10 greatest Whaler hockey seasons
Moby-Dick hit bookshelves for the first time 167 years ago Thursday.
Little could Herman Melville have known the ways whaling would infuse American culture a century later. On his side of the Atlantic, his novel’s tentative British-issue title, The Whale, is an affectionate, though contradictory synonym for a bygone NHL brand.
According to the Internet Hockey Database, there have been 10 Whaler hockey teams in the professional or junior ranks. (Two of them own two sections on the site for having used multiple datelines in their lifespan.) Naturally, it started with the New England/Hartford franchise at the top level.
Much like the ill-fated Captain Ahab, all Whalers had sparse gains within their narratives. Collectively, the nickname existed at Hockey DB-worthy levels for only 37 years.
And yet the legacy of Hartford’s NHL franchise and some of its imitators latch on. Subsequent teams of the same name have touched both of North America’s coasts. Others have enjoyed stints in Great Britian.
Another even took root in the Great Lakes. On the heels of winning the 1995 Robertson Cup as the Ontario League’s playoff champion, the Detroit Jr. Red Wings underwent an upheaval. When the local NHL team severed ties, owner Peter Karmanos moved his OHL squad to the suburbs and renamed it after his Hartford franchise.
The moniker stuck for the team’s stay in Plymouth, including 18 years after its major-league namesake became the Carolina Hurricanes. But in 2015, the OHL club moved and morphed into the Flint Firebirds. Coincidentally, back in Connecticut, the Federal League’s Danbury Whalers of gave way to the Titans that same year.
By 2016, the last of the Whalers in high-end competitive hockey had disappeared. Niagara’s team in the Greater Metro Junior League left after a two-year lifespan.
But if nothing else, Hartford keeps holding out hope that its beloved brand will return. For now, it must look to the NWHL’s Connecticut Whale, who picked up a puck the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack left loose.
As for the currently dormant Whalers moniker, these 10 teams gave it the greatest representation.
10. 1986-87 Hartford Whalers
With 93 points and first place in the Adams Division, the Whalers easily had their best NHL regular season. The franchise would not achieve another division crown until its second year in Carolina.
A rapid postseason letdown is the only drawback keeping this campaign from ranking any higher. In a full flip of the 1985-86 script, the fourth-place Quebec Nordiques upset Hartford, 4-2, in the division semifinals.
9. 1984-85 Binghamton Whalers
With 112, this was the lone AHL team to crack triple-digit points in what proved the brand’s best regular season. But its postseason follow-up left more to be desired.
Binghamton started its 1985 Calder Cup run with enough promise. Given the 36-point difference in the standings, it surprised no one by sweeping Springfield and doubling the Indians, 26-13, in cumulative scoring in the first round.
But in the division finals, the second-place Baltimore Skipjacks had their upset-minded way. They matched Binghamton’s first-round fortunes with a four-game sweep.
8. 1977-78 New England Whalers
By its penultimate campaign, the World Hockey Association had dwindled to eight teams. The sheer reduction in competitive volume is enough to put this campaign behind New England’s other run to the league final.
Well, that, and the fact that the Whalers came up short this time.
The team that started its history with three straight Eastern Division titles returned to the 90-point range after a two-year downturn. With 4-1 playoff-series wins over Edmonton and Quebec, New England met first-place Winnipeg for the Avco World Trophy. There the Jets avenged a loss from five years prior, sweeping the Whalers and outscoring them, 24-8, in four games.
7. 1981-82 Binghamton Whalers
In their second of 10 seasons, the Whalers finished first in the six-team Southern Division and third in the 11-team AHL with 98 points.
To start the playoffs, a back-and-forth best-of-five set with Hershey culminated in a 9-3 Game 5 cruise. For the division crown, Binghamton ousted another storied franchise and an intrastate rival, the Rochester Americans, four games to one.
But the top-dog New Brunswick Hawks were another animal in the Calder Cup Final. After splitting the first two games on the road, the Whalers could not find their groove at home. Decisive 5-1 and 4-1 losses set them on the path to a 4-2 dream-dasher in Game 5. That would end the only final-round journey in the AHL Whalers’ run.
6. 2000-01 Plymouth Whalers
In the last two decades, four teams have made repeat appearances in the OHL’s Robertson Cup Final. The London Knights powerhouse has done it twice, in 2004-05 and 2012-13. In between the Taylor Hall-led Windsor Spitfires won it all in 2009 and 2010.
But before any of them, Plymouth represented the Western Conference to close one century and open another. After dominating the West Division in the regular season, then sweeping Sarnia and Windsor, the Whalers met the first-place Erie Otters in the conference final.
