You know, there are times when I feel like we arrogant northern hockey fans have got it all wrong about this whole hockey in the south thing started by Gary Bettman. Mostly I think a lot of the Carolina Hurricanes, a team which had an ongoing history of suckitude in New England before moving to the south and winning the Stanley Cup.
The Hurricanes are another one of those WHA teams which started up in 1972 in the hope of beating the NHL at its own game. The WHA figured placing a team in the New England region of states might be a pretty smart move, and they were probably hoping this team would become the official team of the entire northeastern United States. The team, named the New England Whalers, began by making all the right moves: Signing former Detroit Red Wings star Tom Webster, grabbing Ted Green as their first Captain, and stealing several other great players from the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins. The moves paid off, and when the Whalers hit the ice, they were awesome! Behind coach Jack Kelley, a legendary ex-coach of the Boston University hockey team, the Whalers rampaged through the regular season, rampaged through the playoffs, and won the Avco World Trophy, which was the trophy given out to WHA Champions, after beating the Winnipeg Jets in the Finals.
Unfortunately, the WHA had overlooked one thing: See, they made the mistake of placing the Whalers in Boston, and the city of Boston already had this equally awesome NHL team called the Boston Bruins who had actually won the Stanley Cup the very year the New England Whalers tried to encroach on their turf. The Whalers played many of their home games at Boston Garden, which was owned by the Bruins, and the owners of the Bruins weren't very keen on that. Scheduling got to be a real pain in the ass, so in 1974 the Whalers swallowed their pride and headed south…. South in this case meaning west…. Slightly…. To Hartford, Connecticut! If the move took any kind of a toll on the Whalers, they certainly didn't show it. They never managed to win the Championship again, but they were still one of the most dominant teams in the WHA. They never missed the playoffs, they finished first in their division three times, and they played for the Avco World Trophy again in 1978. They had great player stability, between Webster, Brad Selwood, Ley, and other players. They also had the services of the legendary Gordie Howe, who managed to lead the team in scoring despite being 50 years old; future NHL stars Gordie Roberts and Mike Rogers; All-Star Ron Plumb; and the best defense in the WHA. When Gordie Howe started to feel his age, the Whalers traded for Andre Lacroix with the Houston Aeros, Lacroix being the WHA's all-time leader in scoring. They also managed to makes trades for Gordie Howe's two sons, Mark and Marty.
Considering everything the Whalers had going for them, the NHL was able to see past the level of intelligence it usually shows and admit the Whalers in the 1979 merger. What the Whalers couldn't get past was the Boston Bruins. Yeah, the Bruins had a major problem with the Whalers calling themselves the New England Whalers, and they threw a hissy. One of the conditions on which the Whalers would be admitted to the NHL was that they had to drop the "New England" from their name. Well, you don't fuck with the NHL, and so the New England Whalers were axed, and the existence of the Hartford Whalers began! They also switched their color combination to blue and green, and their logo to one of the greatest logos in NHL history, one that was even able to hold up against the iconic "Hub B" sweater logo worn by the Bruins. They also managed to hold onto all but three of their players, so the Hartford Whalers looked to be pretty set for a run in the NHL.
That's how it looked on paper, anyway. In practice, the vast reservoir of intelligence shown in the NHL began to emerge again. In this case, it was the fact that the team existed in Hartford. The Whalers spent most of their time hampered with serious issues which they had absolutely no control over. First of all, they played in fucking Hartford. Hartford reached its peak population in 1950, and even if the Whalers had been created back then, the city would still have only had a population of 177,397 people. It was an industrial center which of course crashed when corporations discovered the great secret of foreign manufacturing, and while it seems to have finally started really sorting out its problems over the past decade - one of just two periods of population growth in the last 60 years or so - it still has a long way to go. Anyway, back in 1950, Hartford STILL would have been the smallest market in the NHL by far. Its arena was one of the smallest in the league. The point is, Hartford back then wasn't the kind of place which would have attracted the cream of crop in young free agents. What's more, the team's marketability was extremely limited. People who follow professional sports know the state of Connecticut also acts as a bit of a dividing line for fan loyalty in New England. Connecticut is a perpetual sports battlefield of hearts and minds to be won by the teams in both the Boston and New York City areas. That meant the Whalers were tasked with trying to steal fans from two Original Six teams - the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers - as well as the newly-created New York Islanders, a team created solely to keep the WHA out of the New York City area and one which was starting a dynasty during the time of the merger.
