Sunday Flashback: the 1986 Hartford Whalers

Ron Francis- Hockey Hall of Fame photoFrancisWhalers

Much of what I wrote for the New England Hockey Journal website was lost forever when the site changed formats and the archived unique content was replaced by the digital issues of the monthly publication. I managed to save some of my more memorable pieces, and one of them was a 20-year anniversary tribute I wrote to the 1986 Hartford Whalers for the New England Hockey Journal magazine in April 2006. The story was written on the eve of the 2006 playoffs, without knowing that in just a few months, the Carolina Hurricanes would raise the Stanley Cup overhead, defeating the Edmonton Oilers in a gritty seven-game series. 20 years after the Whalers showed such promise, their legacy finally resulted in an NHL championship in Raleigh, N.C.- different team, player and colors- same franchise. Mission accomplished. 

But two decades earlier, the young, upstart Whalers won just a single playoff series that year against the Quebec Nordiques before taking the eventual Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens to seven games in the Adams Division final, that team was memorable for their roster, which included a core group of future NHL stars. Sadly for Hartford, a lack of patience and unfortunate trade decisions would result in that team being broken up before they could come together and mature. Had the Whalers found a way to win more playoff games from 1988-90, it is entirely possible that the fateful trade of captain and Hall of Fame center Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson to Pittsburgh in 1991 might never have happened, and the Whalers might have been Stanley Cup contenders from 1992-96 instead of one of the league’s poorer clubs. We’ll never know, but the ’86 Whalers gave us a glimpse into a small window of what could have been.

And though the piece is a relatively superficial one, lacking the depth I wanted to go into given print constraints as a published article, it remains one of my favorite stories written for NEHJ in my seventeen years with Seamans Media. I hope you enjoy, and as you read it, you might even hear the ghostly strains of the Brass Bonanza bringing you back to a bygone era of NHL hockey in New England. Of course, you can always click on the link at the bottom of the post and hear it in real time, too…   – KL

The 1986 Hartford Whalers: Coming of age (originally published, 2006)

            They won’t go down in history as one of the NHL’s storied teams, but the 1985-86 Hartford Whalers gave their fans a glimpse into what could have been for a franchise that would exist in Connecticut for just a decade more before leaving for North Carolina in 1997.

            After struggling to earn respect in the Wales Conference during the first half of the 1980’s, the Whalers not only made the 1986 playoffs as the Adams Division’s final seed, but turned in a stunning upset of the heavily-favored Quebec Nordiques in the first round. With the Hartford Civic Center fired up by the raucous Brass Bonanza, the Whalers then pushed the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Montreal Canadiens to a seventh game in the Adams Division final series before succumbing on a Claude Lemieux strike in overtime, ending Hartford’s championship dreams that spring in heartbreak.

            Starting goaltender Mike Liut, who had been the center of a blockbuster trade from St. Louis the season before and was a veteran leader on that club, is now a player agent with the Octagon Firm out of Michigan. Liut said that the genesis of Hartford’s success in 1986 started in Boston late in the 1984-85 season, a forgettable campaign that saw the Whale finish out of the NHL postseason derby for the fifth consecutive year.

            “We played the Bruins, who were looking to lock up second place, at the Boston Garden,” said Liut. “They jumped us from the outset, hitting us hard and treating it like a playoff game, while some of our players were perhaps playing out the string. It was a situation where the guys had to fight back with everything they had, or someone was going to get hurt.”

            Liut watched from the bench that night as a team loaded with rookies, many of whom had not yet faced real adversity at the highest level, responded by soundly beating the Bruins, eventually forcing them into a first-round matchup without home ice advantage against the Canadiens after they dropped to third place.

            “We went into a hornet’s nest in the Boston Garden that night, but came out with a win,” Liut said. “To beat the Bruins in that kind of environment showed a lot of the young guys on the team what we were capable of, and gave us a head start for the following year.”

            1985-86 was a different season for the Whalers, who were led by embattled coach (the late) Jack “Tex” Evans. Liut had the benefit of spending the entire year in Hartford, while his cousin and team captain, Ron Francis, battled a broken ankle, but was productive with 77 points in 53 regular season games. Young guns Sylvain Turgeon (45 goals), Kevin Dineen (33), and Ray Ferraro (30) terrorized opposing goaltenders, while a competent corps of defenders that included Joel Quenneville and Ulf Samulesson, received a big boost with the acquisition of Dave Babych during the year. There was also no shortage of effective role players such as Doug Jarvis, Paul MacDermid, Dean Evason, Mike McEwen and Dave Tippett, all of whom combined to infuse the Whalers with skill and grit.

