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Remembering the Hartford Whalers, the NHL team we all want back

The Hartford Whalers weren't good, but everybody still loves them today.

Ron Francis during a Whalers game against Washington in 1990.
Ron Francis during a Whalers game against Washington in 1990.
Getty Images

Ah yes, the Hartford Whalers.

Today, everybody loves the Whale. Everybody wants to see the Whale return. Of all the NHL teams that no longer exist, perhaps none are more popular and remembered more fondly than the Hartford Whalers.

Maybe it was the logo, that wonderful marriage between a "W" and a whale tail to come together and form a hidden "H" in the middle. Maybe it was Ron Francis. Or perhaps it was Brass Bonanza, or some combination of them all. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn't because of their play on the ice, because this team was bad.

During their 18 years in Hartford, the team qualified for the NHL playoffs just eight times, with seven of those appearances coming as the fourth-place team in their division, originally the Norris and later the Adams. In five of their playoff seasons they finished with a losing record, including a 26-41-13 performance during the 1991-92 season, and only once did they advance beyond the first round.

But before they were the most forgettable unforgettable team in NHL history, they were a pretty dominant team in the WHA, the upstart league that had dreams of rivaling the NHL.

The WHA glory days

When the WHA opened its doors for the 1971-72 season, the New England Whalers were one of the inaugural teams to debut after a group of New England businessmen, led by Howard Baldwin, was awarded a franchise. At that point they were not yet known as the Hartford Whalers because they were actually playing their games in Boston, sharing the Boston Garden with the NHL's Bruins.

While most of the team's first players were former collegiate players or minor leaguers, the Whalers did manage to land a few notable signings to fill out their roster.

gordie howe whalers
Gordie Howe with the Whalers in 1980. (Getty)

One of the first signings, as well as their first captain, was former long-time Bruins defenseman Ted Green. Their best player in those early days of the franchise was probably Tom Webster, a 23-year-old forward who had already scored 30 goals in the NHL as a member of the Detroit Red Wings. Webster was an immediate success in the WHA, scoring 53 goals in his debut season, good enough for second in the league, and helping lead the Whalers to a 46-30-2 record during their debut 1972-73 season.

They followed that up by cruising through the playoffs and defeating the Ottawa Nationals, Cleveland Crusaders and Winnipeg Jets to win the league's first championship, defeating each opponent by a 4-1 series margin and outscoring them, 70-49.

Even though they never won another championship, they were still one of the most successful and stable teams in the league, never missing the playoffs and finishing first in their division three times.

By the 1974 season, however, scheduling started to become an issue at the Boston Garden, which forced the Whalers to seek out relocation. They moved to Hartford, Conn., where they played in the newly constructed Hartford Civic Center.

By 1977, the WHA was in a steady decline and had already shrunk to 10 teams, sparking talks of a potential merger with the NHL. It was that season that the Whalers made the blockbuster move to sign Gordie Howe and his two sons, Marty and Mark, away from the Houston Aeros. Even though Gordie was 49 years old, he still finished ninth in the league in scoring with 96 points.

But by 1979 the WHA was finished, and the four most stable teams -- the Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets -- merged with the NHL. One of the conditions of the merger for the Whalers, as insisted by the Bruins, was that they drop the "New England" from their name.

NHL struggles and relocation

Despite making the playoffs in their first season in the NHL, and then having a seven-year run when they qualified every year between 1985 and 1992, they were one of the least successful teams in the league for the duration of their existence in Hartford.

Between 1980 and their relocation to North Carolina in 1997, the only team, excluding the 1990s expansion teams, that won fewer games and had a worse points percentage than Hartford's .438 was the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was a constant run of everything that could possibly go wrong for a team going wrong time after time.

It's not that the Whalers didn't have good players.

Ron Francis spent nine-and-a-half seasons with the team and was the best player in franchise history ... before he was traded to Pittsburgh, along with Ulf Samuelsson, for a package centered around John Cullen and Zarley Zalapski. And even though there was some thought that it might work out in the long term, it proved to be the beginning of the end for the team. And then Hartford had to watch Francis and Samuelsson lift the Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh. Twice.

Here is how Whalers fans reacted to the trade in what might be the most 1990s hockey clip ever.

But it wasn't just the Francis experience that didn't work out in the end.

One year earlier when the Whalers were experiencing one of their best seasons ever, starting goalie Mike Liut, who was having one of the best seasons of any goalie in the league, was traded to the Washington Capitals for Yvon Corriveau. Corriveau never amounted to anything of significance in Hartford, and the departure of Liut left the Whalers with no experienced goalie, and they were dismissed in the first round of the playoffs against Boston.

Due to concerns about his maturity, they traded Chris Pronger just two years after making him the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. It was during Pronger's rookie year in Hartford that they were subjected to the "Pierre McGuire as head coach" nightmare, a tenure that might have been the single biggest coaching failure in NHL history. (That is, if we are to believe this Jeff Jacobs column that remains one of the single greatest takedowns of any coach anywhere).

The Whalers were the only team that Pronger played for that he didn't immediately turn into a Stanley Cup contender. Brendan Shanahan was great in his one year with the team, but due to the uncertainty of its future in Hartford, he asked for a trade in 1995, when he was sent to Detroit for Paul Coffey and Keith Primeau.

All of this, and all of the losing, resulted in a team that just could not draw people to it games. Only twice in franchise history did the Whalers average more than 14,000 fans per game in a season, and by the 1990s that number had dwindled all the way down to between 10-11,000 per game.

Frustrated by the dismal numbers, new owner Peter Karmanos announced in 1996 that if the team failed to sell 11,000 season ticket packages -- which were made available only in full 41-game season packages, instead of the previously sold and popular six-, 10- and 20-game packages, while prices and required deposits were significantly increased -- the team would consider relocating.

Despite all of that, and a fight between the team and state government over funding for a new arena, things seemed to be progressing to keep the Whalers in Hartford until the team asked for additional money to cover losses while the arena was being built. The team left for Carolina to start the 1997-98 season.

As if that wasn't enough of a gut punch for longtime Whalers fans, Francis rejoined the team one year later. It would go on to play in the Stanley Cup Final two different times, winning in 2005-06 against Chris Pronger and the Edmonton Oilers.