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  • Writer's pictureDerek Ochej

Cue Brass Bonanza: the story of the Hartford Whalers

With three former Hartford Whalers featured in this post, I felt it appropriate to remember the fourth and final franchise to relocate during the 1990s. Below are some fast facts about the Hartford Whalers (1979 to 1997):

  • The Whalers were one of four franchises to join the NHL as part of the 1979 merger with the World Hockey Association. As part of this merger, a 51 year old Gordie Howe made his return to the NHL, eight years after retiring from Detroit.

  • In 18 seasons, the Whalers made the playoffs eight times. Only once, in 1985-86, did they advance beyond the preliminary round/division semi-finals stage. For seven straight seasons, from 1986 to 1992 they would make the playoffs but bow out in the Adams Division Semi-Finals.

  • The team's best season was 1985-86, when they won their first and only Adams Division title with a 43-30-7 record and 93 points. The team was lead by Sylvain Turgeon, Ron Francis and Ray Ferraro at forward, and Mike Liut in goal.

  • For all but one season, the team played out of the Hartford Civic Center, an arena most famous for being built as part of a shopping mall. The mall was demolished in 2004, but the arena still stands, now named the XL Center.

  • Ron Francis is the team's all-time leader in games played (714), goals (264), assists (557) and points (821). Sean Burke holds the team record for most games played by a goalie (256), and Mike Liut holds the wins record (115).

  • While the team may have been a disappointment on the ice, they boast one of the most popular logos/jerseys off all-time, as evident by the Carolina Hurricanes' adoption of the Whalers' jerseys for throwback nights and 2020-21's Reverse Retro jersey line up. Add to that the wildly popular Brass Bonanza fight song, and the Whalers memory lives in fashion and music.

  • The team ultimately moved to Raleigh, North Carolina to become the Carolina Hurricanes. Team owner Peter Karmanos moved the franchise due to poor season ticket sales and lack of government commitment to fund a new arena.

Card 227 - Petr Nedved

Nedved was drafted second overall by Vancouver in the 1990 entry draft. The teenage centreman had defected from his native Czechoslovakia as a 17-year-old during a midget tournament in Calgary. In his one season with Seattle of the WHL he would score 65 goals and 145 points.

Like many rookies entering the NHL under such hype, Nedved struggled to live up to expectations, scoring only 10 and 15 goals respectively in his first two NHL seasons. He would, however, break out in the 1992-93 season, scoring 38 goals and 71 points. As a result of that breakout season Nedved sought to get paid, and would spend most of the 1993-94 season in a contract dispute with the Canucks and suiting up with the Canadian National Team, winning silver at the 1994 Olympics. In March 1994 he signed with St. Louis, lasting all of 19 games before being traded to the New York Rangers for Doug Lidster and Esa Tikkanen prior to the start of the lockout shortened 1994-95 season.

Nedved’s stay with the Rangers would be short as well, and he would be on the move for the third time in 18 months, going to Pittsburgh with Sergei Zubov in exchange for Ulf Samuelsson and Luc Robitaille in August 1995. On a stacked Pens roster Nedved would explode for career-highs in goals (45) and points (99), but good for only fourth in team scoring behind Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis. That season the Pens would make the Eastern Conference Finals, with Nedved scoring 10 goals and 20 points in 18 games, including a quintuple overtime winner in the Eastern Conference Quarter-Finals against Washington.

After a solid second season, Nedved would sit out the 1997-98 season in a contract dispute, playing for teams in the Czech Republic and with Las Vegas of the IHL. In November 1998 he would be shipped back to New York in a five player deal that saw Alexei Kovalev go to the Pens. Nedved would spend the next six seasons on Broadway, scoring 20+ goals in five of those seasons. The Rangers would miss the playoffs every season of Nedved’s second stint and in March 2004 he would be traded to Edmonton in a four-player swap. In his brief tenure as an Oiler in 2003-04, Nedved would score 16 points in 15 games, but the team would miss the playoffs.

