By PAUL DOYLE, MATT MCDONOUGH and COLIN MCDONOUGH, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hartford Courant
7:15 AM EDT, March 16, 2014
The 710th and final National Hockey League game at the Civic Center in Hartford began at 1:37 on Sunday afternoon in the spring of 1997.
At 4 p.m., the horn sounded and Connecticut said goodbye to major league sports. In between, 14,660 fans watched the Hartford Whalers skate to a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in a gathering that fluctuated between a funeral and a going-away party.
The Courant charted the day with a timeline of the day, starting with fans looking to land tickets off a scalper outside the arena at 1:20 p.m. and ending with the Zamboni motoring on the Civic Center ice at 6:50 p.m. Over those 5½ hours, there were 33 names chronicled — players, team and arena employees, media members, and, of course, fans.
Where are they now and what do they remember about April 13, 1997? We tracked down a few.
A First And A Last
Referee Scott Zelkin skated to the circle at the Civic Center, leaned forward and dropped the opening faceoff between Andrew Cassels of the Whalers and Chris Gratton of the Lightning.
As the puck dropped to the ice at 1:37 p.m., it was the beginning of the end of the NHL in Hartford. For Zelkin, it was the culmination of his life's work.
After toiling in the American Hockey League and in the college hockey ranks, Zelkin was making his NHL debut as a referee. The Civic Center was overflowing with folks mourning the end of an era while one man was privately celebrating the most important day of his professional life.
"It was a very personal moment for me because it was obviously the realization of a lot of work and effort and realization of a dream to be working in the National Hockey League," Zelkin said recently. "Personally, the game had a lot of significance leading up to it. In the standings, it was a meaningless hockey game. But for me, it had a lot of meaning. When you got to the rink and understood the magnitude of what was happening, that made it take on a little bit more of and added significance."
Yet Zelkin was keenly aware of what was transpiring that Sunday afternoon in Hartford. He dressed in a room adjacent to the visiting locker room so he didn't pick up on the emotion in the building until he began skating before the game.
"It was the end of what was a very important part of a lot of people's lives," Zelkin said. "It seemed to me like the fans never sat down in their seats and were cheering the entire time. As I got more comfortable in the game, you were able to take it in a little bit more. You realized it wasn't just a pro hockey game."
Zelkin, who grew up in the Chicago area, played hockey in high school and began officiating while he was student at the University of Denver. He worked the 1990 NCAA finals, the 1991 World Championships and climbed through the AHL and worked 325 NHL games before retiring in 2003.
These days, he's a real estate agent in the Chicago area and was recently hired by USA Hockey to work with amateur officials through the officiating development programs.
His Sunday in 1997 was his first and last day at the Civic Center, so Hartford holds a special place in his heart. It seems right, considering he owned two hockey jerseys as a kid — the hometown Blackhawks and a green Whalers shirt. He wasn't a Whalers' fan, he just liked the shirt.
Then there's one of the lone mementos from his career that he keeps in his home. It's the puck from his first game and the Whalers' last game. It hangs on his wall.
A Dad And His Boy
Don Peterson had the distinction of being named the five millionth fan on Jan. 3, 1990. As he sat in row M, Section 110 with his 13-year-old son on April 13, 1997, that game was among the thoughts floating through his head. The Civic Center and the Whalers meant so much to him.
The Courant described his demeanor as glum that Sunday afternoon.
"I can't believe they're actually leaving,'' Peterson told The Courant just 10 minutes before the puck was dropped. "It's like losing a member of the family. The great reception shows the class of Hartford fans. [NHL commissioner Gary] Bettman and [former Whaler Kelly] Chase can say what they want. We're behind the players. [Whalers owner Peter] Karmanos is the bad guy.''
There was a picture in The Courant of Peterson and his son, Richard, leaving the Civic Center after the final game. Richard was wiping a tear from his eye, and Don, wearing his white Whalers jersey, looked dejected.
Sixteen years later, the memories remain strong.
"I remember so many things about that final game," Peterson wrote in an email. "I remember during the last minute or so, Geoff Sanderson skating down the ice on a semi breakaway and trying to get the puck to Kevin Dineen so he could score the final goal in Whalers history. I remember sitting with my son and not wanting to leave, watching them scrape the ice out of the Coliseum.
"I remember thinking of the times I had skated on that ice as a referee and as a player against the Whalers Alumni in a charity game. … I thought of all the friends I had made through the Booster club, including so many of the players.
