The Whalers franchise was born as the New England Whalers in November 1971 when the World Hockey Association awarded a franchise to New England businessmen Howard Baldwin, John Coburn, W. Godfrey Wood and William Edward Barnes, to begin play in Boston. The team began auspiciously, signing former Detroit Red Wing 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 US 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-US 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 WHA season, with Webster leading the team in scoring and rampaging through the playoffs, and b~ehind legendary ex-Boston University coach Jack Kelley, would defeat the Winnipeg Jets to win the inaugural Avco World Trophy, the WHA championship.
While in Boston, the club played their home games at the Boston Arena and Boston Garden. However game scheduling at Boston Garden (owned by the rival NHL Bruins) became increasingly difficult, and the owners decided to relocate the team to Hartford, Connecticut beginning with the 1974-75 season. The area, aside from various minor league teams in New Haven, had been largely bereft of pro hockey until the team's arrival. While waiting for their new arena in Hartford, the Whalers played the first part of the 1974-75 season at The Big E Coliseum in West Springfield, MA. On January 11, 1975, the team played its first game in front of a sellout crowd at the Hartford Civic Center Coliseum.
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 (See Hartford Civic Center Arena Roof Collapse). Though they never again won the league championship, the New England Whalers were a successful team, never missing the playoffs in the WHA's 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, 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.
As the New England Whalers were one of the most stable WHA teams, it was one of the four franchises admitted to the National Hockey League 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.
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The Formation of the WHA, the Early Years
In 1972 the only real threat ever to the NHL's dominance of the hockey world began when Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson formed the World Hockey Association. No strangers to starting rebel sports leagues, they were also behind the defunct by now American Basketball Association, and would later start up the United States Football League. Officially announced on June 10, 1971 in New York, the WHA's philosophy was relatively simple - establish themselves in cities shunned by the NHL (many Canadian), as well as set up base in North America's media centres, competing head-on with the competition.
On Nov 1, 1971, Murphy and Davidson announced the 10 charter cities would be Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Dayton Ohio, Long Island NY, and St Paul Minnesota, with themselves owning a club in San Fransisco. Three weeks later, two more franchises were added to the roster, with the New England Whalers anchoring themselves in Boston and a team to travel the highway between Ottawa and Toronto. But before the first puck was dropped however, several shufflings occurred after the NHL announced it's own expansion to Long Island and Atlanta.
Disgruntled after learning they'd be sharing Nassau County Coliseum with the Islanders, the upstart Raiders moved upriver to Manhattan. Fearing the Southern United states couldn't support two teams in a new sport for the region, the Screaming Eagles were also on the fly, nesting in Philadelphia as the Blazers. Though they weren't in fear of competing with the NHL in that market, the owners of the Dayton Aeros weren't pleased with initial interest and they moved to Texas, another hockey-virgin state, making Houston their home. But feeling a presence in Ohio was integral to the survival of the league, the league herded up the Calgary Broncos and moved them to Cleveland, where they became the Crusaders. This forced Edmonton to share the Oilers (basically the evolution of the WHL's Edmonton Oil Kings) with Calgary under the monikor 'the Alberta Oilers'. And when the owners of the team proposed for Ontario couldn't come to an agreement with Harold Ballard to share Maple Leaf Gardens, the club was moved to Ottawa full time and named The Nationals. The obvious conflict of interest Davidson and Murphy were faced with by owning a club as well as the league prompted prompted them to sell the San Fransisco Seahawks to a group in Quebec. A deal with Le Colisee in Quebec City was reached and Les Nordiques (the Northerners) were born.
The league knew that in order to survive, they'd have to raid the NHL of some marquee players and held their initial draft in 1972. Each team was allowed to protect four players. Although a few young minor leaguers and Olympians who the owners were hoping to build the future around were on the list, mostly major stars from the NHL had their WHA rights reserved. Most aggressive in trying to lure NHL'ers over to the other side were the Chicago and Quebec camps. Their general philosophy was to get names already known and loved by Les Canadiens and Black Hawks fans. Jerry Korab, Stan Mikita and goalie Gary Smith were originally courted, but none jumped ship. Other names to initially be approached by the WHA included goalies Gerry Desjardins (also of the Hawks), Ken Dryden, Phil Myre, Doug Favell, Gilles Villemeure and Eddie Johnston, as well as Gilbert Perrault, Jacques Lemaire, Guy Lapointe, Brad Park, Peter Mahovlich, Steve Shutt and Bobby Clarke. Although most of those courted remained in the NHL, The Maple Leafs' Bernie Parent was first to cross the line, signing with Miami. But it was Bobby Hull's inking a deal what at the time was the most ever paid to a hockey player with Winnipeg that got the attention. Eager to have arguably the top player in the game in the new league, the $1 million signing bonus was chipped in by all teams as well as league officials. This opened the doors for several other 'names' jumping ship, including the Blazers who signed the Bruins' Derek Sanderson and the Flyers' Andre Lacroix & Bernie Parent. Cleveland signed Gerry Cheevers, Chicago came to terms with ex-Hawks Pat Stapleton and Ralph Backstrom, then with the New York Rangers. Quebec meanwhile employed the same tactic, signing several players in the Montreal lineup including Jean Claude Tremblay and Rejean Houle, as well as many in Les Canadiens' farm system.
Another key to presenting the new league as an 'alternative' was to use red and blue pucks. Naturally this added to the 'curiosity factor' the media was already feeding on. Although they'd lost a few key players, the NHL wasn't taking the new kids on the block too seriously ... in public. But placing teams in Long Isand and Atlanta to rival the WHA's plans in those markets told a different story. The key would be media coverage - and for the most part television coverage during the first year was rather indifferent. But as the league's inaugural season drew closer, areas too small by NHL standards such as Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg embraced the new league whole heartedly.