Last season, when congregating in large groups to watch a sporting event felt in no way like a special privilege beyond “this is definitely nicer than watching TV at home for the eight thousandth time,” I caught the Bruins and the Carolina Hurricanes. The latter of the two teams were apparently celebrating Halloween a few months early and decided to dress up as the Hartford Whalers circa 1991-92.
Fans of the Whalers and that iconic green sweater were understandably excited. It’d been more than 20 years since Peter Karmanos announced he was bailing on New England — before he’d even found a new city for the team — and eventually took the former WHA club to Raleigh, N.C., by way of Greensboro.
Numbers previously retired by the team — including Johnny McKenzie’s no. 19 and Rick Ley’s no. 2 — were put back in circulation. The colors were changed to red, black and white. And until Karmanos sold the team in 2018, any mention of the Whalers would be relegated to the fans — its hardcores who flooded the Hartford mall, and hockey fans in general who never could stand the fact that a team with such a loyal following, who could have had a better history if anyone had ever managed them correctly, was torn away from its home base.
Seeing Carolina wear that sweater after all this time, then, was a little strange. It was supposed to be celebratory, but felt a little like a taunting reminder. Less strange but still nagging to me was the choice in color. I know the green has the numbers and its supporters, but I always preferred the navy blue look, sported by Sean Burke here, from their final seasons in the 1990s.
★ ★ ★
Along with Geoff Sanderson, the early years of Chris Pronger and one season of Brendan Shanahan, Burke might represent the best of the final Whalers. He was sent to Hartford in one of their classic give-up-too-much-for-too-little deals, in this case getting Burke and Eric Weinrich — both solid players who played for years in the NHL — for Bobby Holik, who immediately became one of the centerpieces on the New Jersey Devils as they made their climb to the top of the NHL.
Burke arrived in 1992-93, the first season of the navy blue jersey, having already played in an All-Star Game with the Devils, and he was immediately a workhorse for the Whalers — playing 50 games that first season and an incredible 42 out of 45 in the lockout-shortened 1995 campaign. He put up solid numbers for the era and was an unquestioned no. 1 goalie. For whatever reason, I vividly remember him facing 53 shots from the Bruins while wearing that sweater, during the final year of the old Boston Garden in a game that went 5-4 to the home team.
Unfortunately, that’s about as good as it got for Burke in Hartford. They were generally tough, with talent and veteran savvy, but that didn’t lead to much in the way of results. In those final six seasons in Connecticut, the Whalers missed the playoffs every year. And it wasn’t especially close, with their best finish coming in the Shanahan year of 1995-96 where they landed fourth in the Northeast Division.
And the reason why those green jerseys are likely remembered more fondly is found in the seven years before, where they made the playoffs each year and had sterling contributions from the likes of Ron Francis, Kevin Dineen, Pat Verbeek and goaltender Mike Liut. They were an exciting team, even if they couldn’t get through the gauntlet of the old Adams Division. In those seven seasons, the Quebec Nordiques, Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens basically took turns sending Hartford home, and the end of that square dance coincided with expansion into Tampa Bay and Ottawa, and the switch to some decidedly sharper threads.
Money was tight in the old Hartford Civic Center and Karmanos certainly never saw himself as the caretaker of a civic institution. So following the 1996-97 season, the Whalers eventually moved to Carolina, and Burke followed. Burke spent half a season there before being traded with Sanderson to Vancouver, and continued to move around for a decade, building a reputation as a dependable, journeyman netminder. He had stops in Philadelphia, Florida, Phoenix, Tampa Bay and Los Angeles to prove it, along with a top-three Vezina Trophy finish and two more All-Star Games. He played some of his best hockey after the Whalers left home, but he certainly never looked as sharp in any of those other sweaters.
★ ★ ★
Oh, and that game I saw: one of the better goal combinations I’ve ever had the benefit of witnessing live sunk the fake Whalers in overtime. Just below my spot in the balcony, Jake DeBrusk spun and threw the puck at a streaking David Krejci, who deked and nailed the game-winner on the backhand.
Maybe they should’ve tried the navy blue sweaters instead. Those don’t carry quite the same tortured history.