      “We were a very close team,” Francis told New England Hockey Journal. “The veterans helped the younger players to take that next step and get us all to believe that we were a team capable of doing some damage in the postseason. We believed we could beat anyone.”

       They won eight of their last 11 games to post a 40-36-4 regular season record. That was enough for Hartford to edge out the Buffalo Sabres to capture a playoff spot for the first time since 1980, when they were swept in three games of the preliminary round by the Canadiens.

            Veteran forward John Anderson, now the head coach of Atlanta’s AHL affiliate Chicago Wolves franchise, was a genius move by Whalers GM Emile “the Cat” Francis, acquired from the Quebec Nordiques at the trade deadline after eight seasons Toronto Maple Leafs. He found new life and went on the greatest offensive run of his NHL career, playing a key role to get his new team into the postseason with a white-hot stick (eight goals, 17 assists in 14 games).

            “To come to Hartford after some of the frustration I’d seen in Toronto was a great feeling,” Anderson said. “We were a young team, but everything was coming together at the right time for us. Nobody gave us much of a chance against Quebec, but we definitely turned some heads in that series”

            Hartford opened the 1986 postseason in a best-of-five series against the division-leading Nordiques to low expectations around the rest of the league. As had been the case throughout much of the year however, the Whalers weren’t about to give into conventional thought.

            Liut stoned the powerful Quebec attack that included Hall of Famers Peter Stastny and Michel Goulet. After posting a 3-2 overtime win in Game One, the Whalers went on to frustrate the Nords by sweeping them out with 4-1 and 9-4 victories, the third of which happened on home ice.  Anderson posted five points in that series-clinching win, putting an exclamation point on the upset against his former team. Few had given Hartford chance against a veteran team in Quebec, yet there they were- staring down the Canadiens, who were also coming off a sweep of the Bruins in round one.

            The Whalers nearly upset the favored Habs because they got contributions from everyone on the roster. Backup goaltender Steve Weeks, now an assistant coach with the Atlanta Thrashers, got a chance to play when Liut was hit on the knee by a shot in warm-ups of Game 3 and responded by winning Game 4 in OT to take a 2-2 series split back to Montreal.

            “When Mike went down, we could’ve panicked, but didn’t,” Weeks said. “The guys played with an unbelievable amount of poise, and when Kevin (Dineen) scored that overtime goal, we really believed that we could pull it off against Montreal.”

            After trading home wins, the teams met for the decisive Game 7. The Habs took a 1-0 lead into the final frame before Babych ripped a slapshot past Patrick Roy at 17:13 of the third period to strike fear into the legions of Montreal faithful. Moments into the extra session, Lemieux, who would go on to win more championships in his polarizing NHL career, found himself alone in the slot in front of Liut and fired a high backhand shot over his glove for the emotional win at 5:55 of sudden death.

            “You can’t speculate on what might’ve been,” said Liut reflecting back on the Whalers’ memorable playoff charge. “But that game definitely could’ve gone either way. One thing I’ll always take from the experience was that so many guys on the team came of age that spring.”

            Though the ’86 Whalers won just a single playoff series during their 18 years in Hartford, their heroics live in the memories of those who witnessed them push the Habs to brink. Their legacy lives on in the Carolina Hurricanes, who are playoff-bound 20 years later and boast a 100-point scorer in young super star Eric Staal. Though Francis returned to the franchise that traded him and helped the 2002 Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup final, his Hall of Fame-worthy career ended with him unable to help push Carolina over the final hump against the Detroit Red Wings after winning a pair of championships in Pittsburgh.

            “What I remember most is the enthusiasm the fans in Hartford had for us that year,” Francis said. “It was an honor to play in front of so many people who believed in us and got behind the Whalers. It was an unforgettable time for all of us.”

***

Here are highlights from the Whalers’ only playoff series win in team history (Boy, can you ever appreciate the birth of high definition in hockey broadcasts and understand why until HD came along, selling hockey on TV was a tough chore)

Liut Whalers

Mike Liut on the cover of the 1987-88 Hartford Whalers media guide and yearbook

Not 1985-86, but here’s the old Whalermania 1986-87 video highlights tape- including an awkward intro from Ron Francis It was Hartford’s first and only Adams Division regular season title, but this time, the Quebec Nordiques flipped the script in the playoffs and a year after being upset by the Whale, they returned the favor.