Yeah, this arrangement had a doom spell written all over it. The 1980 season was the Whalers' first in the NHL, and they did okay with inclination toward bad. They posted 73 points and were swept from the first round of the playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens. They managed to make a trade for another NHL legend, Bobby Hull, but that was on the back, BACK end of his career. He managed to net seven points in nine games, but after that, he retired.
After that year, the Hartford Whalers began to carve out their niche and truly define themselves as the HARTFORD WHALERS, with the all-cap typing there meant to be taken in a bad way. Part of the reason the Whalers were able to keep so many of their WHA holdovers was because they were all aging. The Whalers tried to counteract the effects of the aging players on their roster by trading away the stars who weren't aging. The trades were mostly for bad players and draft picks. To their credit, the trades were actually made in order to give the Whalers a semblance of depth which would hopefully allow them to compete with the powerful teams in Boston and Montreal. The trades didn't pan out, so it wasn't very surprising that they finished 19-54-7 in 1983 for a putrid 45 points. A coaching change was clearly in order, so Jack Evans was hired.
Under Evans, the Whalers hit the mid-80's being, well, competitive. That much you can give them. Hell, they actually played like a good team at the beginning of the 1986 season, and managed to post 53 points after their first 47 games. Then they lost their star players, Ron Francis and Kevin Dineen, to injuries. Those injuries caused the Whalers to win all of two games in February of 1986, but they also went on a 12-4-2 run once Francis and Dineen returned. They finished in fourth, made the playoffs for the first time since 1980, and even managed to sweep the first place Quebec Nordiques. They followed that up by taking the following series against Montreal to seven games, losing the seventh game 2-1 in overtime. That was Hartford's height of playoff success. In 1987, Hartford found the height of its regular season success, posting 93 points and winning their division behind Francis, Dineen, Ray Ferraro, Ulf Samuelsson, Mike Liut, and Sylvain Turgeon. In the first round they ran into the Nordiques again, who were probably still a bit pissy about the previous year, and who managed to win the series this year in six.
The Whalers made the playoffs for the next several years in a row, but this is the NHL, where playoff positioning is decided by whoever hits a buzzer the fastest. The ability to make the playoffs is more of an illusion of worthiness in the NHL than it is in any other sport. So they only other year in which the Whalers arguably deserved to make the playoffs was in 1990, when their 85 points was good enough for seventh in the Wales Conference. Unfortunately, what might have been a building foundation was ruined when Hartford once again tried to create depth by swapping stars for nobodies. The Whalers' general manager starting general managing the team right into the ground. The first victim was superstar goalie Mike Liut, sent to the Washington Capitals for Yvon Corriveau. What's important to know about this trade is that Liut wasn't exactly washing out after a few bad years. Just the opposite, really; he was having a career year when this trade was made! It was the first of a series of disastrous trades, and without Liut, the Whalers were now stuck with a second-year goalie, Peter Sidorkiewicz, as their starter, and a rookie, Kay Whitmore, as his backup. This bad move proved to make the difference in the playoffs, where the Whalers faced the Bruins and their star goalie, Andy Moog. The Bruins won the series in seven, and it's pretty remarkable that Hartford was able to take the series to seven.
In 1991, Ron Francis, who held pretty much every significant offensive record in Hartford Whalers history, and star defenseman Ulf Samuelsson were traded with Grant Jennings to the Pittsburgh Penguins John Cullen, Zarley Zalapski, and Jeff Parker. The Hockey News actually tried to sell puckheads on the idea that Hartford actually came out on the better end of this trade, but fans disagreed. The fans were proven right after less than two weeks, when a knee injury ended Parker's career while Francis and Samuelsson helped the Pens to two Stanley Cups in a row. While the Whalers had managed to cultivate a respectable fanbase, discontent started to sweep through the area and folks started rooting for the Bruins and Rangers again. While the team had young stars Andrew Cassels and Geoff Sanderson in 1994 and they managed to draft Chris Pronger that year. The Pronger draft proved to be a good one…. Just not for Hartford, who couldn't take his slow development and finally sent him to the St. Louis Blues in 1995 for Brendan Shanahan. Shanahan hated the idea of playing for Hartford, but the team instantly made him Captain, so he kept his displeasure to himself until 1996 because he didn't want to play for a small market team with an uncertain future. (Remember that remark about the uncertain future, because it's going to become very important in another paragraph or two.) He demanded a trade, was condemned by the media and fans, stripped of his Captaincy, and traded after the second game of the season in 1996.
