Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bring Back the Whale, For One Day At Least - Hartford Whalers Fanfest

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I endured the laughs, even from my own family.  I endured the jeering from "friends."  I endured resistance from the children - even the 6 year old who wanted to go to his little league game instead of spending time with his Dad, the nerve.  But, I would not be deterred.  Maybe I'm not optimistic about the Whalers being reborn, and I'm on the look out for a new NHL team to root for, but for nostalgia's sake, this is something I needed to do, go to the Hartford Whalers Fanfest.

Even my wife asked me if I was sure that I wanted to take the three kids by myself on the hellish 2 hour drive down to Rentschler Field in East Hartford.  And JUST to go to some fanfast for the Hartford Whalers?  She must have a short memory of that last game in 1997 against the Tampa Bay Lightning - where we stayed late to listen to the Brass Bonanza, with tears flowing, and shaking hands and hugging everyone around us - yeah, I'm going.  And while I'm at it, maybe I'll even forgive Peter Karmanos and Chuck Kaiton for moving to North Carolina all those years ago.  Well, probably not Karmanos.  Incidentally, when I felt my wife's sympathy and mentioned that it would be great if she came too, she gave me a blank stare as if I just asked her to take out the garbage after a two week summer vacation.  "No I can't go, I have to be at work in 8 HOURS!"

11am.  East Hartford, Connecticut.  I had never been to Rentschler Field, so I had a little bit of a "Look kids, Big Ben, Parliament" moment as we drive down the road toward the backside of the field, when it was just a long drive down to the local Cabela's.  A poor man's version of Bass Pro Shops, it was, but the only way out was to drive by the place again, and again.  The elderly man still making his way to Grand Marquis was shaking his head as I whizzed by him a couple of times in the parking lot trying to find the exit.  Christ!   

Despite those couple of detours, eventually we made it to the field with minutes to spare.  I was concerned that we weren't going to receive the free posters that were being given out to the first 3,000 people to enter the fanfest.  As we were making our way to the back of the line, though, I wasn't worried about being too late as I was in awe of all of the fans dressed in Whaler Green and Blue waiting to get in.  Jerseys with names like Francis, Dineen, Burke and Sanderson on them brought back great memories - and permitted me to tolerate one of the first (of many) long lines of the afternoon.

As we finally stroll in, I see that the the Whalers have a new mascot, Pucky the Whale.  Another chance for DLG to be completely freaked out.  I keep trying to get Pucky's attention, but sensing that he was going to be facing a screaming little girl, he wisely went in the opposite direction.  Did I mention that once we got IN, we had to wait in another line to obtain the posters?

Gripping the recently received posters, we strolled around some of the booths for a little while surveying the memorbilia landscape.  I wanted some harpoon or Pucky logo gear, hopefully this was the place to do it.  I can just sense the growing hunger in the kids, so I suggested getting some grub.  "Yes!!" I hear in near unison.  

After a lengthy wait in line for some food for the famished kids (I mean it was 11:30 and they hadn't eaten since 9am) and beer for a stressed out Dad (Sadly, an experienced kegmaster was missing from the fest since all of the beers were foamy messes), we were fortunate to discover that we were feet away from Chuck Kaiton introducing all of the former Whalers who were signing autographs that day.  Believing that waiting for the introductions was cheaper than walking through all of the memorabilia dealers, we staked our place in the front row of the stage. The kids were confused.  "What are we doing here, Dad?" I think I heard one of them say.

Names from the past were introduced by a hoarse Kaiton.  Of the players introduced, Eddie Kastelic was one of the enforcers of the early 90's who quickly became a JMR family favorite, Andre LaCroix got all of the old timers excited (I only had a fleeting memory of his career) and Kevin Dineen (my favorite player) received one of the largest ovations.  I thought that part was really cool, frankly.  Nice touch.  My wife was convinced that I was just taking pictures of the Hartford Colonials cheerleaders when she reviewed the photographs the next morning.  Thanks, honey.

Some pucks and other hockey memorabilia were purchased to pass some time until we were called into the autograph line.  At least a thousand people deep, we slowly trudged our way down to the end of the line.  I figured this would be quick, these guys don't want to spend 6 hours signing posters for fanboys like me, so we waited...and waited...and waited some more.  During the two hour wait, I think I even got into an argument with the guy in line behind me about whether Gordie Howe was charging $30 for his autograph or $70.  I was convinced that his book was $30, but if you wanted a picture and something else signed, it was $40.  He was convinced that Howe was signing his name for $70 a pop.  I also spoke with Jack Earle Haley who was waiting to get Joel Quenneville's autograph, because he was a Chicage Blackhawks fan.  Even my 8 year old son looked at him unevenly.

And, it was all worth it in the end.  I talked to Kaiton about the irony of him losing his voice.  I spoke to a couple of guys I had never heard of, frankly.  My boys were fascinated by the tag team of Eddie Kastelic and another fighter type, Grant Jennings, signing side-by-side.  "Are they going to fight each other??" My six year old asked me.  I even had a chance to spend 5 minutes with someone who lived in my hometown while the WHA's New England Whalers were based in Boston.  Although I missed Ronnie Francis and Mike Rogers, I did manage to get one of Kevin Dineen's last autographs of the day before he left as my kids and I ewre the last ones in the makeshift line formed as Dineen was walking by us.  It was a fitting end to the day.

I looked at the kids as we pile into the car.  And granted, they were looking at their recently purchased Pokemon and Cinderella cards, but they were a little sunburned and they were all smiling.  That's all I needed to see.  I didn't need to ask them if they had a good time.  I have to admit, the best part was my son' reaction when I told Dana Murzyn that unfortunately, my son was a Bruins fan.  "No I'm not Dad!" he wheeled around and hissed.  "I like the Whalers!"  One Bruins fan at a time. 

So when is the Hartford Whalers Hockeyfest?

photo courtesy of usatoday.com

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