Brass Bonanza…crank it up

Sunday Flashback: 2013 B’s-Pens playoff column “Sweep dreams will end the Steel City nightmare”

An old friend recently reminded me of a column I wrote in 2013, after the Boston Bruins had taken a 3-0 series lead over Sidney Crosby and the vaunted Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference final (you remember- the guys who were anointed Stanley Cup champs when they scooped Boston on Jarome Iginla at the trade deadline?) Alas, the B’s were unable to close the deal against the Chicago Blackhawks, who earned their second of three rings between 2010-15 against the Black & Gold, but he asked me to dig the piece up and so here it is- in its raw and unedited glory prior to being posted on HockeyJournal.com.

All of my old work at NE Hockey Journal that was not in the printed issues is gone forever from the Internet, as no archive exists given the different format changes the website went through over the years since I started covering the Bruins there in the summer of 2000. All I have left are the files on my computer and so, on occasion, I’ll bring out the dead and we can take some trips in the Wayback Machine to save you any time otherwise wasted with a Google search- the old stuff no longer exists online.

Enjoy the column…in the 5 years hence, the Penguins have fared certainly better than the Bruins, with a pair of championships in 2016-17, but I have to admit- this one was a ton of fun to write. -KL

***

Sweep dreams will end the Steel City nightmare (June 7, 2013- HockeyJournal.com)

For some reason, one particular ‘s’ word has somehow evolved to be on par with the one goalies don’t want you using before the shutout is actually in the books.

But say the word ‘sweep’ when your team is up 3 games to none, and everyone starts to get that queasy feeling in the pit of their stomach. In Boston, it’s understandable, given that we are just three years removed from a historic collapse against another team from the Keystone State after building a commanding series lead.

This column is not for the superstitious (another s-word since we’re on the subject), so if you’re one of those types, then you probably should stop reading now. However, if you’ve got an iron constitution and will in line with Gregory Campbell, or don’t take yourself (or sports) too seriously, then forge ahead.

On Friday, the Boston Bruins will sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins to take their place in the Stanley Cup final series for the second time in three years.

There it is. Carve it in stone or put it up in lights…it’s happening, folks.

Just as the B’s exorcised the demons of their agonizing 2010 seven-game loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in style with a sweep of their own just one year later, Boston can revisit history on Friday at the TD Garden. That was important, because it put an exclamation point on the Olde Towne’s first Stanley Cup championship in 39 years. That 2011 Cup victory was a euphoric rush for the Bruins and their fans, but does anyone deny that crushing the Flyers on the way to the summit of hockey supremacy made it all the sweeter?

Two years later, the Bruins have stunned the mighty (and heavily favored) Pittsburgh Penguins in capturing the first three games of the Eastern Conference Final series. This opportunistic, lunchpail group of Black and Gold-diggers have laughed in the face of the vaunted Steel City juggernaut thanks in large part to goaltender Tuukka Rask’s otherworldly performance in net and gritty production from stars like Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand and Nathan Horton.

In short, the B’s have taken everything the Penguins have thrown at them and then counterpunched to the tune of an 11-2 drubbing on the scoreboard. In those three games (and almost two extra periods), the front line skaters like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Jarome Iginla, and Kris Letang have combined for a grand total of no points between them.

It’s as if Dean Vernon “Zero Point Zero” Wormer were staring down Bluto Blutarsky as we speak.

The Bruins will sweep because even if they decisively won the first two games on the road in Pittsburgh by a combined 9-1 score, the Penguins showed some remarkable pluck by battling back in Game 3 to give the B’s all they could handle.

Aside from a Krejci puck off Matt Niskanen’s skate that got behind Tomas Vokoun at the 1:42 mark, the Penguins netminder was near flawless. Until Bergeron took a Marchand feed (thanks to a play along the boards by veteran Bruins forward Jaromir Jagr that would have made Peter Pan’s pirate nemesis proud) and put a dagger in the hearts of the Pittsburgh hopeful just after midnight in Boston.

By all rights, the Penguins should have won. But the hockey gods…ye gods…frowned on Crosby and Co., allowing the Bruins to hand flightless fowl a soul-crushing loss.

