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Hockey's Miss Havishams
Steve Rushin
June 19, 2006
On saturday night the Hartford Whalers Booster Club convened a meeting, as it has every month for 31 years. Membership has dwindled from a peak of 1,500 in 1987, but the 65 who remain are Whale obsessives to rival Ahab, still supporting a team that ceased to exist nine years ago.
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June 19, 2006

Hockey's Miss Havishams

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On saturday night the Hartford Whalers Booster Club convened a meeting, as it has every month for 31 years. Membership has dwindled from a peak of 1,500 in 1987, but the 65 who remain are Whale obsessives to rival Ahab, still supporting a team that ceased to exist nine years ago.

The Whalers played their final NHL game on April 13, 1997, a date annually commemorated with a "Fanniversary" rally in Hartford, where people still wear Whalers jerseys, set cellphones to ring with the Whalers' fight song and commiserate on Whalers message boards under mournful names like AbandonedWhaler.

They vilify owner Peter Karmanos Jr. for moving the team to North Carolina after 26 years in New England. Ponytail Pete, as Karmanos is still called for his regrettable tonsorial misstep in the mid-'90s, renamed his franchise the Hurricanes, and that team is now in the Stanley Cup finals (page 52), which for Hartford fans is like having to watch your ex-wife build a happy new life with Brad Pitt. "The thought of him holding the Stanley Cup over his head makes my stomach turn," says Mark Lopa, 35, a Whalers season-ticket holder ("section 204, row T, seats 1 and 2," he says) who wears the number 31 Whalers jersey of former goalie Steve Weeks.

The Stanley Cup is tiered like a wedding cake, which is appropriate, as Whalers fans resemble Charles Dickens's Miss Havisham. Jilted on her wedding day, she sits forever in her faded wedding dress, pining in her ruined mansion, all the clocks stopped at 20 minutes to nine, the precise moment of betrayal.

Whalers superfan Al Victor ("section 119, row L, seats 5 and 6") wears a number 9 Gordie Howe jersey from 1976. His daughter Amanda died in a bicycle accident in 1993, when she was 14. Three years ago, in unimaginable pain, he converted her bedroom into a Whaler Room, painting the walls blue and gray and filling it with hockey memorabilia. "I spend a lot of time in there," says the 60-year-old Booster Club president. "It's my little haven."

He's not alone. Thirty years after the NHL's California Golden Seals left Oakland (for Cleveland and then oblivion), their booster club feels the team's presence like the phantom leg of an amputee. Once a month many of the 40 members gather at Ricky's Sports Theatre and Grill in San Leandro, Calif., "to share their love of hockey and each other's company," says member Brad Kurtzberg, 39, who has written a colorful history of the Seals called Shorthanded. "The sad thing is that most of the boosters are in their 60s and 70s. The club will likely end in the next few years as members get older and become unable to attend meetings."

What becomes of the brokenhearted who had love that's now departed? Fans of the Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets and Cleveland Barons all have active clubs. "We're still alive," adds Joe Watkins, president of the Atlanta Flames Fan Club. "We have a dozen members." They're all groovy survivors of '70s hockey, their teams defunct but never de-funked.

Whalers season-ticket holder Marty Evtushek ("section 302, row D, seat 1") is a 57-year-old letter carrier who drives a Buick Century with H WHLR plates. His fondest memory? "The camaraderie of the people in the stands," he says.

Before one game at the Hartford Civic Center, Evtushek ejected a loudmouthed Boston Bruins fan, throwing him through open steel fire doors that shut behind the heckler with a click of satisfying finality. But Evtushek was best known for faithfully following the Whale on the road, which is why he's still known in Hartford as Mr. Trips. " Quebec was the worst," sighs Mr. Trips. " Quebec fans used to beat up our women." Mr. Trips turned his den into a Whaler Room, the curtains made from Whalers boxer shorts. "Curtains, valences, tiebacks, everything," says his wife, Diane, who sewed them herself.

In that den the Whalers' catchy theme song has permanent pride of place on the record player. Brass Bonanza was played in the Civic Center after every Whalers goal, and even now it can be heard at Fenway Park, a nostalgic sop to Red Sox fans from Connecticut, for whom it is like a dog whistle, intelligible only to them.

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