On the anniversary of the announcement of the Whalers' departure from Hartford, we cast our gaze southward to see how the franchise is faring...
A recap of the deal that didn't happen.
Threats, accusations and recriminations fly in the wake of owner Peter Karmanos' announcement that, in the absence of an acceptable arena deal with the state of Connecticut, the Whalers will leave Hartford at the end of the current season. Local business leaders try to gather resources to buy the team, while politicians try to force the team to play out the last year of its contract -- or at least to pay more than the $20.5 million exit fee negotiated by the governor.
April 12: With the Whalers' playoff hopes out of their own hands, Ottawa defeats the Buffalo Sabres 1-0 to secure the Senators' first postseason appearance and assure that the Whalers will miss the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
April 13: 18 NHL years come to a close with a 2-1 victory over Tampa Bay.
Doctor Karmanos' Traveling Road Show debuts. "Anywhere But Hartford" seems to be opening number. Columbus, Raleigh, Minneapolis, St. Paul, even Las Vegas are mentioned as possible relocation sites. Eyes roll when Karmanos announces that the team is considering renovating a 55-year-old, abandoned Ohio aircraft hangar as a temporary home until a new arena can be built in Columbus.
Karmanos calls the Columbus proposal -- a 25-year lease under which the operator would pay $3 million in annual rent to the convention facilities authority and $200,000 a year to the community -- a "significantly better deal" than the offer he received to stay in Hartford.
"That's a situation I don't want to find myself in ever again," he says. "I'm going to put myself in a market that will work financially."
Karmanos tells an Ohio TV station that Columbus is his number one choice. The broadcaster asks him to repeat it. He does. A week later in North Carolina, Karmanos denies Columbus is the front-runner. Karmanos also notes his team now is "formerly the Hartford Whalers." Asked to propose some new names, Karmanos smiles, suggesting Cyclones or Hurricanes. Karmanos tours the Greensboro Coliseum, a possible interim site where the team will play for two seasons while a new arena is built in Raleigh, and pronounces it a "first-class facility."
"I'd be the most surprised person in Greensboro if the Hartford Whalers came here," says Tom Ward, chairman of the Greensboro Sports Commission. "The corporate effort now is focused on baseball. I wonder where the corporate support for hockey is going to come from."
"Anybody who seriously thinks Mr. Karmanos is going to move here has been smoking cigarettes without the labels," adds Carolina Monarchs spokesman Don Helbig. The AHL Monarchs would have to vacate the Greensboro Coliseum to make way for the wayward NHL team.
May 6: With the paperwork on the custody transfer finalized, the Hartford Whalers become the Carolina Hurricanes. The meteorological name won out over "Ice Hogs." Whalers fans, who have learned to be thankful for small favors, send up a tiny prayer of thanks for being spared this embarrassment. Talks with the Monarchs over use of the arena in Greensboro are stalled.
May 7: Despite calls to either pay more or play out the final year of their contract in Hartford, the team is allowed to slip away for the $20.5 million agreed upon in March. The figure that will be reported, $22.7 million, includes $1 million for the value of the final season's television contract and $1.2 million in interest. The Whalers must pay $5 million by July 1, with the balance paid in annual installments through 2012. The Connecticut Development Authority retains the rights to the Hartford Whalers name, logo and trademark use; the team's identity and history will not be a part of the "new" franchise. The Hurricanes, in short order, unretire Rick Ley's No. 2 and John McKenzie's No. 19 and put them on the backs of Glen Wesley and Nelson Emerson.
© Copyright 1997 Bob Englehart, The Hartford Courant
May 13: the Hurricanes reach a deal with the Monarchs. The Hurricanes will pay rent to relocate and operate the Monarchs for two years; the Monarchs will return to Greensboro under present ownership in 1999 with a five-year AHL affiliation agreement with the Hurricanes. The Monarchs later announce a move to New Haven, Connecticut, where they will be known as The Beast of New Haven.
May 29: Carolina announces ticket prices. According to the Greensboro News and Record, "jaws hit the ground from Greensboro to Raleigh." The tickets range from $20 for a nosebleed seat in the rafters of the Greensboro Coliseum to an "eye-popping" $100 for seats surrounding the ice. The Canes state a goal of 10,000-12,000 season-ticket holders, but do not offer any discount for purchasing season tickets. "We want to get people used to the sticker-shock right away," says general manager Jim Rutherford. "We're not going to discount our product."
Through mid-June, the team had sold about 2,000 season tickets, but Karmanos remains optimistic. The team has not yet begun its marketing efforts. "I suspect we'll get almost between 10,000 and 12,000," he claims. He goes on to say that the team will be "10 to 15 points better just by solidifying the future and moving to North Carolina."
The team unveils its new logo, two interlocking "C"s forming a hurricane shape around a flying black puck. Karmanos says the emblem wasn't necessarily designed as a flashy device to sell merchandise. "We were looking for a traditional look. We're tired of some of the other new, more comic book kind of things. We wanted a good, straightforward, high-powered traditional hockey logo. We were willing to give up a few early retail sales for something that will last and be traditional in the long run." A slight problem is noted with the team's secondary logo; it is supposed to be a hurricane warning flag, lashed to a hockey stick. It is pointed out at the press conference that it is actually a gale warning flag.