The Hartford Whalers had become a tease and a joke by now. Of their years in the NHL, they had only made the playoffs eight times, won just one playoff series, and earned the nickname "Forever .500s." Even in playoff years, they still had to match up with Boston, Montreal, or potentially both. In 1996, the owner got frustrated with the flailing attendance and said that unless he could sell 11,000 season ticket packages, he was moving. This owner, Peter Karmanos, quite clearly wanted to move because immediately after that announcement, he made a move which strictly catered to rich people: He wiped out the six, ten, and 20-game ticket packages, leaving only the 41-game packages. He also raised the prices by 20 percent. Despite his bullshit, there was a "Save the Whale" campaign, in which the fans pooled enough money to buy 8563 packages. But then there was another problem: The Whalers had been playing in Hartford Civic Center for a long time. That's right, it was time for someone besides the owner to pony up for a new playpen! Connecticut's Governor decided he didn't want to give tax money to a sports team, although he apparently changed gears enough to give the idea a listen. Things went well at first, but then Karmanos asked for $45 million as cover for losses while the new place was built. (See folks, THIS is the kind of shit that happens when we give tax money to sports team owners.) Governor said no, Karmanos said "I'm leaving." He didn't have a new place to move, but he wanted out because he didn't think the state - which had been lobbying for an NFL team - was serious. Connecticut went on to negotiate with the NFL's New England Patriots, trying to lure them to Connecticut, but that fell to pieces when they couldn't agree on terms for a new stadium.
In May of 1997, the move announcement was made: The Hartford Whalers were moving to the Research Triangle of North Carolina. More specifically, they were going to Raleigh. Since the move had to be made in short order, Karmanos himself thought up the team's new name, the Carolina Hurricanes, and the new colors of black and red, a way of honoring the North Carolina State University Wolfpack, whose arena they would also be sharing. For the first two years in Carolina, the Hurricanes were forced to play in Greensboro, 90 minutes west of Raleigh. The arena there had the highest capacity for hockey in the league, but since people aren't exactly keen on driving 90 minutes on weeknights for hockey, especially for a shitty team, no one went to see them. Furthermore, only 29 games were televised at all, and radio coverage was pre-empted by the Wolfpack - no surprise in college basketball-mad North Carolina. Basically, the team wasn't available at all to fans without tickets, and Karmanos said in 2006 the Greensboro was probably a mistake. (Probably?!) While the Hurricanes curtained the upper deck for the 1999 season, cutting capacity to 12,000 for hockey, attendance continued to lag, and most games were lucky to get 10,000.
Although the team had serious problems off the ice, the Hurricanes were finally starting to get their act together on the ice. In 1999, Ron Francis came back, and Keith Primeau scored 30 goals, and the Hurricanes won the division. Sadly, the end of the playoffs was marked with tragedy with their defenseman, Steve Chiasson, was killed in a drunk driving accident. The Hurricanes missed the playoffs in 2000, but got the eighth seed in 2001. They lost the first round in six to the defending New Jersey Devils, but even so, 2001 is often seen as the official arrival of the NHL in North Carolina. They had been down 3-0 at one point in the series, but forced a sixth game.
