Whalers. And the Whalers returned the love. The first two years they spent in Hartford weren’t very good – they posted losing records in both years, but if you’re trying to create a hockey league to compete with the NHL, you need to copy your playoffs after the NHL. That meant the Whalers made the playoffs in both years! Indeed, during the remainder of the WHA years, the Whalers never missed the playoffs. In 1977, the Whalers caught one of the biggest whales they could catch – hockey legend Gordie Howe joined the team. To be clear here, we’re not talking about an in-his-prime Gordie Howe who led the Detroit Red Wings through a golden phase. Howe was well into his 40’s when he moved to the WHA. And during the 1978 season, he was 50. He also proved he had something left when he led the Whalers in scoring, and his sons Mark and Marty pulled their weight as well. With others like Ron Plumb and Dave Keon and the WHA’s best defense, the Whalers returned to the Finals that year, but lost. Nevertheless, when the WHA/NHL merger deal was hammered out, the Whalers had made their point. When the WHA folded in 1979, the Hartford Whalers – along with the Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets – were admitted to the NHL.
During the dispersal reclamations, only three players were taken away from the Whalers. That could only mean good news; after all, the WHA had proven itself every bit the NHL’s equal in talent. A lot of their players were ex-NHLers fed up with getting stiffed and being told to take it or leave it, so whenever the two leagues played exhibitions against each other, it was no shock that the WHA frequently left skate marks all over the NHL. And Hartford’s first season as an NHL team looked promising. The Whalers were led that year by a lot of their usual WHA regulars, and had added Andre Lacroix, who was the WHA’s all-time leading scorer. At the trade deadline, they managed to pick up Bobby Hull, one of the few NHL legends whose name you’re allowed to whisper in the same admiring sigh as Howe. They notched 73 points – the best of the four WHA teams – and made the playoffs, only to be promptly swept by the Montreal Canadiens.
While I said the Whalers spent that first season looking promising, that’s all it was – a look. Don’t forget, it was now the 80’s, and the Whalers were still fielding a lot of their core players from their founding. That means age, especially in the cases of Howe, Hull, and Lacroix, who all retired after the season. It was there that the Whalers started to develop the traits they would be known and loved for. In their NHL history, the Whalers recorded three winning seasons, went to the playoffs eight times, and earned the nickname “Forever .500’s.”
The Whalers started the decade by using a rebuilding method comprised of two major no-nos: Keeping the old guys and making a lot of bad trades. Star defenseman Mark Howe and scoring leader Mike Rogers were both traded for players and draft picks which didn’t go anywhere. Gordie Roberts was traded for Mike Fidler, which was a timely trade because Fidler had a good (sic) half-season left in his career while Roberts only (sic) enjoyed 15 more years and two Stanley Cups. By 1983, the Whalers were dead. They went 19-54-7 that year for 45 points and the 20th of 21 spots in the NHL. (Which begs the question, how the hell was there a team worse than that?!)
In 1983, the Whalers hired Emile Francis as general manager and Jack Evans as a coach to clean up the mess they created for themselves. For a couple of brief years, it looked like they would get the team turned around. They had an established team leader with Ron Francis, and some emerging stars like Ulf Samuelsson, Kevin Dineen, and star goalie Mike Liut. By 1986 they had the look of a contender, but injuries to Francis and Dineen killed their chances of making the playoffs. The Whalers finally won a division championship in 1987. Posting 93 points, they went to the playoffs, won their first two games against the Nordiques, and then got thrown off their game when the Nords shifted to a rougher style of hockey meant to wear their opponents out. The series ended up setting records in penalty minutes in both an individual game and a whole playoff series, and the Nords swept the next four games to knock Hartford out of the playoffs.
The Whalers went on to make the playoffs for the next five years, but they never managed to reach the success they did that year. The 85 points they posted in the 1990 season was the second-highest total they reached in Hartford, but everything was sort of done in by the fact that GM Eddie Johnston got a bit trade-happy. He traded Liut to the Washington Capitals while Liut was in the middle of a career year. Then he sent Francis and Samuelsson to the Pittsburgh Penguins. You might notice that those were GOOD players. In fairness, the Francis trade looked like a good one at the time – in fact, The Hockey News said the Whalers got the better end of it. They got scorer John Cullen and promising defenseman Zarley Zalapski out of it. But Whalers fans didn’t see it that way, and history now tells us the Francis trade was outrageously one-sided in favor of the Pens. The Whalers had a strong fanbase and goodwill by then, but it all went walking out the door with those two players, who contributed to a pair of Stanley Cup teams in Pittsburgh. Johnston was out the door in 1992, once the Whalers were shown the door in their final playoff appearance. The drafting of Chris Pronger in 1993 didn’t help very much, either, because he was slow to develop and the team shipped him to the St. Louis Blues.
