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More than 2 decades later, Hartford still bleeds green, says former Whalers announcer Chuck Kaiton

FILE- Hartford Whalers players salute the fans at the end of their final NHL hockey game, Sunday, April 13, 1997, in Hartford, against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Steve Miller
FILE- Hartford Whalers players salute the fans at the end of their final NHL hockey game, Sunday, April 13, 1997, in Hartford, against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The former voice of the Hartford Whalers says he’s still amazed by how much support the team receives more than two decades after its move to North Carolina.

“The love that Whaler fans have for their team … it's astounding,” said Chuck Kaiton, who was the play-by-play announcer for the Whalers since its first NHL season in 1979-80 and followed the team to Raleigh when they became the Carolina Hurricanes.

“You see a lot of Whaler jerseys being sold even here in North Carolina," Kaiton said. "It's still a very high-selling piece of merchandise for the National Hockey League.”

Kaiton was recently at Hartford’s Dunkin' Park for the Yard Goats' “Whalers Alumni Weekend.” The event featured players from the former team including Kevin Dineen and Scott Daniels.

On why the Whalers are still so popular

Kaiton said he thinks he knows why the team remains so popular in Connecticut.

“Well, I think it's pretty easy,” Kaiton said. Hartford "was a big, small town that had a major league team. And I think they really embraced the players. And the players embraced the fans.”

Connecticut’s love for the Whalers exists despite the team’s spotty history. In 18 NHL seasons, the Whalers only finished higher than fourth place in their division one time: The 1986-87 season, when the team finished first place in the Adams Division. But even at the height of the team’s performance, average fan attendance remained in the bottom half of the league.

Had the team remained in Hartford, Kaiton said, he thinks fan support would have picked up.

“There was … this battle of trying to belong, so to speak, on the same level as the (New York) Rangers and the (Boston) Bruins,” Kaiton said. “As time went on and as the team became more successful, I think that inferiority complex evaporated to a certain extent."

"I think we needed another generation of fans, the youngsters who were Whaler fans," Kaiton said. "They just didn't give it enough time, unfortunately, for that group to become season ticket holders.”

Could the Whalers ever return?

In June of this year, hope sprang anew that the NHL could return to Hartford. Arizona voters in May rejected taxpayer funding of a new stadium for the Arizona Coyotes in the city of Tempe. The following month, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont said he had an ownership group in place to bring the Coyotes to Hartford. But Kaiton said he has a difficult time believing that the Coyotes would actually move to Hartford.

“Commissioner Gary Bettman of the NHL is not really keen on moving teams,” Kaiton said. “Gary would need the convincing of a new building. I think you'd have to see a season ticket base of at least 10-to-15,000. The building would be the big thing.”

So, for now, the Whalers and the WNBA’s Sun are the only modern-era major professional sports franchises that have ever called Connecticut home. In a state where sports loyalties seem divided between the New York and the Boston-based teams, love for this franchise of yesteryear seems unanimous.

“When I talked to all the (former Whalers) players,” Kaiton said. “All of them will tell you they were very close to the fans because the fans were passionate, the fans were accessible. And they were accessible to them.”

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. He's proud to be a part of the team that won a regional Emmy Award for The Vote: A Connecticut Conversation. In his 21st year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.

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