Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Hartford Whalers, the First Story I Wrote for SI; Answering a Few Questions

I was reading The Sporting News late last night and I came across one of those brief Q+A’s that everyone likes to run these days—even The New York Times which does one in the sports section every Sunday.

This one was with Peter Karamanos, who is the owner of The Carolina Hurricane. Reading it I couldn’t help but think about The Hartford Whalers, since it was Karamanos who pulled The Whale out of Hartford and moved it to Raleigh—after spending a couple of years in Greensboro waiting for the arena to be built.

The fact that Hartford no longer has its hockey team still makes me a bit melancholy. I read a story last year about the fact that there is still some kind of Hartford Whalers fan club and it reminded me of The Baltimore Colts marching band, which continued to play at The Preakness every year long after Robert Irsay had stolen the team and moved it to Indianapolis.

The people of Baltimore finally got a football team back in 1996 after a 12 year gap but I doubt Hartford will have a similar happy ending. The arena is still there—now called the XL Center I believe—and it is used for minor league hockey an University of Connecticut hockey games. Only real hockey fans will remember that Gordie Howe played his final games for The Whalers and that there really was a serious fan base before Karamanos snatched the team from the town.

My connection to the Whalers is simple: the first story I ever wrote in Sports Illustrated was on a Whalers player. Blaine Stoughton was a 50 goal scorer on three different occasions but, because he played in Hartford, he received very little attention. I was actually covering politics in 1982 when SI asked if I’d be interesting in doing some hockey pieces for them and I said sure. Off I went to Hartford to write about Stoughton.

I liked him. I really liked his wife Cindy (I think that’s the correct spelling but I can’t swear it because my copy of the story is buried in a box someplace) who Blaine had met when he was playing in the old WHA for the Cincinnati Stingers. She was a Playboy bunny and Stoughton and his two linemates all dating bunnies and became known—surprise—as “The Bunny Line.”

“One year in the playoffs all three of us went to a game in Indianapolis wearing our boyfriends’ uniform tops with names and numbers on the back,” Cindy told me. “We were jumping around and cheering, getting a lot of attention as you might expect. A lot of the fans starting yelling at us, ‘hey, f---- the Stingers!’ I looked back at them and said, ‘we do and it’s great!’

Funny story but not one you’d expect to get into Sports Illustrated, especially in 1982. But I had to at least give it a shot. So, I put it in the story and waited. Bill Colson, who would later edit the magazine, was editing the story. He called and said, “We all like that story so much we’re tracking Gil Rogin (then the managing editor) down on vacation to see if he’ll approve it. Rogin was sailing in the Bahamas or something like that and tough to find. But they found him and he approved it. I was quite proud.

For years after that whenever I ran into Bruce Berlet, who was the hockey writer for The Hartford Courant at the time, his opening comment to me was always, “F----the Stingers!”

And, I still have my Hartford Whalers coffee mug, purchased on that trip. It is one of the last vestiges of a lost franchise.


Every once in a while I’m going to try to respond to questions and comments that come in. What I’m NOT going to do on a regular basis is argue with those who disagree with me. As far as I’m concerned, you’re entitled to disagree all you want. Having said that, Vince wrote something the other day about my comment that Jack Nicklaus played against better players than Tiger Woods did. He said that I had written that Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson won, “something like 35 or 38 majors.” What I wrote was that they won 30. Just so there’s no doubt, here’s the breakdown: Player 9; Palmer 7; Trevino 6 and Watson 8. I’m not great at math but I’m pretty sure that’s 30. He also wrote that most of Nicklaus’s majors were not won during the prime of the others. Huh? I specifically cited Palmer beating Nicklaus at the Masters in ’64. That WAS Palmer’s last major but he was in contention often (blowing the Open in ’66 with a seven shot lead on Sunday) until the Open at Oakmont in ’73. Watson, as mentioned, beat Nicklaus head-to-head three famous times and Trevino twice. Vince concluded by saying that “Catherine,” should have hired reporters who did a better job on there research. I can only assume he was referring to Katherine Graham, the late, great Washington Post publisher whose track record on hiring editors—she didn’t hire reporters—was, I think, pretty good…

Someone also wrote in yesterday asking why the BB+T Classic, the charity tournament in Washington that Bob Novak and I have been involved in for 15 years can’t get an NCAA exemption, which would make it about a million times easier to get teams to commit to playing two games each year. That is a GREAT question. We have been asking the NCAA for a way to get an exemption for our visiting teams almost since day 1. The host teams, Maryland and George Washington, cannot be exempt because—except for teams in Alaska and Hawaii—the NCAA does not allow exemptions for teams that play in an event annually. We have received hundreds of excuses from the NCAA but never once has anyone stepped forward and said, “let’s see, you raise millions for charity as opposed to all these ESPN-run events we give exemptions to that exist strictly to make money for corporate entities, maybe we should do something here…”

Why would they want to do that? Why would they want to help kids who desperately need the help when they can stay busy helping people who put money in THEIR pockets?

Not that I’m upset about it or anything.


WES said...

The world was a better place when there were Whalers and Expos and Winnipeg Jets.

Gunnar said...

Great story about the Whalers. I hate sports team relocations. Seattle lost the Sonics after 41 years, it hurts every day, particularly in the Spring playoff run. Hockey needs some more Canadian and Northern US teams.

Anonymous said...

But you did make a mistake on Tigers record with the 54 whole lead he has lost 4 times on tour and numerous times overseas not twice as you said

Anonymous said...

I will never forget the great song they played every time the Whalers scored. That, and the arena being located in a shopping mall made the franchise great!