September 17, 2008
In the Sept. 16 issue of The Hockey News (the one with Vincent Lecavalier on the cover ... check out the digital edition here), I have an article called "Longing for the Good Ol' Days" that profiles fans of some defunct teams: The Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets. Specifically, the piece deals with the emotional bonds that remain unbroken with these franchises, and how some of these fans are determined to bring the NHL back to their cities.
I never really connected the plights of Hartford and Winnipeg until I began researching the piece, but the similarities are unmistakable: Blue-collar towns filled with fans who viewed the local NHL team as a vital part of the community, only to see it flee for greener pastures in a less "traditional" market.
In both cases, fans have defiantly kept hope alive for the same second chances Atlanta and Denver have received as NHL cities. Sites like Winnipegjetsonline.com and JetsOwner.com provide updates on potential owners, expansion possibilities and the proper talking points (like promoting corporate support for a new team).
The Hartford Whalers Booster Club began as a social organization for disenfranchised Whale fans, but later became the fan-run engine to drive political debate about bringing a team back to Connecticut.
Filmmaker Kevin Massicotte grew up a mile from the Civic Center, and for years wanted to make a movie about Whalers fans. "Bleeding Green," his short documentary film, was completed this summer and is currently making the rounds in some local festivals; including Sept. 26 at the Newberryport Film Festival. Having watched it in preparation for The Hockey News piece, it's a bittersweet glimpse at Whalers fan culture and a brief character study of some of the men and women of the Booster Club.
I had a wide-ranging conversation with Massicotte about the film and Hartford hockey. A lot of it didn't make the final cut, but damn if I tried to squeeze it in, because it was a fantastic chat. For example: Besides the moment they relocated to become the Carolina Hurricanes, what was the most painful moment in Whalers history?
"Trading Ron Francis," he said, without missing a beat.
"I've gone on many Web sites and looked at the worst trades in NHL history, and that makes the Top 5. They gave up Ron Francis and Ulfie the Enforcer to a Pittsburgh team that needed an enforcer at the time; for Zarley Zalapski and John Cullen and another player that no one can remember because I don't think he even played."
For the record, the Pittsburgh Penguins sent back right wing Jeff Parker, who played four games for the Whalers. Of course, Hartford also included Grant Jennings in the deal as well; he'd go on to play five more seasons and won two Stanley Cups. Whoops.
Such was life for a Whalers fan. Massicotte still remembers taking flack in his own high school for being a Hartford fan ... in Hartford. Rangers fans and Bruins fans would mercilessly mock him. "I'd take all kinds of crap from these kids, who only lived 10 minutes away from the Civic Center. Why aren't you rooting for your hometown team?" he said.
Massicotte and thousands like him rooted for the hometown team, and embraced every quirky aspect of it.
"Back in the day, we'd play in the Mall. They called it the Mall because when you're walking in through the turnstiles, you'd literally walk through this giant mall. I think a lot of people would look at it as a negative. But we always had this weird, singular identity," he said.
"Not only the building, but the Brass Bonanza. Which is a preposterous song."
The Brass Bonanza is as synonymous with the Whalers as ... well, as bleeding green is. The bombastic song continues to evoke nostalgia, whether it's heard on a highlight reel or blasting from the Booster Club member's car.
"I guess somebody back in the 70s took that song and put Whalers clips to it," said Massicotte. "The management decided, 'Hey, that's a great song. Let's play it after every goal.' The thing I always loved about it is that it's embarrassing for your opponents. 'We just got scored on, and they're going to play this ridiculous song.'"
The Brass Bonanza played a role in Massicotte's first meeting with the Hartford Whalers Booster Club. "The first event that I went to was a high school hockey game they went to in the middle of February. And the only reason they went was because the high school wears the Whalers colors and plays Brass Bonanza whenever they score," he said.
What Massicotte saw was typical for the Whalers Boosters: Old friends wearing old satin jackets and classic jerseys, covered in antique pins and buttons. Along with the ever-present petitions to Bring the NHL Back To Hartford.
"I assumed it was a pipe dream. But as time went on, I started to think it wasn't so far-fetched," he said.
Massicotte was inspired by their steadfastness, and "Bleeding Green" is his tribute. It's a short film the manages to chronicle the Whalers' legacy, departure and the movement to bring the NHL back. The fans' enthusiasm is inspiring and infectious; no disrespect intended to the city of Atlanta, but I doubt Flames fans organized annual parade floats like the Whalers fans do, just to keep the name in the public eye.
"Some of it is plain old civic pride, coupled with friendship," said Massicotte. "The team was here for 23 years. A lot of these people had season tickets from the late 1970s straight through to the end. You don't give up your friends because you don't have a team."
Now, these friends are on a mission.
"It's gotten into an interesting territory, because they're trying to transition from a small social club to a public entity that's trying to drive political debate about a new arena. It hasn't been the easiest transition, but they're definitely dedicated," he said. "They really love the idea of Hartford as a major league town. They realize what they had back in the day, and now they want to get it back."
Getting it back includes using the Booster Club Web site to issue talking points and calls to action. Whether or not its political pressure works to bring a franchise back to Hartford, Massicotte believes the departure of teams like the Whalers and Jets has forever changed the NHL he fell in love with as a young fan.
"I think it's a small town thing. In the old NHL, there were so many cities that you'd have to look on a map to find: Hartford is one, Winnipeg is another. For better or for worse, they decided to make a go of it in 'emerging markets,'" he said.
"The NHL used to have a personality all its own, because it used to be in cities where there were no other sports."
Check out more from Kevin Massicotte in this new interview with NewEnglandFilm.com, in which he details plans for turning "Bleeding Green" into a full-length feature. For clips from his film, check out this page from the official Web site.