Civic Pride
A Bonanza Of Memories, A Dream That Won't Die
January 7, 2006 -- Jeff Jacobs -- Hartford Courant

After they had honored the love of her life with one standing ovation and two renditions of "Brass Bonanza," the Connecticut girl with the bluest eyes in the world stepped off the ice and walked three steps for every two to keep pace with her 14-year-old daughter.

Wow, Mary Lou, your daughter is way taller than you.

"Good gene pool," Ron Francis' wife answered.

Kaitlyn was four weeks old when Eddie Johnston killed the Whalers and built a Stanley Cup champion for the Pittsburgh Penguins with one phone call. Kaitlyn is a volleyball player now, and if Ronnie didn't have a great slap shot or blinding skating speed to pass along to the next generation, he did have plenty of height.

You look at Kaitlyn Francis on Friday night and you realize how long it has been since her daddy and Ulf Samuelsson were traded for John Cullen and Zarl ... sorry, it's still difficult to write his name. Then you look up into the Civic Center stands and see 12,206 folks who had come to a minor league game to honor the major league careers of Francis, Kevin Dineen and Samuelsson and you begin to realize how folks here don't forget.

Nearly 15 years have passed since Ronnie left town.

Nearly nine since the rest of the Whalers followed him.

Yet when Greg Gilmartin, the public address voice during hockey's glory days in Hartford, tried to list all the goals and assists and trophies Francis had amassed in a 23-year NHL career, he was drowned out. Folks here already know Ronnie was second all-time in assists and fourth all-time in points. So they chanted:

"Let's go, Whalers! Let's go, Whalers!"

It was something to see. It was something to hear.

The three of them met at the intersection of Trumbull and Asylum all those years ago and they met again, as Dineen joked, as three old goats on memory lane. For the 12,206 fans, however, it was something a little different. This was the intersection of the past and the future.

They chanted "Let's go, Whalers!" not waiting for Dineen to blow around Larry Robinson one more time to win a playoff game. They chanted "Let's go, Whalers!" not waiting for Ulfie to run over Cam Neely again. They chanted "Let's go, Whalers!" not waiting for Ronnie to slide another no-look pass.

They chanted for what was.

But they chanted louder for what could be.

This was an awkward time for the Wolf Pack to honor these guys, and the Madison Square Garden folks did it first class. They are to be applauded. Mayor Eddie Perez was there. Gov. Rell was there. As Dineen said, it was good to have politicians in the house, to see how good hockey can be in this town. There were video tributes. The Wolf Pack brought in the players' families. They raised three banners in their honor. The only nitpick is Dineen's video clip should have included him blowing around Robinson. Other than that, the ceremony was perfect.

It wasn't maudlin. These guys have all retired and moved on in their lives.

There was no need for tears.

Francis remembered how hard it was for him one week after he had been traded to the Penguins to come back and play against the Whalers at the Civic Center.

"I came out for warm-ups and all the people were banging the glass for me," Francis said. "It's a memory I still have today."

Dineen was the captain of the Whalers that April 13, 1997 afternoon and he was the one who had to skate onto the ice to say goodbye to a city.

"Folks were there that day to mourn a loss," Dineen said.

Not this night. This was a welcome home.

That's why when he stepped to the microphone, Dineen hit a perfect chord with, "Hello again."

The fans went nuts.

This wasn't the end.

Maybe it's the beginning.

That's why the 12,206 changed their chant at one point to, "Bring back the Whale!"

That's why it was so interesting that when Francis stepped to the microphone, one of the first things he did was thank Howard Baldwin, the man who brought him to Hartford in 1981 and the man who wants to bring the NHL back to Connecticut.

Francis told the fans that Baldwin is a "man of integrity."

Do you think the Connecticut Development Authority was listening? Do you think Larry Gottesdiener, the man who wants to build a new arena, was, too?

Francis said he has had no conversations with Baldwin, but if something were ever to happen, it would be no shock if Ronnie got involved as a minority investor.

"With all due respect to the Wolf Pack," Francis said during a press conference, "if the NHL was going to happen here I'd certainly be excited. It's a great market. I'd love to see NHL hockey back."

Maybe it was the time. Maybe it was the place. Or maybe it was both.

But you just don't find many major league teams as close as the Whalers of the mid-'80s were. You just don't find many major league cities small enough for the fans to grow so close to the athletes.

The Whalers lost in overtime in the seventh game at Montreal in 1986. If Kevin Dineen goes top shelf instead of Claude Lemieux, the Whalers win the Stanley Cup and the team is still in Hartford.

"It took me three years to get over that series," Dineen said.

What lasted longer, however, were the friendships. Samuelsson calls Francis his best friend. Joel Quenneville, Dave Tippett ... the bonds still run deep.

"We were young guys coming up," Samuelsson said. "The togetherness we had on that team, I didn't see it on any other team I played for."

"To this day, there's a huge group of guys from that team that still keep in touch," Francis said. "This team more so than any team I played for was actually involved in the community. It was a special bond. Softball games, the UConn Waltz. Nobody complained about having to put on a tux."

They laugh. They tease each other. Francis jokes about Dineen always coming onto the ice, forgetting to pull up his suspenders. Dineen teases Ulfie about going to the bathroom in the middle of a game at the Los Angeles Forum and crawling back under the stands, rolled-up magazine in hand, to get back to the bench.

"Four days on the road with Risto Siltanen," Samuelsson said. "My stomach couldn't handle it."

They all still laugh about Ulfie chasing one of the Stastny brothers down the ice, throwing his gloves and his stick at him, as Stastny scored an empty-net goal.

"The chemistry factor was great," Dineen said. "And this was the kind of town you could really embrace. Ronnie and I found a few gems here ourselves."

Kevin's wife, Annie, is also from Connecticut. She knows how much the team meant to the city. They all do.

That's why, in the middle of his short speech, when Dineen spotted an "I Bleed Green" sign in the stands, he couldn't help himself.

"I still bleed green, too," Dineen said.

Here at the intersection of Asylum and the future, the fans went nuts.