Nedved would spend his final two NHL seasons splitting time between Phoenix, Philadelphia and Edmonton before leaving the NHL after the 2006-07 season, playing in his home country until 2013. In 15 NHL seasons Nedved played in 928 games, scoring 310 goals and 717 points. Since 2018 he has been the general manager of the Czech Republic’s men’s national teams.

YouTube clip: scoring two goals in 11 seconds versus Washington during Game 1 of the 1996 Eastern Conference Quarter-Finals.

Card 228 - Mark Janssens

A centre, Janssens was drafted 72nd overall by the New York Rangers in 1986. He would win back-to-back Scholastic Player of the Year awards in the WHL and play one season in the AHL before cracking the Rangers roster full-time in 1989-90. That season Janssens would score five goals, 13 points and record 161 penalty minutes.

During the 1991 playoffs Janssens would score three goals in six games as the Rangers would lose the Patrick Division Semi-Finals to Washington. Despite that effort, he would spend most of the following season in the AHL prior to being traded to Minnesota in March 1992. Janssens appeared in three games with the North Stars before a trade to Hartford, the team with which he would find the most stability in his career. In 1992-93 Janssens recorded career-highs in goals (12), points (29) and penalty minutes (237) while with the Whalers.

Janssens would be traded to Anaheim in March 1997, the final season of existence for the Whalers. During the 1997-98 season he would be traded twice, first to the New York Islanders in a six-player swap, and later to Phoenix for a draft pick. Janssens would wrap his career spending three seasons in the Chicago Blackhawks organization before retiring after the 2000-01 season.

In 14 NHL seasons, Janssens played in 711 games, scoring 40 goals and 113 points. After retiring he obtained his MBA from Columbia and entered the financial world, where he is currently Director of Trading at Boxer Capital LLC.

YouTube clip: a December 1992 game with Hartford where he twice fights Rob Ray. In the first tilt he quickly jerseys Ray and runs, and in the second he jerseys and pummels. This video is a great illustration as to why the NHL had to institute tie-down straps for jerseys.

Card 229 - Michal Pivonka

A centre from Czechoslovakia, Pivonka was drafted 59th overall by Washington in 1984. He would spend two pro seasons in his home country before debuting for Washington in the 1986-87 season, scoring 18 goals and 43 points.

Pivonka quickly ascended the Caps roster, tying for the team lead in playoff scoring in 1988 with 13 points as the team would lose the Patrick Division Finals in seven games to New Jersey. The following year he would spend part of the season in the AHL, breaking out in 1989-90 with a career-high 25 goals. For the next three seasons he would score 20+ goals and 50+ assists each season, including leading the Caps in scoring in 1991-92 with 80 points.

In 1995-96 Pivonka would score a career-high 65 assists and 81 points, leading the Caps in scoring again. In his 13 seasons with the franchise, Washington advanced beyond the division semi-finals only three times. In 1998, his second last season of pro hockey, Pivonka would get his first chance to play for the Stanley Cup; sadly the Caps would be swept by Detroit, with Pivonka scoring three assists in 13 games. He would spend 1999-00 in the IHL before retiring.

Over 13 NHL seasons, all with Washington, Pivonka played in 825 games, scoring 181 goals and 599 points. He ranks fifth all-time in points and third all-time in assists for the Capitals franchise. In retirement he has coached off and on with the Chicago Mission elite hockey academy, where he is currently head coach of the U15 team.

YouTube clip: scoring the eventual game winner in Game 2 of 1992 Patrick Division Semi-Finals. The Caps would lose the series in seven games after being up 3-1 in the series.

Card 230 - Ulf Samuelsson

Perhaps one of the most infamous players of the 1990s, Samuelsson was drafted 67th overall by Hartford in 1982. He would play two seasons of pro hockey in his native Sweden before coming to North America for the 1984-85 season, which he would split between the Whalers and the AHL. 1985-86 would be his first pro season, scoring five goals and 24 points while recording174 penalty minutes.

