Mon Aug 16 10:14pm EDT
(Ed. Note: Check out the rest of Jon Baum's report from the Whalers fan fest on Y! Sports.)
EAST HARTFORD, Conn. -- At long last, the Whalers have returned.
Thirteen years after the franchise left for Carolina, Howard Baldwin, the founder/original owner of the Hartford Whalers, is back in Connecticut heading up the Whalers Sports & Entertainment group. Baldwin wants to rebuild the hockey market here in hopes of eventually luring the NHL back.
To that end, Baldwin organized a weekend of events featuring former players, culminating with a Fan Fest on Saturday.
More than 4,500 fans showed to buy merchandise, get autographs and chat with the likes of Ron Francis and Kevin Dineen, who were among the roughly two dozen former Whalers players and coaches on hand.
Saturday's show had plenty of entertainment, intentional and not. There was merchandise, some games -- video and otherwise -- and fake tattoos for the kids, plus Pucky the Whale, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Jonathan the (UConn) Husky and a few other random mascots roaming around.
Oh, and players/cheerleaders from the Hartford Colonials. You did know Hartford has a professional football team, no?
Coming up, some observations from a day living amongst the Whale ...
• Fans for the most part got along nicely, shared anecdotes and complimented one another's choice in Whalers garb – though a brawl almost broke out when a fan holding a striking resemblance to actor Clint Howard tried to cut in line in front of fellow autograph seekers who already had been standing around for about an hour.
The fiasco actually stemmed from a bit of miscommunication between event workers and fans, leading one fan to comment: "They can't even get the lines right? No wonder we lost the franchise."
• One fan asked the Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville whether he'd want to come back and coach a team here. It was politely pointed out that Quenneville currently is under contract.
But Dineen, the former captain who scored the final goal in Whalers history, and current coach of the Buffalo Sabres' AHL affiliate Portland Pirates, has been in contention for a couple of NHL gigs over the last couple of seasons. He'd surely want the Whalers gig if it were to exist, right?
"Eh," said Dineen, who easily got the biggest fan reaction when introduced earlier in the day. "We'll see how that all works out."
• Just one day after Friday's International Left Handers Day, former coach Don Blackburn lauded event organizers in seating him in a row next to fellow lefties Bobby Crawford and Tom Earl, making in-tandem autograph signing much easier.
Not that life always is easy for the other 10 percent.
"I still have trouble opening cans," Crawford said.
• Former Whalers play-by-play man Chuck Kaiton acted as an emcee of sorts, though his voice clearly was suffering after a few days of catching up with former players.
Still, Kaiton amusingly and appreciatively refused a fan's offer of a throat lozenge.
• How deep doth Whalers passion run? One couple's exchange summed it up thusly:
Woman: "I've never seen you happier."
• One fan offered up a photo of Dave Babych for the former defenseman to sign. Fellow former Whaler Tim Sheehy was impressed.
"You came prepared," Sheehy said to the fan. "You happened to have that hanging around?"
Fan: "No, but they're selling them down there [at the vendor tables]."
Another fan: "You get a cut of that, Dave?"
Babych laughed and shook his head.
"I get free water."
• There were plenty of fans sporting Francis, Howe and Mike Liut jerseys, plus a handful for Chris Pronger(notes) and Geoff Sanderson(notes). Jeff O'Neill(notes) and Andrew Cassels also were represented, among many others.
As for the most obscure former Whaler jersey seen on Saturday, Terry Yake and Murray Craven were no match for Nick Fotiu.
• Green vuvuzelas were on sale for $5 a pop. Too many of them were sold.
• At one point a former player actually lamented that he hadn't heard Brass Bonanza enough that day (seriously) and began to hum the song out loud. A fan immediately pulled out a Blackberry and played the tune, which was his ring tone.
It was a bonding moment, for certain.
• There were hundreds of kids too young to remember the Whalers – actually, plenty of them weren't even born. Still, the mascots, tattoos and, well, vuvuzelas, seemed to get them excited.
Of course, how do parents explain that they are there to celebrate something that doesn't exist? Well, if children are willing to believe in the tooth fairy, dragons and Santa, a long-gone-but-maybe-just-maybe-to-return hockey franchise doesn't seem too far-fetched ...