Hartford Whalers Gear Still Sells as Die-Hards Wait for Another Team

(Bloomberg) -- Cue “Brass Bonanza,” because the Hartford Whalers are still scoring.

More than two decades after the National Hockey League’s Whalers relocated to Raleigh, North Carolina, and were rebranded as the Hurricanes, the team’s merchandise is still in vogue.

Whalers gear is the top seller among defunct franchises, according to Fanatics Inc., whose online network includes the NHL’s official store. The NHL, which owns the Whalers trademark, wouldn’t disclose specific merchandise sales figures, saying only that the Whalers are among the most popular of what it calls vintage teams.

Hartford Whalers Gear Still Sells as Die-Hards Wait for Another Team

Sales of all things whale-tail received an added jolt this season when the Hurricanes on two occasions wore Whalers uniforms to celebrate the franchise’s heritage. The first time, Dec. 23 at home against the Boston Bruins, fans bought almost $200,000 in merchandise, a regular-season record for the franchise, according to Mike Forman, the club’s vice president of marketing and brand strategy.

The Whalers could get even more attention with Carolina’s playoff run. The Hurricanes have eliminated the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders en route to the Eastern Conference final, where they’ll face New England’s favorite team, the Bruins, beginning Thursday night in Boston.

That the Whalers are still popular is no surprise to Mark Anderson, the membership chairman of the team’s booster club, whose 139 members fork over a $10 annual fee for an official membership card and, more important, nostalgia-heavy watch parties, trips and group outings.

The club has members from nine states, including California and Nevada, said the 44-year-old Anderson, who recalls with precision his first Whalers game -- a Saturday-night contest that ended when his favorite player, Ron Francis, won a faceoff to Blaine Stoughton, whose goal with 11 seconds left in overtime triggered “Brass Bonanza” from the speakers and had fans at the Civic Center going bonkers.

“I was hooked,” said Anderson, who has Whalers hats in the back window of his Hyundai.

The Whalers spent 1979-97 in Hartford, producing just three winning seasons. The love affair with the team had more to do with relationships than results, said Anderson. He said he can’t go more than 24 hours without seeing something Whalers-related around town -- be it a hat, T-shirt or specialty license plate.

“They were lousy here for the most part, but they were ours,” Anderson said. “The players were part of the community. You’d see them at the grocery store, at the dry cleaner. They lived here. They were our identity. It was the only major-league team we got.”

Hartford, Connecticut’s capital city, has had to deal with other losses in the intervening years, including the headquarters for United Technologies Corp. in 2015 and Aetna Inc. in 2017. The state is one of nine whose population fell in 2017-18, marking a fifth straight year of decline.

The Hurricanes are eight wins from capturing the Stanley Cup, which they also did in 2006.
“To see that team win it floored me,” Anderson said.

Hartford Whalers Gear Still Sells as Die-Hards Wait for Another Team

Should the Hurricanes hoist the Cup again, there’s no telling what the sales ceiling would be for all things Whalers.

The NHL’s online store offers a bevy of Whalers-related items, including memorabilia signed by the late Gordie Howe, who finished his career with Hartford.

Anderson, meantime, is cognizant that Hartford isn’t the first city to lose a professional sports team. He also hears the scuttlebutt that the NHL, which recently awarded Seattle an expansion team, may not be done adding franchises. He’s a realist, though, and said he knows Hartford has zero chance at another club unless city officials can figure out a way to build a new arena.

“We hold out that some day, if the politicians can figure out what’s what, the NHL would bring a team back here,” Anderson said. “Nothing will stop us from trying.”

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