On saturday nightthe Hartford Whalers Booster Club convened a meeting, as it has every month for31 years. Membership has dwindled from a peak of 1,500 in 1987, but the 65 whoremain are Whale obsessives to rival Ahab, still supporting a team that ceasedto exist nine years ago.
The Whalersplayed their final NHL game on April 13, 1997, a date annually commemoratedwith a "Fanniversary" rally in Hartford, where people still wearWhalers jerseys, set cellphones to ring with the Whalers' fight song andcommiserate on Whalers message boards under mournful names likeAbandonedWhaler.
They vilify ownerPeter Karmanos Jr. for moving the team to North Carolina after 26 years in NewEngland. Ponytail Pete, as Karmanos is still called for his regrettabletonsorial misstep in the mid-'90s, renamed his franchise the Hurricanes, andthat team is now in the Stanley Cup finals (page 52), which for Hartford fansis like having to watch your ex-wife build a happy new life with Brad Pitt."The thought of him holding the Stanley Cup over his head makes my stomachturn," says Mark Lopa, 35, a Whalers season-ticket holder ("section204, row T, seats 1 and 2," he says) who wears the number 31 Whalers jerseyof former goalie Steve Weeks.
The Stanley Cupis tiered like a wedding cake, which is appropriate, as Whalers fans resembleCharles Dickens's Miss Havisham. Jilted on her wedding day, she sits forever inher faded wedding dress, pining in her ruined mansion, all the clocks stoppedat 20 minutes to nine, the precise moment of betrayal.
Whalers superfanAl Victor ("section 119, row L, seats 5 and 6") wears a number 9 GordieHowe jersey from 1976. His daughter Amanda died in a bicycle accident in 1993,when she was 14. Three years ago, in unimaginable pain, he converted herbedroom into a Whaler Room, painting the walls blue and gray and filling itwith hockey memorabilia. "I spend a lot of time in there," says the60-year-old Booster Club president. "It's my little haven."
He's not alone.Thirty years after the NHL's California Golden Seals left Oakland (forCleveland and then oblivion), their booster club feels the team's presence likethe phantom leg of an amputee. Once a month many of the 40 members gather atRicky's Sports Theatre and Grill in San Leandro, Calif., "to share theirlove of hockey and each other's company," says member Brad Kurtzberg, 39,who has written a colorful history of the Seals called Shorthanded. "Thesad thing is that most of the boosters are in their 60s and 70s. The club willlikely end in the next few years as members get older and become unable toattend meetings."
What becomes ofthe brokenhearted who had love that's now departed? Fans of the QuebecNordiques, Winnipeg Jets and Cleveland Barons all have active clubs. "We'restill alive," adds Joe Watkins, president of the Atlanta Flames Fan Club."We have a dozen members." They're all groovy survivors of '70s hockey,their teams defunct but never de-funked.
Whalersseason-ticket holder Marty Evtushek ("section 302, row D, seat 1") is a57-year-old letter carrier who drives a Buick Century with H WHLR plates. Hisfondest memory? "The camaraderie of the people in the stands," hesays.
Before one gameat the Hartford Civic Center, Evtushek ejected a loudmouthed Boston Bruins fan,throwing him through open steel fire doors that shut behind the heckler with aclick of satisfying finality. But Evtushek was best known for faithfullyfollowing the Whale on the road, which is why he's still known in Hartford asMr. Trips. "Quebec was the worst," sighs Mr. Trips. "Quebec fansused to beat up our women." Mr. Trips turned his den into a Whaler Room,the curtains made from Whalers boxer shorts. "Curtains, valences, tiebacks,everything," says his wife, Diane, who sewed them herself.
In that den theWhalers' catchy theme song has permanent pride of place on the record player.Brass Bonanza was played in the Civic Center after every Whalers goal, and evennow it can be heard at Fenway Park, a nostalgic sop to Red Sox fans fromConnecticut, for whom it is like a dog whistle, intelligible only to them.
On Saturday nightat the Arch Street Tavern, a dozen blocks from the arena the Whalers calledhome, Brass Bonanza sounded as a '91 Whalers-Bruins game played on half a dozenTVs. Evtushek--watching in full Whalers uniform and white CCM hockeyhelmet--spoke hopefully of an NHL team's returning to Hartford. He called tomind a timeless American epic: In an ancient New England tavern, men mutteredmadly about their quest to recapture the Whale.
Brad Kurtzbergcan relate, and not just because he still pines after the Golden Seals. There'salso the town that he now lives in, on Long Island. It's Melville.
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