In 2002, the Carolina Hurricanes broke out. They went on a dream run in the playoffs, beating the division champion Devils in the first round. In the second round, they played against the Montreal Canadiens. In game four of that series, down 2-1 in the series and 3-0 in the game by the third period, Carolina came back and won in overtime in what is known among fans as the Miracle at Molson. Carolina won the next two games by a combined score of 13-3 over the dejected Habs to take the series. They went on to win the Eastern Conference, and won the first game of the Stanley Cup Finals. Unfortunately, they were playing against the favorites of the year, the Detroit Red Wings, who won the next four games and the Cup. Game three featured a triple overtime thriller, though, and while Detroit prevailed in the end, Carolina Hurricanes hockey was now established. They squandered many of the new fans through falling back into the cellar over the next couple of seasons, but in 2003 they drafted Eric Staal. Then they replaced their coach with Peter Laviolette. In the 2006 season, the Hurricanes surprised absolutely everyone. They shattered all the team records in their history, went 52-22-8, and posted an incredible 112 points, good for fourth overall in the NHL. In the first round of the playoffs, the Hurricanes lost the first two games to Montreal before their goalie, Martin Gerber, was replaced by Cam Ward. Ward became their hero of the playoffs. Carolina won the next four games, then beat New Jersey in five. The Eastern Conference Finals also looked like a gimme - their opponents, the Buffalo Sabres, had only beaten them once all year, and that was in the regular season finale, when both teams were resting their starters after their playoff spots were long locked up. Buffalo also had its first two lines on defense wiped out through injuries going into the series. But this Sabres team had still won the same number of games Carolina did, and had 110 points in the standings. The Sabres and Hurricanes slugged it out in a seven-game war which required several overtimes. In the seventh game, Buffalo held a 2-1 lead in the third period before the Hurricanes finally stormed back and netted three goals. In the Finals, the Hurricanes met fellow WHA refugees the Edmonton Oilers. Tired from the armageddon they just survived in Buffalo, the Hurricanes let the Oilers take a 3-1 series lead, but they returned from that too, winning three straight, and their first Stanley Cup.
The following year, the Hurricanes actually missed the playoffs. They continue to keep missing the playoffs, but that may be more the fault of the league's fucked-up standings system. Since 2008, they've posted over 80 points every season, and in three seasons, they actually managed to get over 90 points. By most accounts, they've been excellent. So excellent, in fact, that the old days of the Hartford Whalers are gone and seem long forgotten.
Glen Wesley, Gordie Howe, Ron Francis, and Rod Brind'Amour had all had their numbers retired by the Hurricanes. Ulf Samuelsson, Bobby Hull, Geoff Sanderson, Chris Pronger, Jean-Sebastian Giguere, Paul Coffey, and Dave Keon have all donned the uniforms of either the Hartford Whalers or the Carolina Hurricanes. Ron Francis is clearly the big face in team history.
There's apparently a heated debate about who the Hurricanes' biggest rival is at the moment. This team really hasn't had very much time to develop ongoing rivalries yet, but the Buffalo Sabres seem to be a consensus candidate. After all, a popular activity in Buffalo is moving to North Carolina, so there are a lot of transplants there, and they do tend to be loyal to the Sabres. I heard a rumor that during Sabres games, the Hurricanes office actually checks the area code whenever someone calls about a ticket to make sure it isn't from The 716 because they want the Hurricanes to have some kind of advantage on the ice. Then there was the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals, a series many Hurricanes fans concede would have went to the Sabres had it not been for injuries. The Devils also seem to be a popular candidate, as do the Boston Bruins, a holdover from the old days in Connecticut. In the division, there's the Washington Capitals.
The Hartford Whalers had one of the coolest color combinations and logos in the history of the league. Unfortunately, the Hurricanes logo is a lot more generic and boring, so the Whalers logo is still pretty popular. The Miracle on Molson is a defining moment in the existence of the Hurricanes. The 2006 Eastern Conference Finals are another one. The Hurricanes became one of the great models of the new rules NHL after the season-long lockout back in 2005, and they seem to have stuck with it. These days, the team's overall fortunes seem to have taken a sharp turn. They're winning a lot more now, even though the NHL's fucked-up playoff structure isn't granting them the shot at the Stanley Cup they usually deserve.
Raleigh seems to be one place where the NHL southern expansion is working. There seems to be a solid fanbase down there these days. Hurricanes fans are known as 'Caniacs. The interest in hockey in Raleigh has apparently developed to a point where there are six ice rinks in the city now, as opposed to precisely none when the Hurricanes were moved.
We'll see if the Carolina Hurricanes can last. Things are looking good. The team isn't mentioned a whole lot on the list of teams to potentially be moved. Unfortunately, they just have that putrid past as the Hartford Whalers to deal with. This rating would be higher is the Hurricanes had just been a brand new team. But they're not, and so it goes.