In 1994, Peter Karmanos bought the Whalers and pledged to keep them in Hartford. You know how this routine usually plays out: At the time, the fans were out of patience with the team, and they had no support from the corporations. He threatened to move, the fans started buying tickets, Karmanos wanted a stadium, the Governor of Connecticut said no. Karmanos said he was moving the team after the 1997 season. He didn’t even have the courtesy to have a place to go when he said he was moving; he was just looking for an exit. He was originally looking to go to Norfolk, but a season ticket drive there didn’t meet the required ticket sales. So he got around to setting his sights on Raleigh, which took him.
The people there didn’t take much to hockey, either. There was no stadium complete, so the team had to play in Greensboro, which had a 21,000-seat place set for temporary usage. Unfortunately, Greensboro was 80 miles away from Raleigh, so the fans from there weren’t going to buy a season ticket package and drive down the I-40 every night. And if you’re wondering why the Whalers – now rechristened as the Carolina Hurricanes – couldn’t fall back on Greensboro, that was because the hockey fans in Greensboro were more than a little pissed with them. The Hurricanes were that plastic toy the NHL was using to replace the better metal toy, and they replaced the popular Carolina Monarchs of the AHL. Hurricanes ownership had bought the Monarchs and moved them to New Haven. With nothing much to see, the fans decided not to waste their money on the Hurricanes. Ice-wise, the Hurricanes didn’t improve. They didn’t make the playoffs until 2001, and that didn’t mean much; this is the NHL, after all, and getting into those requires little more than a light bulb change. They got the eighth seed, in any case, and that was worth a series against the New Jersey Devils, who had won the Stanley Cup the year before. To no one’s surprise, the Devils took the series lead 3-0. Then to EVERYONE’S surprise, the Hurricanes came back and managed to force a sixth game. New Jersey won that sixth game, but the Hurricanes showed everyone that they had flipped the on switch.
It was the following year, however, that the big waves came. They survived a late race against the Capitals to win their division. Then they survived a first round tangle against New Jersey. In the second round, they played against Montreal. By the fourth game in the series, the ‘Canes were down 2-1 in the series and 3-0 in the game, but they made a late rally, tied the game, and won on an overtime goal by Niclas Wallin. In Hurricanes lore, that goal was called the Miracle at Molson. The stunned Habs turned into one of those dead man walking teams, and played that way through the rest of the series. Carolina won the following two games by a combined score of 13-3. The heavily favored Toronto Maple Leafs were next, but the ‘Canes drew the series out. In game six, Toronto’s Mats Sundin scored the tying goal with 22 seconds left in the game. It was Carolina that responded in overtime, though, when Martin Gelinas scored to win the game – and the series. The Carolina Hurricanes were now the Eastern Conference Champions. And in the Stanley Cup Final, they proved they had one more miracle in them when they took the first game! And that game was it. Any more miracles they might have had were void because they had the misfortune to play against the vaunted Detroit Red Wings, every onlookers’ choice for the best team in the league and right in their dynastic primes. Detroit was better. Detroit played in a hotbed nicknamed Hockeytown while North Carolina was better known as the place where the Tar Heels/Blue Devils rivalry unfolded. Had the ‘Canes lost, fans would have looked forward to the next college basketball season. Had the Wings lost, fans would have run them out of Detroit. The remainder of this Final went exactly the way it was scripted. While game three was a triple overtime thriller, the Red Wings won every game after that first one and outscored the Hurricanes 12-4 combined.
Although the Hurricanes drafted Eric Staal in 2003, they stopped making noise after that Stanley Cup appearance. And after the 2005 season cancellation and the introduction of the new rules, the Hurricanes were expected to be dead on arrival. But they ended up surprising the league with the best season of their existence – it’s hard to argue with a Stanley Cup. It was more than just the Stanley Cup, though; the team posted a record of 52-22-8, which was good for 112 points, and ran away with their division. That point total made them fourth in the NHL. They were easily in the playoffs, where they faced Montreal in the first round. With regular goalie Martin Gerber struggling to find his form after having the flu, coach Peter Laviolette pulled him for rookie Cam Ward. Ward shined in goal throughout the playoffs, and the ‘Canes made short work of Montreal and New Jersey in the first two rounds. The Eastern Conference Final was looking like a gimme as well; their opponents were the Buffalo Sabres, whom the Hurricanes went 5-1 against during the regular season. Their one loss against the Sabres was a lazy rest-starters game which was the season finale for both teams, who had both locked up their playoff positions well in advance. That being said, the Sabres had finished only one slot behind the Hurricanes in the standings and everyone knew they were more than capable of upending the ‘Canes. The series turned into a volatile seven-game slugfest destined for the league archives. Laviolette and Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff took verbal shots at each other’s teams, and the series featured so much physical play that everyone on Buffalo’s first two defensive lines was injured. Five games were decided by one goal. Two games went to overtime. Game six featured a goaltender duel for the ages between Ward and Buffalo’s superstar goaltender, Ryan Miller. The game went into overtime tied at one, and Buffalo’s Daniel Briere put the game away. Game seven was a fight to the last. Buffalo took a 2-1 lead into the third period before their injuries on defense caught up with them. The ‘Canes rallied and put three goals on the board, with Rod Brind’Amour scoring the game winner. The Hurricanes were going to the Final again, and the drama wasn’t over yet. In the first Final between two former WHA teams, the Hurricanes spotted the opposing Oilers a 3-1 series lead before coming back and winning it all.
