How about the Pens? For the second straight year, the Penguins are on the verge of playing for Lord Stanley’s Cup, if they can push past the Carolina Hurricanes. The Canes are the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference and there is little doubt the Pens are the favorite.
The series starts tonight … and folks, I have mixed emotions coming into this confrontation. Now before you put me in the same catagory as Bill Cowher for being a traitor and not pulling for the Pens, hear me out.
As a child growing up in Connecticut in the late 70’s, I had two teams I passionately followed in my area: the Boston Red Sox and the New England Whalers. The Whalers were members of the World Hockey Association, founded by former Pens owner Howard Baldwin. Direct competition to the established NHL, they had teams such as the Whalers, Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers, etc. The Whalers made their name by signing players well past their prime who were guaranteed hall of famers: Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull and John McKenzie.
The Whalers then joined the NHL in the merger of 1980, along with Edmonton, Winnipeg and the Quebec Nordiques The Whalers were nearly and dear to my heart not just because they were the local team, but also they lived in the neighborhood. I went to grade school with the son of the team’s starting goaltender. The Whalers were a community team because they had veterans who had children and had roots in the town of Hartford, Connecticut.
Tonight, its the Pens against the team formerly known as my Hartford Whalers
It continued that way until the mid-90’s. However, the Whalers never had great teams. Heck, they had a parade in the 1986 when the lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs. They also played in an arena which was located in the middle of a shopping center. While the Whale was not an on-ice success, they had a loyal fan base which helped to put people into the Hartford Civic Center.
The Whale was also jinxed by its own staff. Former Pens GM Eddie Johnston was the Whalers GM in the 90’s … and he made a deal with Pittsburgh that sent Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelesson to Pittsburgh and essentially gave the Pens their second Stanley Cup.
However, that was not enough for Peter Karmanos. The greedy owner of the team wanted a new arena, luxury boxes and more parking. He didn’t get it, so he took the Whalers south … to North Carolina where they became the Carolina Hurricanes. Less than 10 years after the move, they won the Stanley Cup. It was difficult to watch because that was my team … and that should have been Hartford’s Stanley Cup.
So now the Canes are taking on the team which I openly root for — the Pens. I am pulling for Pittsburgh because I do not want the franchise formerly known as the Whalers to “steal” another Stanley Cup from my beloved Hartford. Still, when I watch the Canes, I cannot help but think about the team I followed in my youth. Heck, Francis is now an assistant coach … and they have the same play-by-play guy on the radio from when I was working in Hartford.
I do plan to throw on my vintage Whalers jersey, circa 1995, during the game as I pull for the Pens but wish that they were playing my Whalers. At least if it were the Whalers they were playing, instead of the Canes, I would know hockey lives in on in Hartford, Connecticut.