"But mostly, being a divorced father, I thought of all the times Rich and I went to games together and now that was going to come to an end. I remembered all the times we would have to stay under the Coliseum where the players came out, because Rich had to say good night to Ronnie Francis before we could leave. "
Peterson lived in Farmington and worked at US Airways. He was transferred to Philadelphia in 2001 and has been to one Flyers game in the past 13 years. That was against the Carolina Hurricanes and Peterson attended with an old friend from the Whalers Booster Club.
"I haven't put on my skates since I came down here, so hockey is almost completely out of my life," Peterson said.
There were two Booster Club bus trips to see the Hurricanes in the year or so after the Whalers left. Otherwise, Peterson's hockey indulgence was refereeing some youth hockey games and he mostly watched UConn basketball in the winter.
Peterson said he never got into the Wolf Pack, so he didn't attend AHL games in Hartford. About the only hockey he watches these days is the occasional Chicago Blackhawks game to check in on coach Joel Quenneville, the former Whaler.
"I play a lot more golf now," Peterson said.
As for Rich, he is 30, still lives in Connecticut and is preparing to move to the Philadelphia area.
These days, the only hockey Rich follows is his cousin's squirt level team.
From a distance, Peterson isn't so sure about the possibility of an NHL return to Hartford.
"I think that Hartford could support a NHL team, but it would be a bit of a struggle," Peterson said. "With Boston and New York being so close, I don't know if there's enough of a fan base, especially if they are not a winning team. But I would love to see it happen."
The Doctor Never Left
When blood spilled in the second period of the final game, Dr. John Fulkerson did his job. The Whalers' team doctor stitched up a gash on the bridge of Curtis Leschyshyn's nose after the defenseman was sliced by a stick.
Tampa Bay's Rudy Poeschek delivered the blow to Leschyshyn's face along the boards. Leschyshyn retreated to the locker room, where Fulkerson was waiting. Ten stitches later, Leschyshyn was back on the bench.
And for Fulkerson, it was the last time he stitched up an NHL player.
"It was almost like losing family," Fulkerson said. "Sitting there at that last game was terrible. In my opinion it wasn't right. Taking care of the Whalers was something really special. It brought a tear to my eye that night, the night they left. It was pretty powerful."
Fulkerson, who still has a practice in Farmington and performs surgery in Rocky Hill, was the Whalers' team physician 1989-97. He has also served as team doctor for Trinity's football and hockey teams and was the team physician for the U.S. Men's Olympic team in 1994.
In fact, it was natural that Fulkerson would doctor Connecticut's NHL team. He grew up as Rangers fan on Long Island, playing pond hockey with his brother and uncles. After attending Williams College, he came to Connecticut to attend medical school at Yale and he put down roots in the state.
"It seems like I've always been involved in hockey one way or another," Fulkerson said.
"I had a great time with the Whalers. It was a great privilege to take care of the team. You couldn't find a better group of guys. … You can't find better people to take care of. It was a very favorable experience all around."
As for the fans left behind, Fulkerson remembers a strong base that still exists.
"I think Hartford is a great hockey town," Fulkerson said. "It's a great place for a hockey team. I'd like to say [the NHL could succeed in Hartford], but I'm not quite sure what it would take. I'm not sure what the fundamentals are to keep a hockey team here. It all comes down to money. As long as you have the fans and I think that's one thing they would have here."
Last Call For Alcohol
The last beer served at an NHL game at the Civic Center? The Miller Lite went to Dan Paradise of Montgomery, Mass., at 3:34 p.m.
Craig Montanari of Newington sold the beer from his station in the concourse outside Section 105. He was 19 at the time, a roving vendor who worked three or four years selling pretzels and beer at the Civic Center.
When the Whalers left, Montanari stayed.
"I kept working there after the Whalers," he said. "I stayed for a few years with the Wolf Pack. As I was going to college, my time working there dwindled. By the time I graduated college, I moved on to a career.
"It was definitely not the same. It was totally different. If there was a void, it was definitely having that home team kind of pride … They were our team. Growing up as a kid, in a Whalers kind of family, that kind of left a lot. My grandparents and my mom and dad had season tickets before the roof collapsed. After my grandparents passed away, I found my grandfather's I-91 necktie and my grandmother's silk scarf with the Whale on it."