And so- the B’s are in position to not only sweep the Penguins, but to put the screws to one team that has been every bit the villain of any in the Boston franchise’s history.

Back in 1991, it wasn’t Crosby, but Mario Lemieux who led his Penguins back from a 0-2 deficit in the Wales Conference championship series. That club, complete with a 19-year-old rookie wunderkind in Jagr, smacked the B’s down in six games en route to easily handling the Minnesota North Stars for the first of two consecutive Stanley Cups. It was Ulf Samuelsson, however, who’s dirty hit on Boston legend Cam Neely hastened the end of No. 8’s Hall of Fame career.

A year later, the Bruins got a rematch in the Wales final, but without Neely (still suffering the after effects of the Samuelsson low blow), the high-flying Penguins blew Boston out of the water in a sweep. The series was punctuated by a highlight reel goal of Lemieux turning Ray Bourque inside-out, outside-in on the way to a back-breaking goal.

It has been 21 long years since the two teams met in the playoffs, but for many Boston fans, the Pens are still a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Matt Cooke’s blindside hit on Marc Savard in 2010 is only the tip of the iceberg, but the incident served as a flashpoint to escalate the rivalry between the teams.

Many cannot ignore the fact Pittsburgh not only landed a franchise player in Malkin in 2004, but also struck gold with the top lottery pick in the cancelled season a year later, essentially handed another hockey king in Crosby. Some won’t forget that when Ray Shero was on the verge of becoming the GM of the Boston Bruins in 2006, he opted for a more promising situation in Pittsburgh at the last minute.

If hell hath no fury like a Bruins fan scorned, then Iginla is the newest Boston target. In a much-publicized aborted trade fiasco, Iginla, the Calgary Flames and Penguins humiliated Peter Chiarelli and the Bruins. In what everyone but Iginla thought was a done deal, the Calgary captain instead elected to lift his no-trade for the Steel City only, leaving the Bruins holding the bag.

If you know the ever-simmering cauldron of intensity that is one Cameron Michael Neely, then you know that the way Pittsburgh embarrassed Boston by scooping Iginla and seeing the B’s snubbed so publicly must have re-ignited his burning desire to pay them back one hundredfold. So far, his team is doing just that.

Even if Iginla is proving that the best trades are sometimes the ones you don’t make, the smugness with which the Penguins and their fans swooped in to exult in the bitterness of Boston’s disappointment cemented that team’s status as Public Enemy No. 1.

If having a villain to focus your angst and anger is a cathartic, then consider the Penguins the therapist you have on speed dial.

The Bruins are in position to sweep away the nightmares of two crushing playoff defeats more than two decades ago. They’re poised to erase the visceral disgust of having lost so many prime years of Neely’s playing career to one of the dirtiest and unaccountable players in history.  They’re on the verge of gaining the ultimate revenge against all of the real and perceived slights that have accompanied one of the most heralded teams on paper in quite a few years.

They say revenge is sweet.

Or is it sweep?

It’s not over yet, but the best thing the Bruins can do is close the deal in Game 4 and put the bitterness behind them once and for all.

(As a bonus- Here’s the brilliant HNIC opening for Game 3 after the B’s won both games in Pittsburgh to Radiohead’s classic “Karma Police” with some amazing juxtaposition of imagery & lyrics)

 

Deconstructing the Claude Julien firing

About 24 hours ago, the Boston Bruins and GM Don Sweeney officially swung the Sword of Damocles that had been hanging over the organization and coach Claude Julien’s head for weeks (some would even say years), dismissing the franchise’s all-time wins leader and Stanley Cup champion behind the bench, setting off a firestorm of criticism online and in the media for the timing and way it was handled.

This post will attempt to analyze the move and the subsequent naming of assistant coach Bruce Cassidy as the B’s interim bench boss. It is by no means the first and last word on the matter, nor will it hit every bucket that the firing impacts. Whether you were someone who felt it was time to go and are angered that the team elected to do it on the morning of the New England Patriots’ victory parade, are someone who felt he was not the problem and are even more irate at the timing, or are someone who feels like the move had to be made and have no issue with it (and everyone in between), this piece will try to raise multiple perspectives and shed light on some of the other factors that led to where we are on Wednesday, February 8, 2017- nearly a decade after Julien was brought in on the heels of the failed Dave Lewis experiment.

Continue reading