Dusted off the bookshelf during the last snowstorm and pulled out a Whalers media guide from the days when the NHL played in Hartford and the team’s theme song, the “Brass Bonanza,” was banned by general manager Brian Burke because, he said, “there were players who were embarrassed by it.”
It was a treat covering an NHL team composed mostly of players past their prime but legends nonetheless, Dave Keon, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull and the like. I was able to befriend a few of the lesser-known skaters like pugilist Jeff Brubaker and journeymen winger Ray Neufeld. Neufeld provided one of my better all-time sports scoops the night we were drinking together inside a Hartford watering hole and he casually mentioned, “Some first-round draft pick, eh? The guy can’t even skate.”
That was Fred Arthur, the 6-foot-5 defenseman the Whalers chose with the eighth overall pick in the 1980 draft. Arthur played three games for Hartford that season and was eventually traded to the Flyers. He retired soon afterward, enrolled in medical school and became a family doctor in London, Ontario.
Neufeld currently coaches the Winnipeg Blues of the Manitoba Junior League and is a color analyst for the Winnipeg Jets. Whalers linemate Don Nachbaur now coaches the Spokane Chiefs and recently became the fourth person ever to coach 1,000 Western Hockey League games. He had a terrific sense of humor. During a game against the New York Islanders he went into the boards with enforcer Clark Gillies and grabbed his stick. “F--- off!” growled the 6-foot-3 Gillies.
After the game, Nachbaur hilariously described how he pulled off Gillies’ stick like it was a hot wire in a cow field.
The Soviets always drew big crowds for exhibition games at the Hartford Civic Center. Watching them practice one afternoon I asked Whalers’ coach Harry Neale to name their best player. Neale paused a moment and replied, “F----d if I know. I don’t even know how to pronounce their names.”
The Soviet players never showered after games. They came off the ice, dressed and left the rink. Someone said it had to do with the cold Soviet weather and the threat of getting sick, but it only added to the notion that they were different from us.
Of all the legends to skate in Hartford, the greatest was Gordie Howe. Mr. Hockey drank beer on the rocks. Small thin suture lines marked the legacy of where all the sticks, pucks and fists hand landed on his face. He signed with Hartford to realize his dream of playing pro hockey alongside his sons Mark and Marty, but though Mark was a future Hall of Famer, Marty was a minor leaguer.
Howe bitterly complained about this, saying that Marty was as good as his brother. I told this to a sports writer named Wayne Warrnier. He laughed and said, “Yeah, I can see things in my son that other people can’t.”
The 1985-86 season was the closest the Whalers ever came to bringing a Stanley Cup to Hartford. After sweeping the Quebec Nordiques they went to a seventh game against Montreal and lost in overtime on the same night Roger Clemens struck out 20 Mariners at Fenway Park. Twelve years later they moved to Raleigh, and the only memories of what they did in Hartford are in these dusty media guides.
Last Sunday’s hockey game between the Falcons and Adirondack Phantoms was postponed with 23 minutes left in regulation after the Falcons’ Wade MacLeod was hit from behind by Brandon Manning, collapsed and had to be carried from the ice.
“It didn’t look that bad,” said Greenfield’s Bob Weiss, who was at the MassMutual Center. “He went into the boards and hit his head on the glass. He turned to go to the bench, the other guy was going to the penalty box and the next thing I knew, he flopped down on the ice and his legs were thrashing. It was kinda scary. I’ll tell ya, he was laying there twitching.”
Because MacLeod was being tended to, officials decided to end the second period and resume with a 23-minute third period. “They did the ice and waited fifteen minutes, then they said MacLeod was going to be OK but, due to the circumstance, they were going to cancel the rest of the game.”
The last time an AHL game was suspended in regulation was for bad ice, but this had more to do with bad blood. “When (Manning) went from the penalty box to the team room the crowd went nuts. They probably figured if they were going to play the third period there’d be some bad stuff going on,” said Weiss.
It indeed did have the makings of becoming what Rodney Dangerfield once said, “I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out.”
In the first period, a pair of heavyweights, Springfield’s 6-foot-6, 231-pound left wing Tim Spencer and Adirondack’s 6-foot-1, 214-pound defenseman Zack FitzGerald met at center ice, dropped the gloves, tossed off the helmets and had at it. “It was a great fight, at least two or three minutes,” said Weiss. “These guys were swinging and connecting. It was a good one.”
Best of all, added Weiss, “They said they’d honor tickets so I’m going to see if I can get another game out of it.”
There is nothing more discouraging for a hockey team than to work hard and not score, then let a softie in on your own end. Look no further than UMass, where first-year coach John Micheletto must find a goaltender that can stop the puck next season.
At this writing the UMass Minutemen were last in the league in goals against, and goaltender Kevin Boyle has been wildly inconsistent. Three weeks ago the Minutemen held Boston University to 19 shots on goal and Boyle stopped all but one during the 5-1 win. Two weeks later the Minutemen again held their opponent, UMass-Lowell, to 19 shots, but this time Boyle let in three of the first six and UMass lost, 6-1.
Then Micheletto decided to play shootout and the result was 75 shots allowed and two more blemishes on the scorecard. This isn’t his fault. Athletic director John McCutcheon let the program lapse by keeping Toot Cahoon well past his shelf life.
Cahoon was lucky to have Jonathan Quick the year his contract was due to expire because, as Don Cherry once said, “Show me a good goaltender and I’ll show you a good coach.”
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.