While not an offensive defenceman by any means, the three seasons between 1986 and 1989 saw Samuelsson record 30+ points in each season, including a career-high 41 in 1987-88. The Whalers did not see much playoff success in Samuelsson’s time with the team, advancing past the division semi-finals only once. In March 1991 he was traded to Pittsburgh in the blockbuster six-player swap that saw Pittsburgh also land Ron Francis.

In his first season as a Penguin, Samuelsson would make a major impression. First he would take out Cam Neely with a knee-on-knee hit in the 1991 Prince of Wales Conference Finals, following that up by scoring the Stanley Cup clinching goal against Minnesota. Samuelsson’s reputation as an agitator would continue to grow, as he would record almost 200 penalty minutes in three straight seasons, all while winning a second Cup in 1992.

Prior to the start of the 1995-96 season, Samuelsson would be traded to the New York Rangers with Petr Nedved in exchange for Luc Robitaille and Sergei Zubov. He would play four seasons in New York, with his most memorable moment being KO’d by a Tie Domi suckerpunch. Well into the back half of his career, Samuelsson would be moved to Detroit at the 1999 trade deadline, playing four regular season games and nine playoff games for the Wings. He would be traded to Atlanta the day of the 1999 expansion draft, but as a pending free agent, elected to sign with Philadelphia. Samuelsson would play 49 games in the 1999-00 season with the Flyers, scoring 3 points and retiring at the end of the season.

In a 16 season NHL career, Samuelsson played in 1080 games, scoring 57 goals and 332 points. His 2453 penalty minutes ranks 26th all-time, and is the most for a European-born player in NHL history.

In retirement he has been an assistant coach in the NHL with Phoenix (2006-11), the New York Rangers (2013-16) and Chicago (2017-19). Samuelsson was a head coach in Sweden from 2011-13 and 2019-20, and had a brief stint as head coach of Charlotte in the AHL in the 2016-17 season. He is currently an assistant coach with Florida.

YouTube clip: the controversial hit on Neely in the 1991 Prince of Wales Conference Finals. The hit was by no means the start of the Samuelsson-Neely rivalry, which is well told in SB Nation’s Beef History video on the matter.

Card 231 - Zarley Zalapski

The uniquely-named defenceman was drafted fourth overall by Pittsburgh in the 1986 draft. Zalapski would start the 1987-88 season with the Canadian National Team, playing in the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. He would join the Pens late in the season, scoring 11 points in 15 games.

In his true rookie season Zalapski would score 12 goals and 45 points in 58 games, earning an all-rookie team nod. Between 1990 and 1994, he would score 10 goals and 47+ points each season, topping out at a career-high 20 goals in 1991-92. Despite his burgeoning offensive skills, Zalapski would be traded during that season to Hartford in a six-player swap, being swapped with Ulf Samuelsson.

Zalapski would continue scoring with the Whalers, but in March 1994 he would be on the move again, this time going to Calgary in a six-player trade. His offensive totals would decline with the Flames, although in 1995-96 he would score 12 goals, the fifth and final time he would eclipse the 10+ goal barrier. In February 1998 he would be traded again, going east to Montreal with Jonas Hoglund in exchange for Valeri Bure and draft pick. Zalapski would play 28 regular season games and six playoff games as a Hab, making it to the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals versus Buffalo.

The last 10 years of Zalapski’s career would make a nomad proud. He would sign with the Rangers for 1998-99, but instead play in Switzerland. The following season he would play in IHL, and in February 2000 would sign with Philadelphia, playing his final 12 NHL games. From 2000-2006, Zalapski would play in the IHL, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Austria and the UHL before settling down in Switzerland in 2006. There he would play until retiring in 2010, winning back-to-back league titles in the Swiss second division.

In 12 NHL seasons Zalapski played in 647 games, scoring 99 goals and 384. He also played in the 1993 all-star game. Zalapski passed away in 2017 at the age of 49 after suffering complications related to a viral infection

YouTube clip: compilation video from time with Penguins, set to Shadowboxin’ by GZA

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