OPINION: Despite impossible odds, Whalers fans endure

OPINION: Despite impossible odds, Whalers fans endure

Two decades ago I traveled across the state – I think it was to Willimantic – to meet up with members of a club devoted to a team that did not exist.

They were members of the Southern New England Browns Backers. Membership in the club had dwindled from 275 to about 150 by the time I met up with some of them, in 1998, but you could say it was still an impressive membership considering that at the time there was no Cleveland Browns football team.

Miffed by discouraging profit prospects, owner Art Modell had in the middle of the night, so to speak, in 1995 snuck his team out of the city by Lake Erie and moved it, leaving the city and Ohio in the lurch. They went to Baltimore, a city which had lost its team, the Colts, to Indianapolis. This is the way the modern business of sports works. Teams go this way, teams go that way. Just like players.

But the Browns were not just any team. This was like the Red Sox leaving Boston. Or, yes, the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn. Many remember how Joe Namath and the New York Jets had turned the NFL upside down by beating the unbeatable (Baltimore) Colts, at a time when experts sniffed that the AFL had maybe three or four teams that could even play in the NFL. In the 1950s, the Browns, under their namesake coach Paul Brown, brought the NFL into the modern world by invading from the upstart All-America Football Conference, pretty much beating everyone. The team also won the 1964 championship, before there was a Super Bowl.

So when the team left so strong was the tie to its city that the NFL would not let Modell take the name, or the colors, with him, and held out the promise to Cleveland that its team would return.

“I can’t describe the sense of loss,” a member of the club, a Southington resident, told me. “I thought, this is so real, so final. The only thing that saved it was knowing the team would be back some day.”

Yes, and the Browns returned. They haven’t been very good, although they’ve won a few games this year, but you could say fans have taken to heart the lyric from Joni Mitchell:  “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?”

That certainly applies to the Hartford Whalers. The team has been gone from Hartford now longer than it was ever there, and while it holds true that where there is life there is hope the prospect of the team ever returning is pretty much fantasy.

So it’s been tantalizing, and for some painful, that the new owner of the Carolina Hurricanes, Tom Dundon, has been resurrecting the Whalers in honor of the team’s heritage. The Hartford team, which left for North Carolina in 1997, was brought back for Whalers Night, last Sunday, and while that was maybe briefly fun you can also recheck the Joni Mitchell lyric above. What’s gone is gone, and the only way to bring it back, in this case, is to bring the team back to Hartford. 

What “saved it” for Browns fans years ago was knowing their team would one day return. Whalers fans remain, knowing that likely will never happen. How’s that for a measure of support?

Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or jkurz@record-journal.com.