The team's first order of business is to fend off a lawsuit by a local attorney who has filed a trademark application to register the name "Carolina Hurricanes." Thanks to the late unveiling and the lawsuit, the team has no Hurricanes jersey ready for the NHL draft June 21. Their first pick wears a generic NHL sweater. More snickers were heard in the press.
As for merchandising, Karmanos will soon find himself wishing he had those few early retail sales.
June 25: the National Hockey League formally approves the move of the Hartford franchise to North Carolina. The Hartford Whalers, who had their start as the New England Whalers, were one of four World Hockey Association franchises that merged with the NHL in 1979. Two other WHA franchises -- the Winnipeg Jets and the Quebec Nordiques -- had relocated to new homes already; only the Edmonton Oilers now remain. The Whalers finished their NHL history in Hartford with a record of 552-740-177 -- 188 games under .500. They posted 15 losing seasons in 18 years and won only one playoff round.
Despite season ticket numbers hovering around 3,000, and grumblings from fans about prices that average $50 and top out at $100 per game, the front office staff remains optimistic. "We are on our way," says Jim Baldwin, Carolina's director of ticket operations. "We have just started to meet with groups looking for corporate ticket packages. Many other people have said they will buy tickets but are still looking at brochures to decide on seat locations. I feel we will meet the 12,000 mark."
The team unveils their new uniforms at a "Fan Jam" at the Greensboro Coliseum. The 21,300-seat Greensboro facility, 70 miles from Raleigh, will have the largest capacity in the NHL, a point the team considered a bonus when selecting their new home. 5,000 fans tour the arena, meet players and staff and are given a chance to select seats for season tickets. 25 ticket packages are sold. A week later, partial-season packages are announced, for 10 or 25 games; no discount is given for season tickets. "It's silly to say that 10 to 12 (thousand) full-season tickets is within reach. It's not within reach," says Baldwin.
An article in the Raleigh News and Observer notes that "team officials are quick to admit they had no time to conduct market research before the move was finalized....An indication of how much the Hurricanes misjudged the market is season ticket sales. In May, team officials predicted 8,000 to 10,000 would be sold for this season. With the first regular-season game less than a month away, 5,000 seems almost beyond reach." The team had actually predicted 12,000 (see: July), but the local media is uncommonly accommodating. The team will eventually sell 3,083 season tickets. The TV pact is announced; the team had expected to televise all games and sign a deal in the $4-7 million range, up from $1 million in Hartford. Instead, only 29 games will be covered, fewest in the league, nine of which will be "educational" games with no advertising. "Nothing happens overnight," Peter Karmanos is quoted as saying. "I've been in the software business 24 years and there were eight years where the revenue line hardly moved at all."
The Hurricanes' mascot "Stormy" the hog makes a bizarre, if prescient, preseason debut. Set to emerge from a smoke-filled Zamboni at center ice, he is instead discovered inside, unconscious, legs kicking in panic. The dry ice in the Zamboni had sucked the oxygen out of the cramped space.
Stormy makes a full recovery.
The Hurricanes home opener draws 18,661 -- many apparently recruited by front office staff who, in the days leading up to the game, handed out free tickets to anyone willing to take one. Spectators note at least 6,000 empty seats. Announced attendance at the second game is 6,083, the third, 6,352. The fans celebrate the first home win by throwing plastic cups -- many not empty -- at the players as they gather around the goal. The Hurricanes acknowledge the problem but are leery of harming their tenuous link with the fans. "As long as we can survive the pelting at the end of the games, we'll be all right," says Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice. "I don't want to say anything to discourage their enthusiasm, but it can be very dangerous. If they want to throw something, throw money -- 20s or 50s -- but no change. Obviously not for the players, they don't need it, but for the coaches."
Karmanos had bragged that the team would be 10 to 15 points better just by virtue of being out of Hartford; by October 15 the team is off to a franchise-worst 1-7-2 start. After the Senators' first match with the Hurricanes, Canadian papers note that "It's often said that teams sink to the level of the opposition. When the opposition is the Carolina Hurricanes, that level can be 20,000 leagues under the NHL." The Raleigh arena governing body approves $20 million in upgrades to the still-pending facility, to be paid for by the Hurricanes; Karmanos had demanded a cost-free, rent-free arena in Hartford, but what's $20 million between friends? Still unclear is whether or not the requested upgrades will delay the arena opening and force the team to play more than two seasons in Greensboro.
Ticket woes reach crisis proportions when snickering comments on ESPN and televised highlights plainly showing whole sections of empty seats culminate in a Sports Illustrated article entitled "Natural Disaster." "They are like some down-on-its-luck country band," the article says, "playing in front of small crowds, in a small city, with no home and no hope." Karmanos, to his credit, has kind words for Hartford. "We had 9,000 or 10,000 of the greatest fans in hockey," he tells SI. "And we really, really tried to make it work." The team offers former Whalers season ticket holders four Hurricanes tickets to the game of their choice, then gives every Hurricanes season ticket holder one free ticket for each one he bought. The Raleigh press: "The Hurricanes now sound as needy as a public radio station at fund-raising time."
And there's more...
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