— If the Whalers could have a Mount Rushmore, this would be it. Displayed side-by-side were three original World Hockey Association era jerseys — the logo with the W and the harpoon — on a table for fans to admire.
"It's the greatest piece of WHA history I've ever seen," said Tim Gassen, who is trying to launch a WHA Hall of Fame and, perhaps, locate it in Hartford.
The three jerseys were worn on the ice at the same time by Gordie, Marty and Mark Howe in 1977 and, if auctioned off at the right time, could probably fetch a six-figure price.
They are part of a massive collection purchased by the MeiGray Group, a New Jersey-based company that deals in game-worn jerseys. Barry Meisel, a longtime hockey writer who is now a partner in the company, says Whalers memorabilia is still very much in demand.
"The best franchises are small-market teams in the big time," Meisel said. "The Green Bay Packers, for example. People don't forget them. Even though [the Whalers] never came close to winning the Stanley Cup, they're an iconic franchise."
Gassen grew up a fan of the Indianapolis Racers, a team that originally signed Wayne Gretzky, then folded in the merger with the NHL. "We used to look at Hartford with envy," he said. "There was no doubt in our minds that the Indianapolis Racers would be in the NHL today if Howard Baldwin owned them."
Now Gassen, who has collected artifacts, written a book on the Racers, produced a DVD box set on WHA history, partnered with MeiGray and assembled an induction class, is looking for a permanent home for a WHA Hall of Fame. He's eying Winnipeg and Hartford, and will meet with Baldwin on Sunday to talk about bringing it to Hartford.
One artifact is missing — the first WHA championship trophy, which was won by the Whalers.
"That was in Boston," Howard Baldwin said. "We knew we were going to win it, and the AFCO trophy wasn't ready yet. We went out and bought a trophy for about 25 bucks."
Baldwin does not know what happened to it, but may have it in storage. If he finds it, he said, he'll turn it over to the Hall of Fame.
In ceremonies along the course at Rentschler Field, Baldwin, Andre LaCroix and the Howe Family — Gordie, Colleen, Marty and Mark, were inducted into the WHA Hall of Fame.
A New Generation Of Whalers Fans
Fans arrived as early as 8 a.m., and by 10:30, still 30 minutes before the gates opened, the line stretched halfway around Rentschler's perimeter. Many of the fans were youngsters, families with hardcore Whalers fans hoping to pass it on to their children.
"There was one little girl wearing an old Whaler jersey with the harpoon," said Diane Evtushek, wife of Booster Club president Marty Evtushek. "And it was her mother's when she was a little girl."
Joe Lukowski, 32, drove from Easthampton, Mass., with his wife, Amy, and their young son, Kyle.
"Both my brothers are Bruins fans," Joe Lukowski said, "and they keep asking how I could be a fan of a team that doesn't exist. I tried being a Bruins fans, but it didn't feel right."
Lukowski, whose favorite player was Pat Verbeek, is hoping to pass his love of the Whalers on to his son, but it's an uphill battle. "He's getting a lot of Bruins stuff from his brothers," Joe said.
At the Booster Club's table, it was estimated that at least 30 new members signed up Saturday.
A Few Moments With The Legend
Gordie Howe began signing at 3 p.m., copies of his book personally signed were available for $70 with half the proceeds going to the Whalers Wives charity. He posed with a baby in carriage for one picture, and held a young boy, maybe four years old, wearing an old, green hockey helmet, for another.
Howe, 82, was asked if he enjoyed his time in Hartford?
"Of course, who couldn't?" he said.
Was he surprised by the turnout for a team that left town so long ago?
"Hell, no," he said. "It's hockey, isn't it?"
His favorite memory of playing in Hartford? Seeing his son, Marty, score his first NHL goal.
From The Voice Of A Whaler
At 12:30 p.m.. Chuck Kaiton, who taught us the correct pronunciation of "wh" before Stewie Griffin told us about "cool whip," finished introducing the large group of ex-Whalers as the fans cheered and chanted and the familiar "Brass Bonanza" blared in the background.
Kevin Dineen, Joel Quenneville, Dave and Wayne Babych, Norm Barnes ...
"I'm not a bit surprised [by the turnout]," said Kaiton, radio voice of the Whalers for 18 years. "People have great memories."
Kaiton's take on enduring Whaler-mania sounds much like what old-school Brooklynites would say about the Dodgers.
"How close the fans were to the players," he said, "and how much the players were a part of the community."
Kaiton talked about several players who met their wives in Hartford.
As he took his seat alongside LaCroix, Barnes and Jeff Brubaker to sign autographs, he lamented that, today, so much has changed.
"There is nothing like a small-market team in the 1980s," he said.
Can it be recaptured? I don't know. The economics would have to dictate that. I just don't know."
