EAST HARTFORD—— If the Whalers could have a Mount Rushmore, this would be it. Displayed side-by-side were three original World Hockey Association era jerseys — the logo with the W and the harpoon — on a table for fans to admire.
"It's the greatest piece of WHA history I've ever seen," said Tim Gassen, who is trying to launch a WHA Hall of Fame and, perhaps, locate it in Hartford.
The three jerseys were worn on the ice at the same time by Gordie, Marty and Mark Howe in 1977 and, if auctioned off at the right time, could probably fetch a six-figure price.
They are part of a massive collection purchased by the MeiGray Group, a New Jersey-based company that deals in game-worn jerseys. Barry Meisel, a longtime hockey writer who is now a partner in the company, says Whalers memorabilia is still very much in demand.
"The best franchises are small-market teams in the big time," Meisel said. "The Green Bay Packers, for example. People don't forget them. Even though [the Whalers] never came close to winning the Stanley Cup, they're an iconic franchise."
Gassen grew up a fan of the Indianapolis Racers, a team that originally signed Wayne Gretzky, then folded in the merger with the NHL. "We used to look at Hartford with envy," he said. "There was no doubt in our minds that the Indianapolis Racers would be in the NHL today if Howard Baldwin owned them."
Now Gassen, who has collected artifacts, written a book on the Racers, produced a DVD box set on WHA history, partnered with MeiGray and assembled an induction class, is looking for a permanent home for a WHA Hall of Fame. He's eying Winnipeg and Hartford, and will meet with Baldwin on Sunday to talk about bringing it to Hartford.
One artifact is missing — the first WHA championship trophy, which was won by the Whalers.
"That was in Boston," Howard Baldwin said. "We knew we were going to win it, and the AFCO trophy wasn't ready yet. We went out and bought a trophy for about 25 bucks."
Baldwin does not know what happened to it, but may have it in storage. If he finds it, he said, he'll turn it over to the Hall of Fame.
In ceremonies along the course at Rentschler Field, Baldwin, Andre LaCroix and the Howe Family — Gordie, Colleen, Marty and Mark, were inducted into the WHA Hall of Fame.
A New Generation Of Whalers Fans
Fans arrived as early as 8 a.m., and by 10:30, still 30 minutes before the gates opened, the line stretched halfway around Rentschler's perimeter. Many of the fans were youngsters, families with hardcore Whalers fans hoping to pass it on to their children.
"There was one little girl wearing an old Whaler jersey with the harpoon," said Diane Evtushek, wife of Booster Club president Marty Evtushek. "And it was her mother's when she was a little girl."
Joe Lukowski, 32, drove from Easthampton, Mass., with his wife, Amy, and their young son, Kyle.
"Both my brothers are Bruins fans," Joe Lukowski said, "and they keep asking how I could be a fan of a team that doesn't exist. I tried being a Bruins fans, but it didn't feel right."
Lukowski, whose favorite player was Pat Verbeek, is hoping to pass his love of the Whalers on to his son, but it's an uphill battle. "He's getting a lot of Bruins stuff from his brothers," Joe said.
At the Booster Club's table, it was estimated that at least 30 new members signed up Saturday.
A Few Moments With The Legend