The Hartford Whalers last game. (Courant File Photos)

The Hartford Whalers last game. (Courant File Photos) (March 14, 2014)

"One thing we learned ... Hartford was not necessarily a hockey town, it was a Whalers town," said Sloves, who did work for both incarnations of Baldwin's operation. "It was a social thing to be seen at a Whalers game. It was special."

There was a vibrant and passionate community of Whalers fans who loved the sport, but the attachment to the team, to the logo still runs deep. The franchise, of course, was mismanaged in the early 1990s and failed to qualify for the playoffs in the final five seasons in Hartford. Citing declining attendance, a decaying arena and weakening corporate support, Karmanos ripped major league sports from Hartford 17 years ago.

A minor league hockey franchise replaced the Whalers and there are some who have refused to support what they consider an inferior product. The Wolf Pack — known as the Whale under Baldwin's controls — drew will in the initial years, but attendance has steadily slipped and there are hockey fans who continue to resist the idea of supporting the New York Rangers' farm team.

Baldwin's Whalers Sports & Entertainment ran into financial trouble from the outset, signing an onerous three-year, $25,000-per-game lease with the XL Center. The company staged a 10-day outdoor hockey event at Rentschler Field that set it back financially with a $200,000 snow removal bill and WSE's debt mounted before Madison Square Garden Inc. severed ties.

Still, Baldwin's 21 months on Hartford's stage rekindled talk of the NHL returning and sparked the old the debate about the city's lot in life.

And just a year after the Whalers left, the New England Patriots announced they were coming to Hartford. The state was prepared to build a new riverside stadium for the team, quickly restoring the city's big league status.

"Patriots, big time," Courant sports columnist Jeff Jacobs wrote. "It will define us as a sports state."

But owner Robert Kraft eventually decided to pass on Hartford and the debate raged: Just what kind of sports town is Hartford?

Lots Of Basketball

Mark Yellin played basketball at Weaver High in Hartford and at Yale in the early 1950s. As a young Hartford lawyer in the 1960s, he often wondered why his hometown didn't have a viable professional basketball team to support.

The Hartford Hurricanes were an American Basketball League franchise in the late 1940s, playing at an old car barn on Wethersfield Avenue. But a city — and state, for that matter — that has always loved UConn basketball would seemingly embrace another professional team.

"Then I heard about the Eastern League," Yellin recently said.

It was 1966 when Yellin and his investors approached the Eastern Professional Basketball League. The Camden, N.J., franchise was for sale and Yellin's group didn't hesitate, purchasing the team without having a home gymnasium secured.

Yellin also hoped his team would help accelerate plans to build a facility in the city. If not, he planned to construct his own 6,500-seat basketball facility on land he owned in the North Meadows.

As it turned out, the Civic Center plans became a reality in 1968, two years after Yellin's Hartford Capitols began play at Hartford Public High. The Caps also played at the University of Hartford and, eventually, Bloomfield High before the team and league went out of business. Yellin's group owned the team from 1966-1971 and the franchise lasted until 1974 under another owner.

"We did very well," Yellin said. "There were games when we had to turn people away. We had a lot of people come out and they had a ball. They never forgot the fun they had."

The Caps' roster included former Duke star Art Heyman, former Hartford Public High star Eddie Griffin, and former major league pitcher and NBA player Gene Conley, who played baseball for the Hartford Chiefs in 1951. The team was affiliated with the Celtics, so K.C. Jones played a few games with the Caps at the end of his career.

Watching his team generate such interest, Yellin wondered if something bigger could succeed in Hartford.

"I always thought an NBA team would do well," Yellin said."People love basketball in this state."

After the Caps, the Hartford Downtowners represented the city in the Eastern Basketball Association for one season (1976-77), and it would be 16 years before Hartford was back in the minor league basketball world. In 1993, the owner of the Albany-based Continental Basketball Association moved his team to Hartford and the Hellcats were born. They eventually ceased operations and were bought by Brian Foley and renamed the Connecticut Pride. They didn't last, either, despite the presence of former UConn players such as current Huskies coach Kevin Ollie.