Game Time: Whaler Fan Fest -- Houston Oiler Fans May Know How I Feel

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Hartford Whalers: They live on as a dessert
"Somewhere along the line, we will see you in another place in another time. God bless all of you fans. Remember one thing, you may have lost the NHL, but you have not lost the memories." -- Chuck Kaiton, the voice of the Hartford Whalers after the Whalers final game in Hartford, 4/13/1997

The iron-clad pact of the sports fan with our teams comes with an understanding that we will endure a disproportionate number of lows to experience that rare high, the exhilaration of feeling like we're part of something. Something great. A higher place. It's the addictive love affair between diehard fan and team.

Unfortunately, the hardcore follower never takes the time to read the fine print, and we realize the hard way just how addictive that love is when the highs, the lows, and everything in between are stolen from us.

Houston Oilers fans know this. Hartford Whalers fans know this.

I'm not afraid to say that of my ten fondest high school memories, the Hartford Whalers are involved in at least seven of them. (For the record, the other three would involve the Boston Red Sox, Rocky Balboa, and Atari. Not surprisingly, "losing my virginity" is noticeably absent from the list.) So when the Whalers left Hartford for North Carolina in 1997, a big chunk of my sports soul was summarily ripped out that day.

In actuality, by that time, I was an adult and no longer living in Hartford. By then I was living in Houston, where ironically in 1997 I had just finished watching Bud Adams crush the souls of my friends and neighbors by erasing the Houston Oilers from existence, moving them to Nashville to become the Tennessee Oilers for a couple years, before completing their sex change operation in 1999 and becoming the Tennessee Titans.

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Whaler Fever: Completely catchable, unlike this puck

Watching close friends process the theft of "Luv Ya Blue" by a mercenary owner unfortunately didn't make the Whalers' exodus from Hartford (with owner Peter Karmanos playing the role of a pony tail-wearing cross between Bud Adams and Satan) any easier for me to handle. In fact, having to watch it from afar via long distance conversations with my dad and via articles on this then-fledgling technology called the internet made it more like being all the way across the country while a sick relative died. You hang up the phone with the latest bit of grim news, you know how the story is going to end, and you shake your head and say "I'm supposed to be there for this..."

If the criteria for determining your first love are spending all of your summer job money on them and doodling their name mindlessly in your notebook during geometry class, then my first love was a freaking hockey team.

The Hartford Whalers.

And to be clear, I wasn't alone. My close circle of buddies, equally hardcore for hockey (and also sufficiently inept with the ladies), all lived and died with the Whaler blue and green. Any self-respecting sports fan has a team that they loved a little too much as a kid -- for us, it was the Mighty Whale.

There were five of us that I would count among the most ardent, maniacal Whaler zealots -- the Insane Whale Posse, if you will. Here is the scouting report on my other four buddies in this group along with evidence supporting just how much therapy they were actually in need of back then:

ROB THOMPSON:
Rob grew up playing hockey, and his current brother-in-law Kris was actually the Whalers' assistant equipment manager back in the late `80's. (While "assistant equipment manager" may not sound like much, make no mistake -- any of us in our group of friends would have given our left nut to be Kris back then.) Rob cemented his place in the WTF Moment Hall of Fame when he scored a homecoming date with Laurie Lippincott (Hot Chick Scouting Report: Laurie was the Cindy Mancini of Simsbury High School at that time, gold standard.), and instead of "doing what high school students do" at the drunken after-party with her, he chose to watch the third period of the Whalers' 1986-87 home opener with a bunch of our inebriated buddies. Still the craziest waste of world class talent since Isiah Thomas organized the infamous "freeze out" of Michael Jordan in the 1985 NBA All-Star Game.

JOHN PERUGINI: John is easily the least rational of our crew of Whaler diehards, so much so that when he has actually picked not one, but TWO fights with future NHL Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan. To clarify, two things -- one, Shanahan spent one season in Hartford (1995-96) before bellyaching his way out of town and effectively landing the death blow for the franchise by trashing the city on his way out the door. If he didn't kill hockey in Hartford, Shanahan dealt it the blunt force trauma to put it on life support before Karmanos pulled the plug. Secondly, Shanahan is 6-foot-3, 225 pounds; Perugini is 5-foot-8, and can still squeeze between fence bars to sneak into minor league baseball games.

So with that said, Shanahan-Perugini I occurred at a bar outside Wrigley, where John walked up to Shanahan, got in his face and drunkenly slurred "You killed hockey in Hartford, you son of a bitch!" Were it not for the intervention of one Doug Gilmour (who my buddies and I now call "Gandhi on skates"), Shanahan would probably be using Perugini's head as his hood ornament. Instead, Shanahan had to be escorted from the bar before John's dismemberment could commence.

About seven years later, Shanahan was at the United Center doing studio work for Canadian television on the Stanley Cup Finals. Perugini decided to go in for a rematch, sidled his way up to the roped off broadcast area and started dropping catcalls on Shanahan (presumably several involving derogatory female names). Fortunately, Shanahan chose the high road this time and just ignored Perugini, which is not always the easiest thing to do.

CHRIS COBB:
He is the sober yin to Perugini's yang, easily the most level-headed of all of us, and not surprisingly the only one in our group who has never required the services of a divorce lawyer. Every group of friends has one member whose house becomes Command Central, whose television room gets hijacked for sporting events, and whose parents have a grocery bill that is about five times what it should be. Chris' living room was the site of some of the highest sports moments of our young lives (Dave Henderson's home run in Game 6 of the 1986 ALCS) and some of the most depressing (Claude Lemieux's Game 7 goal in the 1986 Stanley Cup playoffs).

ROSS MANDELL:
Ross was the best actual hockey player of our group of friends, and easily has the best story to illustrate just how irrational his love for this team was. After the Whalers lost Game 7 of the 1986 conference semifinals against the Canadiens, a bunch of us went to the airport to greet the team to thank them for a great season. All except Ross, who decided it was a better idea to don his Whaler jersey and goalie mask, and wait for goalie Mike Liut at Liut's house to thank him in person. Ross even had a miniature version of a Stanley Cup tucked under his arm, I guess because he thought he could use it to post bail when Liut inevitably had him hauled off for trespassing.

Unfortunately for Liut (and fortunately for any fan of comedy), by the time he arrived home, Ross had passed out under a tree in the front yard. I mean, picture that -- you're Mike Liut. You just lost Game 7 in the Stanley Cup playoffs in the Montreal Forum in overtime and you come home to find some fool wearing a "Jason" goalie mask with a hand painted Whalers logo and with a tin foil version of the Stanley Cup residing at his crotch, and he's passed out under a tree. In 2010, this would have been on Deadspin within 15 minutes after the 9-1-1 call.

On an unrelated note, Ross is the only one in our group who has needed a divorce lawyer twice.


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