The citizens of Hartford, the Insurance City, may include an inordinate number of figure filberts, but they certainly don't lack imagination. Why just last week, as their Whalers prepared to meet the Calgary Flames, there was talk that the game might be a preview of the Stanley Cup finals. That seemed a bit much, even if the NHL statistical tables showed that Calgary had the third-best overall record with 84 points and that Hartford was No. 4 with 81.
Could these be the same Whalers who failed to make the playoffs in five of the last seven years? The former New England Whalers of the old WHA, who began life in Boston but found competition with the Bruins too tough and moved down the road to Hartford?
Absolutely not. At least not in spirit. Hartford has been at or near the top of the Adams Division since early December. They've whipped those archrival Bruins in six out of eight games, including a 10-2 rout in their most recent meeting on March 5. At week's end their record was 37-28-7, which gave them a 7-point lead in the Adams over second-place Montreal. All of which has those Insurance City number crunchers busy calculating the Whalers' magic number to clinch their first division crown. My, how the puny have risen.
"I have a great fear of Hartford," says Quebec coach Michel Bergeron, who speaks from painful experience. Last year the Nordiques finished first in the Adams but suffered a 3-0 sweep by the Whalers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. And this season there's more to shutting down Hartford than stifling high-scoring center Ron Francis. The Whalers are getting scoring from all three lines. Seven players have at least 17 goals. The man with the most is right wing Kevin Dineen, who has 32 and of whom Hartford general manager Emile (the Cat) Francis—selected NHL Executive of the Year last season by The Sporting News and The Hockey News—is fond of saying, "He's got more guts than a slaughterhouse."
It takes guts to cut it in Hartford. When goaltender Mike Liut, 31, arrived from St. Louis two years ago in a trade for winger Mark Johnson and goalie Greg Millen, the Hartford Courant greeted him with a reader poll that posed the question: Do you agree or disagree with the trade? The conclusion: 17% agreed, 83% thought the Whalers had been had. Since then, however, if one were to list 10 reasons why Hartford has escaped its dismal past, Liut would be about five of them. As of Sunday he had 27 wins in 53 games, and his 36-save, 3-0 blanking of Winnipeg last Friday was his fourth shutout of the season.
But Whaler watchers can be as changeable as the New England weather. That game with Calgary turned out to be a 6-1 defeat, and Liut, who had been put in only after his goaltending partner, Steve Weeks, had allowed three goals on seven shots, was booed. "Maybe, in a way, it's good," says Liut. "In places like Philadelphia, fans expect you to win. Tradition demands it. Subliminally, players respond to that."
The demands of Hartford's hockey tradition aren't particularly exacting. Last spring the Whalers finished fourth in the five-team Adams. Because they weren't dead last, they made the playoffs. In a paroxysm of gratitude, the Downtown Council threw a parade, which 20,000 people lined the streets to watch.
Maybe the council was on to something. Thus feted, the Whalers upset Quebec and then—although Francis played with two cracked ribs—took the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Canadiens to seven games.
Unlike Francis's ribs, the nettlesome stomach ailment that plagued Sylvain Turgeon last season had not healed by the time training camp opened in September. Turgeon, the Whalers' top scorer in 1985-86 with 79 points, did specially prescribed exercises, pumped iron and rode a bike. "He could lift the building, but he couldn't skate." says the Cat. "We had Charles Atlas but we didn't have Sylvain Turgeon."
Out of desperation, Turgeon underwent exploratory surgery, which revealed a tiny hole in his abdominal wall. After missing the first half of the season. Turgeon returned on Jan. 9. He has 27 points in 32 games and has even thrown down his gloves once or twice. "Well, that was certainly terrifying—two Frenchmen going at it," cracked winger Paul Lawless after Turgeon and Winnipeg defenseman Mario Marois clinched and hissed unpleasantries at each other last Friday.