Now 36, Montanari is a financial adviser living in North Haven. He returns to the XL Center for games or concerts occasionally, catching up with guys he worked with in the building back in the day.
"I joke that if the Whalers were still in town, I would've kept that job," he said. "It was a really fun job."
But he doesn't follow hockey much anymore. He was always drawn to baseball and basketball as a kid and only gravitated to hockey because it was easy to get tickets and "it was in my backyard."
When the Whalers left, Montanari didn't attach himself to another team. In 2000, he got a job at ESPN in the audio field and he got his sports fix at work.
"Whenever I was working a hockey show, it was always something to talk about ... the Whalers," Montanari said. "Some of these old Hartford Whalers guys would come in, even some of the non-Whalers guys, just talking about the Whale. Everyone had some different memory."
After leaving ESPN in 2005 his interest in hockey faded. Now, his connection to the NHL is tied to his memories of the Whalers.
What does he remember from April 13, 1997?
"The excitement was just crazy," Montanari said. "I had a job to do. That was a day where everyone that was there was a fan of the Whale. … You could see people devastated about losing the Whale. You saw diehard fans who had accepted it. That's what I remember most, just the excitement in the room. It was the end of the era and we were all there to witness it."
Sports Writer Had To Go
At 3:48 p.m., in the final minutes of the final game, Courant reporter Michael Arace filled out his three-star ballot from his seat in the press box. Arace, who grew up in Hartford, wrote "FANS" on the line next to No. 1 star.
"When I think about the Whale, the least of it is how it affected me professionally," Arace said recently. "I grew up in Hartford … My parents were from Hartford, that's a hometown for three generations in my family. That was a jarring incident on a lot of levels for the city. To be covering the process as it went down … on one hand I was very lucky to be in that position — this was a major news event. On the other hand it was just a brutal thing to happen to the city. It was a terrible thing to do to the city and it was all orchestrated. The bastards. So I felt for my city and I still do."
Arace left Hartford for Columbus, Ohio in 1999, hired by the Dispatch to cover the expansion Blue Jackets. He was the paper's Blue Jackets/NHL beat writer for seven years and has been writing a sports column for the past seven years.
When he looks back on the Whalers' exit, he remembers owner Peter Karmanos promising to deliver him the news when it became official. Instead, the governor's office leaked the news to Tom Monahan of Ch. 30.
"[Karmanos] had violated a professional trust," Arace said. "I was just a pawn in any piece of that puzzle for Pete and the governor. Some of us were naive enough to think they wouldn't move."
What does Arace remember about Whalers' fans?
"You can have a blizzard and there'd be 13,000 people in the building for a losing team," Arace said. "You could have an earthquake, there'd be 13,000 people in the building for a losing team. You could have the roof fall in and people would go to Springfield and watch a losing team. I've always remarked at the loyalty of the hard-core Whaler fan, is as ironclad as of any fan I've seen in 32 years of covering sports."
After the Whalers left, Arace covered the UConn men's basketball team. But he missed covering professional sports and pursued the job in Columbus.
"Big time college sports really is a filthy business, so I was happy to come out here and cover hockey again even though I was leaving my hometown and hometown newspaper behind," Arace said.
The departure of the Whalers from Hartford came 23 years after the departure of Richard Nixon from the White House, but the disgraced ex-president was topical humor at the Civic Center. Doug Benedetto, a season ticket holder in Section 102, donned a Nixon mask during the last four home games of the 1996-97 season.
"Karmanos is a crook, and so is this guy," Benedetto told The Courant.
Benedetto, of Torrington, would flash the peace sign and get some face time on the Jumbotron screen at the Civic Center. Or at least his Nixon mask got some face time.
"It was pretty neat fun," Benedetto said.
Benedetto, a University of New Haven graduate, has been a police commissioner in Torrington for 14 years, He and his brother, Michael, were season ticket holders.
"The last game we felt like they were stealing the Whale away from us," Benedetto said. "I remember that day like it was yesterday, I had tears in my eyes when that buzzer went off."
When the game ended, the Benedetto brothers sat in their seats for 10 or 20 minutes, watching the Civic Center empty. The went to the Russian Lady after the game and saw players such as Kevin Dineen signing autographs.
"That night, it was just a good celebration," Benedetto said.
Benedetto said he was a fan of the Whalers when they were known as the New England Whalers, but he jumped to the Rangers when the franchise moved to North Carolina.