You would think players would want to return to the team that, you know, just won the Stanley Cup! But nope, four players left the Hurricanes in free agency. It hurt them the next season, and a rash of injuries didn’t help. They missed the playoffs completely the next season. Laviolette was fired early in the 2008-09 season, but they did manage to make the playoffs that year and make a serious bum rush. With 97 points, they captured the sixth seed, and played against the Devils in the first round. In game four, Jussi Jokinen set a record for the latest game-winning goal ever when he scored with 0.2 seconds left in regulation. Jokinen struck again in game seven with 1:20 left in the game by scoring the tying goal, which set up Staal for the game winner 48 seconds later. Playing against the Bruins in the second round, the Hurricanes ran out to a 3-1 series lead only to be forced into a seventh game. In the seventh game, Scott Walker got the chance to be a hero when he scored an overtime goal 18:46 into the period. Now the plucky Hurricanes got to face the powerful Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final. And this time, no heroics were necessary. Pittsburgh swept the ‘Canes on their way to the Stanley Cup.
Yeah, the Hurricanes are having trouble recreating that one too. After the 2009 run, they were good. Then they started getting bad. Sometimes they post points in the 80’s, contending for a playoff spot. Other times they’re more honest about their suckage. North Carolina may be a rosy place to be, but not if you’re a hockey fan.
Glen Wesley, Ron Francis, and Rod Brind’Amour have all had their numbers retired. They all deserve it – they’ve all played for the Hurricanes in the long term. Of the three, Brind’Amour is the only one who played exclusively for the Hurricanes. Wesley and Francis have both had extended stints as Whalers, and Francis was the team’s marquee player and Captain for a long time. Ironically, Francis is also the only one of the three who didn’t play on the 2006 Stanley Cup Champion team – he retired just two years before they won it all. But you don’t have to feel too bad for him – he won two Stanley Cups during the break he had between Whalers/Hurricanes stints, with the Penguins. The Hurricanes also have three additional numbers which aren’t displayed in the rafters, but which they don’t issue out: Those of Steve Chiasson, who was killed in a car crash after the 1999 season; Josef Vasicek, who was killed in the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash in 2011; and Gordie Howe, who died of being 88 years old last year. Howe is the name that jumps out – among players of the pre-1979 generation, he’s frequently mentioned in the discussion of the greatest player ever. Between his years in both the NHL and WHA, he notched an incredible 2358 points in his career. If you axed the WHA from his totals, he still put up 1850.
Despite having a few notable on-ice accomplishments in Raleigh, the Hurricanes continue to exist in the shadow of the Hartford Whalers. There’s a Whalers fan website, The Blowhole, which has been up and running since at least 2005. It seems to have been defunct for a few years, but it’s still there to celebrate the legacy of the Whalers, and any inactivity hasn’t stopped the rumors of a Whalers return from flooding in. The Hurricanes are a generic team. The Whalers were losers, but if the NHL had a version of MLB’s Chicago Cubs, it was them. They were loud and abrasive and quirky, and they had a tough swagger that outlasted their owner’s belief in them. The Whalers had one of the greatest logos in the history of professional sports, a capital-case W with a whale fin at the top of the W’s middle point, which created a capital H in the negative space. The jerseys and green-and-blue coloring scheme was gorgeous, and I own a replica of the classic whites. The VP of the team, Bill Barnes, explained that he wanted an emphasis on the fin because it was the strongest part of the whale. Aside from that, in the mid-80’s, the Whalers started using the “Brass Bonanza” as the goal song that came to define them. It was added to enhance the atmosphere after one of the people running the team decided something was missing, and man did it work. Their home rink was once in a civic center, which is more or less a glorified shopping mall, and that was built to house a basketball team. Being a Whaler was once a license to not give a shit about what anyone else in the NHL thought of you.