Each team stole home-ice advantage in the first three games, as the series alternated sites every night. But then the Whalers asserted themselves and took a commanding lead in front of their own crowd. They followed that by closing out the Otters in Erie, 7-4.
The league final was a letdown, though, as the upset-minded Ottawa 67’s triumphed in six games.
5. 2012-13 Danbury Whalers
A championship is a championship, no matter the league.
After falling to a New Jersey Outlaws juggernaut in the 2012 final, Danbury regrouped and finished second in an FHL season that started with seven teams and ended with six. In the four-team playoffs, they swept three games by an aggregate score of 17-4 over the 1000 Island Privateers.
On paper, with the Dayton Demonz and their 123 points, the Whalers met another New Jersey in the final. But this time they kept the momentum on their side. Upon stealing a 5-4 squeaker and 7-1 blowout on the road, they returned home with a chance to clinch. They capitalized to the tune of a 6-3 triumph.
Postscript: Danbury made a third straight final appearance in 2014, losing a five-game rematch with Dayton. But by that point, the FHL had been reduced to four teams.
4. 1985-86 Hartford Whalers
Though unremarkable compared to the heavyweights of its peers, the Adams Division was competitive in 1985-86. Its five teams finished 12 points apart, with the fourth-place Whalers trailing top-seeded Quebec by eight.
Before the aforementioned 1987 spiral, Hartford had its turn spoiling the Nordiques’ bid for a deep playoff. After a 3-2 overtime thriller in Game 1, the Whalers cruised to 4-1 and 9-4 victories to sweep the best-of-five division semifinals.
Following up on their first NHL playoff-series win, they one-upped themselves to start the second round. A 4-1 win at the Montreal Forum signaled their hunger and capability of another upset.
Granted, the seesaw series culminated in an overtime win for the Canadiens in Game 7. But the Cinderella Whalers gave their home crowd the right send-off for the summer, averting elimination with a 1-0 win in Game 6.
In addition, the Habs went on to win the Stanley Cup. They lost one game in each of the final two rounds, meaning only Hartford pushed them to a Game 6, let alone a rubber match that spring.
3. 1999-00 Plymouth Whalers
With 95 points, the Whalers repeated as the OHL’s regular-season champions with the Hamilton Spectator Trophy. For his direction, Peter DeBoer defended his title as the league’s coach of the year.
But whereas 1998-99 ended in a second-round upset via London, their playoff follow-up doubled in length. Upon ousting Guelph, Windsor and Sault Ste. Marie in a combined 16 games, Plymouth met Barrie, owners of the second-best regular-season record, for the Robertson Cup.
A 5-4 overtime thriller in Game 1 gave the Whalers their first of three leads in the series. But after failing to close out the Colts in Game 6, they spilled the Cup in front of their home crowd. A 4-2 loss in Game 7 put a slight damper on an unprecedented run in the brand’s history.
2. 1972-73 New England Whalers
Was the first season the best in the WHA’s seven-year run? It undoubtedly was from a New England perspective.
While other teams in the 12-member league boasted the most outstanding players in 1972-73, the Whalers were more balanced. Tellingly, head coach Jack Kelley won the team’s only piece of individual hardware that year.
With that said, forwards Tom Webster and Terry Caffery both broke 100 points. Webster made the league’s second all-star team, as did defenseman Jim Dorey. Two more blueliners, Ted Green and Rick Ley, plus goaltender Al Smith made the third team.
Together, that core catalyzed the Whalers to a league-best 94 points in the standings. They followed that with three straight 4-1 playoff-series wins, culminating in an ouster of the Jets for the Avco World Trophy.
1. 2006-07 Plymouth Whalers
Mike Vellucci became the first Matt Leyden Trophy recipient in Plymouth’s name since DeBoer in the aforementioned 1999-00 campaign. Although, with 103, the Whalers finished one point behind Patrick Kane and Sam Gagner’s Knights for first place in the conference and league.
Still, they had a pair of top-five goaltenders in Michael Neuvirth and Jeremy Smith. With Neuvirth in net and James Neal leading the attack, the Whalers would cruise to the conference playoff title. They only needed five games to upset London, running up a combined tally of 21-8 in the series.
With their first Robertson Cup Final ticket since 2001, the Whalers met the Sudbury Wolves. After an overtime loss put them behind, two games to one, they regrouped and won three straight. Back-to-back sudden-death victories restored the series lead in Game 5, then clinched the championship in Game 6.
Moving on to their first (and still only) Memorial Cup tournament, the Whalers went 2-3. They would lose the semifinal to the host and eventual champion Vancouver Giants.