"To this day, I'm a huge Rangers fan," he said.
Benedetto goes to Madison Square Garden to see his team. He was at Yankee Stadium for the Rangers-Islanders outdoor game and he faithfully watches his team on TV.
But it's not the same. When he attended Whalers' game, he went to dinner in Hartford before the game and was home at a reasonable hour.
"Torrington to Hartford is a 40-minute ride," Benedetto said. "With the Rangers, it's a late night and a long commute."
The Springfield Linesman
When the horn sounded at 4 p.m., time expired on the NHL in Hartford and linesman Kevin Collins picked up the puck and stuffed it in his back pocket.
It was appropriate that a guy who lived 30 minutes north in Springfield would work the last NHL game in Hartford. Collins was in his 20th season as an NHL linesman and had worked more than a few games in his backyard, so he knew Hartford well.
"I thought the Whalers did a great job at the time," Collins said. "They were a small market team competing against the big markets, and the organization did a terrific job making the game good, not only for the league but the fans in the area. They had a great following and it was disappointing for, I think, a lot of people in the New England region and Hartford area that they left for Carolina. They did the best they could."
Collins, who broke into the NHL in 1977, would continue to work in the league until 2005. He worked 12 Stanley Cup finals, two All-Star game, Canada Cups, the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and the 1998 winter Olympics.
Since his retirement in 2005, Collins has served as manager of AHL officials and still helps the league evaluate linesman. He also assists the NHL in evaluating linesman as the league selects officials to work the Stanley Cup.
And he still lives in Springfield.
"I've moved on," Collins said. "I had a great career, the NHL treated me well and it was great for the almost 40 years I was employed by the NHL. I can't say anything but great things."
The voice synonymous with the Whalers signed off at 4:33 p.m. on April 13, 1997.
"God bless all of you fans and remember one thing: You may have lost the NHL, but you have not lost the memories," Chuck Kaiton said as he ended his broadcast over WTIC-AM's 50,000-watt signal. The booming radio voice of the team for 18 seasons in Hartford described a "surrealistic final scene" after the game ended, with fans lingering in the Civic Center.
Seventeen years later, Kaiton was asked to recall the day.
"I really think first of all, it was a very surrealistic day for me," Kaiton said from his North Carolina home.
For Kaiton, the final game had personal and professional ramifications. It meant the end of his tenure in Hartford and the prospect of starting over in a new market. It also meant relocating his family — his sons were 20, 18, and 16 in 1997 — to a new state.
In the world of professional sports, uprooting families is part of the business. Kaiton saw players and coaches deal with that all the time and he was thankful to have a long run in Hartford.
Still, there was sadness and a tinge of disbelief that Sunday. He was committed to honoring the two years remaining on his contract and following the team to its next home, but he still didn't know where the franchise was moving. The team announced it was moving to Raleigh 23 days after the final game.
"The reality was, when that game ended the team was going to be leaving," Kaiton said. "Basically we thought that day would never come. Then the reality hit. … And of course, I thought about the fans. There were so many people who loved the team and supported them over the years."
The Whalers were bidding for a playoff spot in the final few games of the season, but they were eliminated from contention before the final game. Kaiton laments that Hartford fans did not have the playoffs in the final season.
Kaiton immediately became a popular figure in his new market. In 2004, he was honored with the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award from the Hockey Hall of Fame. Two years later, he was behind the microphone when the Hurricanes won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
And when the Hurricanes won the Cup, Kaiton embraced the past. His call: "9,393 days of frustration and on the 9,394th day of NHL existence, the Carolina Hurricanes — the Whaler organization until '97 — have won the Stanley Cup!"
This season, Kaiton called his 3,000th game. He's been in North Carolina almost as long as he was in Connecticut and he's one of the Hurricanes' few remaining links to the Whalers, along with familiar names in the front office (Ron Francis, Glen Wesley, Robert Kron, Jim Rutherford), in the TV booth (John Forslund), and in the equipment room (Skip Cunningham).
And Kaiton remains interested in the hockey happenings in Hartford. He and his wife, Mary, visit the area every few years, seeing old friends in the summer.
Does the man whose voice is the soundtrack to Hartford's NHL past see a Hartford NHL future?
"They can if they have the right ownership," Kaiton said. "That's the key. That's what Gary Bettman is looking for. If somebody were to step up … someone with the resources, sure they'd have a chance. Hey, they have the fans. We know that."
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