So what happened? Well, there’s quite a bit of blame to go around. Yes, everyone loved the old Whalers, and there constantly seems to be a new rumor about them making a grand return, but looking at what they had to put up with puts a damper on those rumors. It makes me believe that everyone clamoring to the return of The Whale is part of Captain Ahab’s crew. The Whalers were pushed out of Boston for encroaching on the territory of three other teams, and when it happened, they basically moved down the street. Hartford was the smallest NHL market back when it used to be an NHL market. Not much has changed – there are 125,151 people living in Hartford, and the city’s only real notable trait is that it’s the state capitol of Connecticut. After that, it’s known as an insurance city which is also one of the poorest cities in the country. That’s not much to go on. There are two cities in Connecticut alone – New Haven and Bridgeport – which are bigger. Although you can make the argument for Sunrise, Florida – where the Florida Panthers play – Sunrise is only a part of the much larger Miami area, and not a metro area itself. Glendale, where the Arizona Coyotes play, is considered a part of the greater Phoenix area. The New York Islanders used to play in Uniondale, which is still considered part of the New York City area, or an enormous metro usually abridged as Long Island, depending on who you ask. Either way, the Isles had a huge population to watch them, and nothing changes the fact that they still recently moved to Brooklyn. And it doesn’t help that n the battleground area between New York City and Boston sports, Connecticut is the acknowledged dividing line. It’s where the Boston Celtics and New York Knickerbockers compete for NBA fans and the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees fight blow for blow for the souls of MLB fans. The divide in hockey exists between fans of the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, both of which are Original Six teams with established brands and fans going back for generations. The Whalers were 70’s upstarts in a renegade league which, when moved into the NHL, never did very much damage. The Islanders and Devils were created in the 1970’s as well, but the Isles were a raging success almost immediately; it took them less than ten years to move from expansion jokers to beating the Rangers in the playoffs to establishing one of the greatest dynasties in NHL history. The New Jersey Devils were created way too far off to matter to anyone in the Mid-Atlantic region. They started their life as the Kansas City Scouts and continued for several years as the Colorado Rockies before finding their permanent home in Newark, so until the early 80’s, everything in the Eastern Corridor was irrelevant to them. Hartford’s arena was also one of the league’s smallest – if not THE smallest – for years. There’s a great counterargument to be made for every rumor about the Whalers coming back, so while I want to see them return, I’m not going to believe anything until the league makes some kind of official announcement. Hold your breath for Portland, Seattle, and Quebec City. Don’t hold it for Hartford.
The Carolina Hurricanes only have a few things that identify them: The Stanley Cup, one of the very few true tailgate cultures in the NHL, a logo often likened to the swirl made by a flushing toilet, and a rather odd rivalry with the Buffalo Sabres. The Hurricanes sell themselves – or at least they used to – under the Redneck Hockey tagline, which is actually pretty catchy. Since the weather in North Carolina is famous for how pleasant it frequently is, Hurricanes fans – who call themselves Caniacs, which may be the raddest nickname given to an NHL fanbase – are able to hold regular tailgate parties throughout the hockey season. Tailgate parties are something most associated with the NFL, but since they’re something which can bring out the best in fans, I want to see more of it in other leagues. The Hurricanes managed to develop a rivalry with Buffalo because of the widespread perception up north that hockey doesn’t belong in the south. North Carolina is the place with more Buffalo expats than any other, and they keep their old loyalty to the Sabres. There’s a popular rumor that those who work in the Hurricanes’ sales office are told to be on the lookout and not sell to anyone calling with a 716 area code. The fans don’t help northerners’ perceptions of them by their average attendance and low social media following.
The Carolina Hurricanes are ultimately a tough team to think of a reason to follow. They continue to exist mainly in the shadow of their own past, and it’s tough to argue that it’s better to follow the present team more than the past one.
Redneck Hockey is a so-bad-it’s-good tag; have one of the NHL’s few true tailgate cultures; have managed to attract some of the best hockey players of their time
Used to be the Hartford Whalers; are universally disliked and told to go back to Hartford by a lot of NHL fans; can’t escape their past in Hartford despite having visited the Final twice and emerging with a 1-1 record in it; jersey schematics rip off the Chicago Blackhawks; Used To Be The Hartford Whalers; fans are perceived to be fairer than North Carolina’s weather; USED TO BE THE HARTFORD WHALERS
Should you be a fan?
It doesn’t matter that the Hartford Whalers don’t exist anymore – if you adopt the Carolina Hurricanes, you’re adopting the Whalers. It should tell you something that, despite having existed longer than the Whalers (at least as an NHL team) and having had more success on the ice, the Hurricanes haven’t captured fans’ imaginations the way the Whalers did.