Nostalgia is big business and 90s nostalgia, in particular, is huge right now. Whether it’s rebooting every TV show or movie from the decade or bringing back the fashion trends from a generation ago, everything from that era is the current rave. Sports teams have naturally been in on the craze, mostly through donning throwback jerseys.
The Carolina Hurricanes took things one step further this weekend and had “Whalers Night” when they played the Boston Bruins. It was a nice idea, in theory, meant to embrace the franchise’s pre-North Carolina roots and look back on their history. Before they moved to Raleigh in 1997, the franchise was known as the Hartford Whalers since 1974. Sunday, Hurricanes players wore Whalers jerseys, which were later auctioned off for charity, and former Whalers player and captain Mike Rogers dropped the puck before the game.
A look back at Whalers history narrated by @JohnForslund pic.twitter.com/mAwfQ4SiFt
— Carolina Hurricanes (@NHLCanes) December 23, 2018
To some, this was an awesome way to remember the past and show a new generation what the Hartford Whalers were. It was also a way to help their legacy live on. I’m sure that was the intent when the idea was originally brought up. But to many in the New England area who had been Whalers fans (the franchise originated as the New England Whalers), it was seen as another knife in the back of a fanbase who lost their team 21 years ago. To them, the event was just a craven way to sell Whalers merchandise.
During the Bruins-Hurricanes (Whalers) game, Bruins play-by-play announcer Jack Edwards went into a midgame diatribe against the Hurricanes for allowing Dougie Hamilton to wear the #19, which was retired for John McKenzie when he was on the Whalers.
As promised, here’s the Jack Edwards rant on Carolina allowing Dougie Hamilton to wear John McKenzie’s retired No. 19 Whalers jersey pic.twitter.com/w9SHjP3mo4
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) December 24, 2018
“A lot of New Englanders, who were hardcore John McKenzie fans and a few New Englanders who were dear friends of the man, take great umbrage that even for a day … (Carolina) would have a number that is retired, which used to be a sacred thing, worn by another player, and a much lesser one at that…. It shows the disconnect between the Carolina marketing department and hockey history.”
Personally, I’m not the biggest Jack Edwards fan but he brings up a point about how the Hurricanes may not have thought this concept through. The Hurricanes may have kept the records from their Whalers history but, for 21 years, the Hurricanes largely forgot that they originally came from Hartford. Whalers’ retired numbers were even forgotten about when the team moved, which is why Hamilton was able to wear #19.
It would be very easy to discount all this and say that it’s just New Englanders being butthurt, but imagine if it was your favorite team, the team you rooted for your entire life, and they moved away. And after a couple decades, they finally wanted to acknowledge you once existed. Would the Baltimore Ravens wear Browns throwbacks? Would the Washington Nationals wear Expos throwbacks? Would the Oklahoma City Thunder wear Sonics throwbacks? None of them have yet, but if they did, those teams would probably expect a similar backlash from the fans they once shunned.
There’s another layer to the emotions behind this as well. It’s not like Hartford fans had another pro sports franchise to turn to when the Whalers left. They were literally the only show in town. The entire sports identity of Hartford existed in the Whalers for three decades. And when it was taken away and felt unrecognized for years after, that had a real emotional impact on the people who loved “The Whale.”
The Whale belongs to Hartford. https://t.co/hd4Qn9uzsq
— Governor Dan Malloy (@GovMalloyOffice) December 23, 2018
Ultimately, “Whalers Night” brought on hate toward the franchise for something that could have been done way better. Did the Hurricanes mean to twist the knife on longtime Whalers fans? Probably not. The idea has some merit and there was a way to make it work, but I’m not sure it was done the right way. While going “all in” on the Whalers, including the jerseys, seemed like a good idea, it came across to many as a simple cash grab (hiding behind the goodwill of donations).
Having an outdoor game in Hartford or wearing a Hurricanes jersey in Whalers colors would have combined the legacy of both the Whalers and Hurricanes and done the job of embracing the past while also keeping the Whalers identity tied to New England.
Hartford Whalers fans are angry because the Carolina Hurricanes didn’t keep the memory of the Hartford Whalers alive. But now that 90s nostalgia is back, those fans see the team they once rooted for, who relocated 600 miles, now cashing in on the thing they once had. That’s not something I would wish for any fan. And now, seeing Hurricanes players skating around in Whalers jerseys in 2018, those fans who lost their team 21 years ago are seeing this nightmare happen all over again.