First Drafts Of Whalers History
Sean Dougherty came to Hartford in 1985, enrolled in Trinity College and fell in love — with the Whalers.
"I had a local team I could root for," he said, "for the first time in so long I couldn't remember. They were my team."
They still are. Dougherty, 43, who works for a PR firm in New Jersey, donned his Whaler jersey, and a Whalers painter's hat (remember when we were all wearing those?) and made the two-plus hour drive to East Hartford for the FanFest with a bag full of old newspapers. He stopped the Courant's Jeff Jacobs and asked him to sign our 1986 Whalers preview section.
"I just told Mike Rogers," Dougherty said, "if you play in Montreal and you're a star, people don't remember you. Here, people will love you 'til the day you die.'"
Dougherty remembers coming to tears while watching the Whalers' final game.
He doesn't see it coming back, though.
"We have to be realistic," he said. "The NHL doesn't need Hartford for a footprint — they have New York and Boston. It's sad to think about, but San Jose got a team back because they [had a rich owner], Denver got a team back because they were rich, Atlanta got a team back because their population grew 500 percent since the [the Flames] left. None of those factors are here."
Dougherty's favorite memory: A victory over Buffalo during the playoff push on March 5, 1986, with Kevin Dineen scoring the winning goal.
A Whalers 'Big Shot'
Dave Babych played 19 seasons in the NHL, but the final stages of the 1985-86 season in Hartford remains an unforgettable time.
"You start to get a feel for how good your team is," Babych, 49, said as he signed posters for Whalers fans. "And it doesn't matter what your record is. The Cat [Emile Francis] put together a pretty good group by the last third of that season, and we knew what we had to do to make the playoffs. And nobody second-guess it. We were young and maybe stupid enough to believe we could do it. It was a lot of fun."
This was the highlight of Whalers history. They finished fourth, but made the playoffs and knocked off top-seeded Quebec. Then they drove Montreal to a Game 7 at the Forum, and Babych scored to send the game to OT.
"I remember that goal a little bit," he said.
Then he remembered Claude Lemieux's goal that ended the dream. To this day, mention that name around here and no one thinks you're talking about Mario.
"You had to give it to him, though," Babych said. "That guy, he was a gamer."
Babych was lost in the expansion draft of 1991. He remembers Hartford as a "quiet place" where fans "knew hockey, but gave you your space." Having also played for Winnipeg, which lost its team, Babych knows twice as much about what a small-market, us-against-the-world franchise means to its community.
"There's that core of fans that supports the franchise," he said, "and they're still here. And they're still in Winnipeg."
On The Art Of Being A Whalers Fan
There are Whalers jerseys everywhere, but none quite like Robert Warsaw's. A New Britain-based artist, he made it himself, painting the green 'W' and blue flukes in acrylic paint on a V-neck T-shirt. Given his big hair and his sweat band, well, it's quite a look.
"I remember I went to a car dealership when I was a kid," he said, "and I met Sylvain Turgeon, and I became a Whalers fan."
Warsaw, 36, has a professional's eye for design and still loves the Whalers simple, classic logo.
"It's a great logo," he said "It's very effective and it has staying power. The Whalers were the greatest 'underdog' team I ever watched."
His favorite player was Mike Liut — "he looked like a big crab." And, inspired by the Whalers, he formed a deck hockey league at his elementary school, Sacred Heart in New Britain. Warsaw was the goalie.
Given the right ownership — one with the love — Warsaw thinks a new hockey team can make it here. And he would love to design statues of old Whalers and murals to adorn a new arena.
"You mix sports and love," Warsaw said, "with art and creativity, and you can get an incredible result."
Still Mr. Class
Ron Francis had to leave early, and catch a 2:30 p.m. flight home for a family commitment. But he signed roughly 300 posters so that the first fans to arrive got posters pre-signed by the Whalers legend.
And the people kept coming
Organizers would have been pleased to get 2,000. Their final estimate was 4,700. They stocked 3,000 posters, and they ran out with several hours to go.
"When I saw the lines building, I was thrilled," said Mark Willand, one of the organizers. "And I was also intimidated, because you want to make everyone happy."
The lines were long well into the afternoon, but the ex-Whalers promised to stay and sign until everyone had their autographs. Willand estimate that at least $25,000 was raised for Whalers wives.
The turnout, especially with so many youngsters born after the Whalers left, was overwhelming, and left the man looking to bring back hockey more determined and optimistic than ever. For Howard Baldwin, it reminded him of the opening in 1974, and the "re-opening" in 1979.
"It says that, spiritually, this franchise never left," Howard Baldwin said. "I want to stress this to everyone who will listen: We ain't going away. We're going to do the winter event, and we're going to do this summer event every year."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun