A Moving Tribute. Victory A Footnote To History

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Perhaps the saddest moment in Hartford history was the circus tent fire of July 6, 1944. It became known as The Day the Clowns Cried.

Another of the city's saddest moments arrived April 13, 1997. Perhaps it should be remembered as The Day They Cried for the Clowns.

That was Sunday.

The Whalers, those perennial misfit losers, played their last game before bleary-eyed, red-nosed fans at the Civic Center. The makeup ran like Pete Karmanos.

In a departure from their regular form, the Whalers ended an era with a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Like hundreds of games the Whalers had played, this one had no playoff ramifications.

But it did -- to borrow a favorite phrase of general manager Jim Rutherford -- provide closure. The Whalers finished their NHL history in Hartford with a record of 552- 740-177. In sum, they were 188 games under .500, they posted 15 losing seasons in 18 years and they won only one playoff round.

They haven't made the playoffs in five years, they've shrunk their own market -- but, dang, their fans proved to be large. Isn't it ironic?

When the horn blared to end the game, a sellout crowd of 15,635 wept for its team, like pet owners at the scene of a hit-and-run. Best sign of the day: ``I BLEED PLANKTON.'' The delightfully kitschy theme song ``Brass Bonanza'' wailed. That guy from Wethersfield hurled a huge codfish on the ice.

The players tried to figure out how to return the weighty sentiments. They huddled, then raised their sticks. They did a couple of laps. They tossed equipment into the crowd. Keith Primeau did the two-handed, ``I'm not worthy'' salute. ``That's how I feel,'' he said.

Later, they skated out for an encore in their longjohns.

``You know, it has been three weeks since we found out the team was moving,'' leading scorer Geoff Sanderson said. ``Three weeks. But I don't think anyone thought about the final day or the final game, what it would be like. It just hit everyone in the building. The fans were amazing. I saw so many familiar faces. There were kids crying. That was the hardest thing, seeing all the pain in people's faces.''

Considering what happened afterward, the game was a charade.

``The game was almost secondary to the moment that was the end of the Hartford Whalers,'' coach Paul Maurice said. ``Actually, it wasn't almost secondary -- it was completely secondary.''

Tampa Bay's Dino Ciccarelli scored the last NHL goal on Civic Center ice, at 2 minutes, 50 seconds of the third period.

Fittingly, captain Kevin Dineen scored the last Whalers goal in Hartford. It came at 24 seconds of the third, off a neat feed from Andrew Cassels. That was the game- winner.

The other goal came from defenseman Glen Wesley at 2:30 of the first period.

Whalers goaltender Sean Burke, four-time team MVP, was sterling in making 38 saves. Burke played with an almost maniacal focus. He was making a futile attempt to eradicate the memory of his previous start, a fiasco at Nassau Coliseum Friday night in which the lowly Islanders won 6-4 and virtually eliminated the Whalers from playoff contention.

``When there is something on the line, you want to feel you can go and get it,'' Burke said. ``I personally didn't do that against the Islanders, and we didn't do that as a team. It was a major disappointment.''

As for Sunday, Burke captured the feeling of most Whalers players when he said, ``We've disappointed [the fans], but it wasn't for lack of effort. We wanted to show them that we've appreciated their support, which has been amazing. You know, a lot of people I've known a long time -- I've never seen them emotional. And I saw them emotional today. I skated around and saw those faces in the stands, so many of them familiar faces, and it choked me up. I'll always remember the closeness we had with the fans here. I'll never forget that.''

Before delivering an unforgettable version of the national anthem, singer Tony Harrington launched the love-in by recognizing the fans and saying, ``Just remember, it's not over until the fat lady sings, and I'm not the fat lady.''

The fat lady was visiting San Diego, sporting a ponytail.

Meanwhile, back in Hartford, Wesley staked the Whalers to the lead with a slap shot. The Mall erupted.

Later in the first period, the Lighting had a goal disallowed because two of their players were piled in the crease when the puck crossed the goal line. Referee Scott Zelkin waved it off the scoreboard.

During the first-intermission warmups, Whalers backup goalie Jason Muzzatti attempted to fight with Shawn Burr. According to Muzzatti, Burr uttered a derogatory remark about one of the Whaler's wives. It might be pertinent that Burr used to play in Detroit with Primeau.

``It was a family offense,'' Muzzatti said, ``and he's a repeat offender.''

The second period might be described thusly: ``Brass Bonanza,'' Burke save, ``Brass Bonanza,'' Burke save, ``Brass Bonanza,'' Burke save.

Burke was on his way to his 100th and last victory as a Whaler.

He got it.

And they cried.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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