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New England Whalers (WHA)

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The Hartford Whalers were an American professional ice hockey team based for most of its existence in Hartford, Connecticut. The club played in the World Hockey Association (WHA) from 1972 until 1979, and in the National Hockey League (NHL) from 1979 to 1997. Originally based in Boston, Massachusetts, the team joined the WHA in the League's inaugural 1972 season, and was known as the New England Whalers throughout their time in the WHA. The Whalers moved to Hartford in 1974 and joined the NHL in the NHL–WHA merger of 1979.

In 1997, the Whalers franchise relocated to Greensboro, North Carolina, where they became the Carolina Hurricanes (now based in Raleigh).

Early seasons in Boston (1971–1974)

The Whalers franchise was born in November 1971 when the World Hockey Association (WHA) awarded a franchise to New England businessmen Howard Baldwin, John Coburn, W. Godfrey Wood and William Edward Barnes to begin play in Boston, Massachusetts. The team began auspiciously, signing former Detroit Red Wings star Tom Webster, hard rock Boston Bruins' defenseman Ted Green (the team's inaugural captain), Toronto Maple Leafs' defensemen Rick Ley, Jim Dorey and Brad Selwood, and former Pittsburgh Penguins' goaltender Al Smith.

New England also signed an unusually large number of American players, including Massachusetts natives and former U.S. Olympic hockey team members Larry Pleau (who had been a regular with the Montreal Canadiens the previous season), Kevin Ahearn, John Cunniff and Paul Hurley. Two other ex-U.S. Olympians on the Whalers' roster (Minnesotans Timothy Sheehy and Tommy Williams) had spent a significant part of their careers in Boston with Boston College and the Bruins, respectively.

The Whalers would have the WHA's best regular-season record in the 1972–73 season, with Webster leading the team in scoring and rampaging through the playoffs, and behind legendary ex-Boston University Head Coach Jack Kelley, would defeat the Winnipeg Jets to win the inaugural Avco World Trophy, the WHA championship.

Relocation to Hartford (1974)

The club played its first season at Boston Arena, moving to Boston Garden in 1973. However, the Garden was owned by the rival NHL Bruins, and the Whalers found themselves fourth in priority for dates behind the Bruins, Boston Celtics and even the American Hockey League's Boston Braves. Fed up with the situation, Baldwin decided to move elsewhere.

In a stroke of luck, Hartford was about to open a new, modern downtown arena and convention center, the Hartford Civic Center. The city had initially hoped to get an American Basketball Association team as the main tenant, but when that fell through, city leaders got in touch with the Whalers. The area, aside from various minor league teams in New Haven, had been largely bereft of professional hockey until the Whalers' arrival. The Civic Center was still being finished when the 1974–75 season began, so the Whalers played the first part of the 1974–75 season at The Big E Coliseum in West Springfield, Massachusetts.

On January 11, 1975, the team played its first game in front of a sellout crowd at the Hartford Civic Center. The franchise remained in Hartford until it relocated to North Carolina for the 1997–98 season, save for a temporary relocation to the nearby Springfield Civic Center in the late 1970s while their Hartford arena was being rebuilt after heavy snow followed by heavy rain caused the roof to collapse, which suffered from several engineering and construction shortcomings.[1]

Though they never again won the WHA championship, the New England Whalers were a successful team, never missing the playoffs in League history, and finishing first in its division three times. They had a more stable roster than most WHA teams—Ley, Webster, Selwood, Pleau, and Tommy Earl would all play over 350 games with the club—and scored a major coup when they signed legend Gordie Howe and his sons Mark and Marty from the Houston Aeros in 1977.

While the first two full seasons in Hartford were not glittering (the Whalers recorded losing records both years), the final two WHA seasons saw more success. They went to the finals again in 1978, with a veteran team spearheaded by the Howes—50-year-old Gordie led the team in scoring—future NHL stars Gordie Roberts and Mike Rogers, All-Star defenseman Ron Plumb, and forwards John McKenzie, Dave Keon and Mike Antonovich, and possessed of the League's best defense. The next season was not so fine, however, but while age finally caught up with Gordie Howe, the slack was picked up by Andre Lacroix, the WHA's all-time leading scorer, acquired from the Aeros.

Admission to the NHL

As the Whalers were one of the most stable WHA teams, it was one of the four franchises admitted to the National Hockey League (NHL) when the rival leagues merged in 1979. Following lobbying from the Boston Bruins, one of the conditions of the merger stipulated that the Whalers were to drop "New England" from their name. The Howes, Rogers, Ley, Keon, Smith, Roberts and Lacroix would go on to wear the uniform of the Hartford Whalers. The team also changed its colors to blue and green, a combination which was unused in the NHL at the time.

Unlike the other former WHA teams, the Whalers were not stripped of most of their players. Only Selwood, George Lyle and Warren Miller were reclaimed by their former NHL teams.