While on a trip out west, I decided to attend an NHL hockey game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The matchup was the Los Angeles Kings versus the Colorado Avalanche. Just about every die hard hockey fan knows that King's goalie Jonathan Quick is a Connecticut native, but at the other end of the ice that night on the Colorado Avalanche's roster contained the last active player to have played for the Hartford Whalers.
Once Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger was no longer an active player that gave the honorary distinction of being the last player to have played for the Whalers to Avalanche goalie Jean-Sébastien Giguère. Giguère is currently the backup goaltender for the Avalanche and he is having a great season with a 1.78 goal against average in the six games he has played in.
Giguère was drafted by the Whalers in 1995, a first round draft pick, 13th overall, he was expected to be the Whalers net minder of the future but the team was ripped out of Hartford in 1997. Giguère wouldn't play long for the Whalers as the team moved after he had only played in eight games as a Whaler.
Even with only eight games played, Whaler fans have never stopped rooting for him no matter where he goes. They watched him 11 years ago lead the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to the cup final against New Jersey. His team lost the Cup final but Giguère still won the Conn Smythe trophy for series MVP, something that is rarely awarded to a player in a losing effort.
Giguère didn't play tonight in this game but that didn't stop the local Los Angeles fan base from recognizing Giguère's unique status. As I walked around the Staples Center concourse, wearing a Whaler jersey, fishing for reactions, from the "sell out" crowd, I was surprised to be met with several fist bumps followed by; "Lets go Whale!" by King's fans. One gentleman stopped to let me know he has Giguère on his Hockey fantasy team just because he is a Whaler fan.
I even ran into a fan who was wearing a 90's style Whaler jersey. He and I both admitted we thought we'd be the only guys in the Staples Center "Keeping the Green Alive!"
I was asked by one very knowledgeable fan on why the Connecticut Whale switched back to the Hartford Wolf Pack. That's a long story that I won't play out here.
I was not expecting this much reaction from a fan base 3000 miles away after the team being gone for so long but believe it or not, overall Los Angeles hockey diehards know Hartford hockey.
When I asked these fans if they thought the Whale(rs) would ever return not one thought it was possible. No one blamed the fans, they chalked it up to owners and the business of the NHL.I couldn't argue with them there.
A few fans mentioned that things are much better now since the Kings moved the team into the Staples Center. The old Los Angeles Forum was outdated and fans mentioned not feeling safe at its location. Like any city a new arena has helped the team draw better, it would help in Hartford too. The Staples Center is centrally located downtown like the XL Center in Hartford, but the buildings are miles apart in age. The Staples Center is pretty modern and full of amenities, that helps bring in fans too, another thing that the XL Center could use, more Hartford personality. Of course winning a Stanley Cup two years ago didn't hurt the Los Angeles Kings attendance either. Many fans are still living of the glow of the recent Cup win.
I received the most reaction from fans at the Staples Center but Whaler love was found up and down the gold coast.
Can a Whaler fan here in Hartford Connecticut imagine being in California and having Surfers carrying their surf boards giving shout outs to the Whaler logo you are wearing? It happened, it happened more than I thought. It happened just about everywhere, in Long Beach, Laguna Beach and even on the Santa Monica Pier. Southern California is not a hockey hot bed but people who appreciate the Whaler brand are there. It helps explain why the brand is so popular but now you can say we have empirical evidence that the brand is loved coast to coast.
The logo just appeals to people and soon there will be no players actively who have worn it. But as the sun sets on active Whaler players in the league Giguère will carry the title of last Whaler in the NHL forever and Whaler fans won't forget him either no matter where they are.