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The first step was to hire Jack Kelley as head coach. They started with a solid core of NHL veterans like Ted Green and Tom Webster. They also scored with the signing of John French, hot prospect in the Montreal Canadiens' system. Although never able to crack the Habs' lineup, French would turn into one of the WHA's top scorers. Hoping to capture a name goalie like Cleveland and Miami did with Gerry Cheevers and Bernie Parent, they chose Ed Johnston during the inaugural draft, but were unable to sign him from the Boston Bruins. With Al Smith, they still got a proven 'game goalie' in the NHL, and his backup Bruce Landon would end the first year highly touted as one of the league's best rookies, as did left winger Terry Caffery. Their gritty defensive play would be built around the likes of Jim Dorey, ex of the Rangers and Blues in the NHL and rookie Rick Ley. By mid-season it was already established the Whalers were among the early elite, with 6 players making the first All-Star Game in January of '73. A strong balanced attack led the league with 318 goals, with Webster's 53 second in the league. As well, a defense ranked in the top 5 helped the team finish the inaugural regular season on top with 94 points. After disposing of Ottawa and Cleveland in 6 games each the first 2 rounds, they went up against their only real equal at the time, the Winnipeg Jets. Despite losing game 1, the Whalers came back four straight to be crowned the first Avco World Trophy champions. In the voting for the first individual awards, Kelley was named Coach of the Year and Caffery's 100 points earned him Rookie of The Year. Though there was no honour awarded for Playoff MVP the league's first year, it was widely acknowledged Webster's 12 goals and 14 assists made him a shoe-in.
Although Caffery jumped ship to the NHL during the off-season, the team started the '73-'74 season much as the first season had ended. The Whalers were chasing first in practically every category, and Webster and John French were both on their way to 30+ goals seasons again. But mid-season injuries were taking their toll on the team. Though Webster notched 43 goals and would surely have netted 50 had he played a full season, it was French who led the team in scoring with 72 points. Again Smith provided a solid performance, earning 2 shutouts and contributing to only 260 goals against, second only to Houston. They finished the regular season with 90 points, good for tops in the East and second overall. Sailing into the playoffs it was widely anticipated they'd be defending their championship in the finals. They went up against the Chicago Cougars in the first round, no match on paper. Although they built a 3 games to 1 lead, the Whalers sunk hard, upset in overtime in the seventh and deciding game.
The Whalers spent the off-season jumping ship in Boston and relocated in Hartford. They re-evaluated their situation and began the restructuring process by hiring Harry Neale, ex coach of the Minnesota Fighting Saints and present-day CBC colour commentator, as head coach. They began the pre-season with a 4-2 road loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in only the second exhibition match between the two leagues. The regular season began in earnest with a sellout of nearly 11,000 at the new Hartford Civic Center, watching the Whalers defeat the San Diego Mariners 4-3 in overtime. Although the club again looked impressive during the regular season with 91 points and third overall in the league, playoff disaster repeated when they were shocked by Minnesota, losing to the Saints in 6 games in the first round. Shortly after hitting the golf course Smith announced he'd be returning to the NHL and New England was looking for a new number one goalie. They turned to Christer Abramson (the first Swedish major league goalie), now in his sophomore season. He shared the duties that year with Landon, but the team's defensive play was full of holes - their 290 goals against tied for fifth worst in the league. A rash of injuries during the year also saw a sharp drop in offensive production - their 255 goals scored were 19 fewer than the previous season. Still, their 73 points were good enough for third in the East and went up against Cleveland in the first round of the playoffs. They swept the Crusaders in three straight. A surprisingly tough Indianapolis club was next. A back and forth battle saw the Whalers finally take the Racers in 7. Their third-round opponents were the Houston Aeros, tops in the league during the regular season and heavy favourites going into the Finals. Despite a valiant effort, the Whalers were eventually taken in 7.
The 76-77 campaign saw marginal improvement. Pre-season exhibition play saw them come out of Manhattan with a 2-2 tie with the New York Rangers. But one of the season's hi-lites was the annual all-star game. Held in Hartord in front of a sell-out crowd, hometown goalie Louis Lavasseur co-won the MVP award. With defenceman George Lyle, who'd go on to take honours as the league's top defenceman, the team finished with 76 points, and 20 goals more in a league that was more competitive this round with the reversion back to 12 teams. But despite the slight increase in stats, they dropped to fourth in the East. Still managing to make the post-sesason, they fell hard in the first round to the eventual champions Quebec Nordiques in 6 games.
Smith returned to mind the store the next season and many predicted the Whalers to finally get back to where they were thought to belong - among the elite of the league. With Lavasseur, they combined for a GAA of 3.36 - tops in the offensive minded league. They also got some leadership in the dressing room when John McKenzie joined the troops. The Whalers finished second in the league with 93 points. Through the course of the season they took part in 7 intra-league games - all on the road, winning 5, tieing 1 and losing only once. With 93 points the Whalers finished the season second in the eight-team league. Playoff action saw them win two hard-fought series, taking the Edmonton Oilers and Quebec Nordiques in 6 games each. But Smith's fairytale return came to an end in the Finals, when they were swept by the Winnipeg Jets in 4 straight.
With the merging of the two league's a known-fact by this time, all the Whalers could really do in the 78-79 season was prove they belonged in the NHL. They got a huge marketing push during the off-season when they signed Gordie Howe and his sons Mark and Marty from the now-defunct Houston Aeros. Another off-season deal brought goalie John Garrett into the dressing room from Birmingham, with expectations of bringing the team's goals-against down - tho in reality it actually went up by the end of the season. Intra-league exhibition play saw Hartford again showcase their talents, winning four, losing one and tieing twice thru the course of the season. The league started the campaign with 7 teams, but the Racers would fold up tent before the halfway mark. Hartford would finish the WHA's final outing in fourth, one point behind Winnipeg. They defeated Cincinnati in the first round of the playoffs 2 games to 1. But Hartford's ship of dreams of winning a second Avco Cup sunk hard when they bowed out to the Oilers in the second round in 6 games.
The Whalers appeared in the NHL when the league absorbed the WHA for the '79-'80 season. Now dubbed 'The Hartford Whalers' and sporting a new crest and re-done jersey, by all accounts they should have survived. With a built-in rivalry in the Boston Bruins, it seemed things were set. But one of the founding franchises set sail to Carolina in 1999 when they became the Hurricanes.
|1972-1973||46||30||2||94||318||263||858||ROUND #1: beat Nationals in 6 games |
ROUND #2: beat Crusaders in 6 games
FINALS: BEAT JETS IN 5 GAMES
|1973-1974||43||31||4||90||291||260||875||ROUND #1: lost to Cougars in 7 games|
|1974-1975||43||30||5||91||274||279||867||ROUND #1: lost to Fighting Saints in 6 games|
|1975-1976||33||40||7||73||255||290||1012||ROUND #1: beat Crusaders in 3 straight |
ROUND #2: beat Racers in 7 games
ROUND #3: lost to Aeros in 7 games
|1976-1977||35||40||6||76||275||290||1254||ROUND #1: lost to Nordiques in 6 games|
|1977-1978||44||31||5||93||335||269||1255||ROUND #1: beat Oilers in 6 games |
ROUND #2: beat Nordiques in 6 games
FINALS: lost to Jets in 5 games
|1978-1979||37||34||9||83||298||287||1090||ROUND #1: beat Stingers in 3 games|
ROUND #2: lost to Oilers in 6 games
| Hartford Whalers - |
|'72-'73||MERGED WITH NHL IN '79|