Whalers owner Richard Gordon brought the media to his Trumbull Street office Tuesday to confirm he had fired Ed Johnston as vice president and general manager -- three years to the day he was hired.
But the more Gordon spoke at the 75-minute press conference, the more evident it became the decision was based on more than hockey.
There is a Hartford in the Hartford Whalers that Gordon said Johnston did not come to know, grow with and understand.
"This is a very small town in many ways," Gordon said. "This town needs to know you, all about you. It's a Yankee mentality. That means you've got to reach out and be involved in the community. That's something we negated the last three years. We lost track of our roots.
"This is a hard feeling, a difficult thing to do. But I'm kind of relieved in a sense. We've got to fill the void. Our next move has has got to be much more positive, more experienced. Ed did a good job in the draft and rebuilding the farm team. But we didn't win enough and it showed up in the box office."
Hockey statistics alone were grim enough to end Johnston's stay with the Whalers. With a 26-41-13 record and 65 points in 1991-92, the Whalers had their worst season since 1982-83 and finished 20th of 22 NHL teams.
In his attempt to boost the Whalers above .500, Johnston pulled the trigger on 32 trades and dealt one fan favorite after the other.
Ron Francis. Gone.
Mike Liut. Gone.
Kevin Dineen. Gone.
Ray Ferraro. Gone.
Ulf Samuelsson, Dave Tippett, Dean Evason, Joel Quenneville. Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone.
After Johnston had arrived from the World Hockey Championships in Czechoslovakia Monday night, Gordon called him to Avon Old Farms for a meeting. EJ soon got the message.
He was gone, too.
Gordon said coach Jim Roberts' fate rests with the next general manager.
Assured he would receive the $900,000 promised him on the remaining three years of his contract, Johnston went to the Whalers office, cleaned out his desk and went home. Tuesday morning, he left town.
Johnston had no comment for the media. Public relations director John Forslund said he believed Johnston had gone to Boston to spend some time with his close friend Bobby Orr.
Forslund said Johnston might be available for interviews in about a week.
Liut, the Washington Capitals free agent goalie, is seen as the frontrunner to replace Johnston. Gordon spoke to Liut Friday when he was in the area on a personal visit. They chatted again Monday and Gordon said he'll meet with Liut today.
Gordon also plans to speak to Vancouver Canucks vice president and director of hockey operations Brian Burke.
"Both quality people. Good candidates," Gordon said.
Gordon also intends to talk with Minnesota North Stars center Bobby Smith, Minnesota coach Bob Gainey and Madison Square Garden TV analyst John Davidson. Boston assistant GM Mike Milbury, under contract, also was considered a viable candidate, but Bruins GM Harry Sinden had other ideas.
"He's not leaving here," Sinden said.
With Vancouver still in the playoffs, Burke, also under contract, declined comment. He does have a clause wherein each off-season he can leave to become a GM.
"The strike created tremendous logistical problems," Gordon said of the players' 10-day walkout in April. "We're going to call up some teams and ask if they'd let us talk to people." But Gordon's tone, his body language seemed to indicate that, everything being equal, he would lean toward Liut.
"I think it's important to look at allegiances," Gordon said.
Liut, traded in 1990 after five years with the Whalers, broke down and wept in a TV interview. He didn't want to leave Hartford. The impression around the NHL now is some players cry when they come to Hartford.
Gordon said he always had remembered May 11 because it is his daughter Alex's birthday. He will remember it for another reason now: The EJ Era. Johnston came and left on the same date. In between, the Whalers went 95-112-33, finished in fourth place each year and didn't advance past the first round of the playoffs.
In the process, Gordon saw the regular-season attendance drop from a high of 14,574 in 1987-88 to 10,896. The Whalers drew an average of 8,354 in three playoff games. and suffered through the indignity of a 5,602 crowd against Montreal.In one playoff game against Montreal, the Whalers drew 5,602 at the 15,635-seat Civic Center.
"You have to win games and wars," Gordon said. "We didn't win Vietnam and everybody hated everybody. We won Desert Storm and everybody found a hero. [Gen.] Norman [Schwarzkopf] gets $75,000 a night to speak, whether he says anything or not. Nobody cares. Fans like winners. You know, we used to have 1,200 people in the Booster Club. Now there's nowhere near that. That's got to change. The fans are my shareholders." "EJ is a good judge of talent. But there are some things you can't see. Talent and desire or heart are different. Glen Sather [Edmonton Oilers GM] and Harry Sinden have a
unique ability to see inside you." While not naming Orr, who has resigned from Gordon's advisory board and who openly promoted Johnston as the Whalers' GM in 1989 over the late Bob Johnson, Gordon said he would rely more on resources within his office for selecting the next general manager.
"I had somebody tell me, `[Johnson] is outstanding, very enthusiastic. He's the right GM. Other people told me he was a phony. On the ice today on the Pittsburgh rink, it says `It's a great day for hockey.' How can anybody love hockey that much? Was he on happy gas? You couldn't believe the guy was for real unless you knew the man."
Does this mean he listened to too many outside influences?
"Yes," Gordon said.
Johnston's biggest deal was the Ron Francis-Ulf Samuelsson-Grant Jennings for John Cullen-Zarley Zalapski-Jeff Parker trade March 4, 1991. Under EJ, the Whalers were three games over .500 to that point. Since the deal, they were 20 games under (29-49-15).
"In talking to a lot of good hockey people, I've never heard one person say it was a bad trade -- honest," Gordon said. "But I remember as clearly as anybody else what was said. That this trade was `The Challenge.' This was something we couldn't run away from. That we were were going to be judged on the facts. No body language. No spins." Johnston won his most praise for the Pat Verbeek-for-Sylvain Turgeon trade with New Jersey in June 1989. Whalers president Emile Francis confirmed he actually had done much of the legwork on that deal. He said he worked on deals with the Devils and Montreal for Turgeon at the March trade deadline, but Turgeon got hurt.
Gordon said he plans to make more use of Francis, who has one year left on his $250,000-a-year contract. That can be interpreted as another sign Liut, who played for Francis in St. Louis and Hartford, could be returning to Hartford.
"Emile always has been loyal and willing to help," Gordon said. "He loves Hartford. But when you're not invited to the party, it's tough to show up."
"The smaller the city, the more community work you have to do," Francis said. "I must have made 500 appearances in Hartford. Look, I like EJ. I'll help out in any way possible."
Gordon said he did not like -- but tried to understand -- Johnston's penchant for criticizing traded players, such as Todd Krygier, the former University of Connecticut player dealt to Washington last year.