The New England Whalers won the WHA’s inaugural AVCO Cup Championship in 1972-73. It would be the franchise’s finest moment. Despite being the only team to make the playoffs every season of WHA play, the Whalers found success far more elusive after joining the NHL in 1979. In its 18 NHL seasons as the Hartford Whalers, the franchise achieved winning records only three times. Its ongoing on-ice struggles ultimately took their toll. The team was sold, relocated to Raleigh/Durham in 1997, and renamed the Carolina Hurricanes. To the chagrin of long-suffering Whalers fans, the Hurricanes would go on to win the Stanley Cup in 2006.
Despite many ups and downs, the Whalers featured several of the greatest players in hockey history, including Hockey Hall of Famers Gordie Howe, Mark Howe, Bobby Hull, Dave Keon, Chris Pronger, Paul Coffey, Ron Francis and Brendan Shanahan. Some of those all-time greats were key contributors to the franchise’s successes, but many other players also figured prominently in the Whalers’ 25-year legacy (1972-1997).
Here is our list of the top 10 All-Time Whalers, based on impact, popularity, importance and longevity.
1.Ron Francis, Center, 1981-1991 (and 1998-2004 with Carolina).
Elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007, Francis ranks as the franchise leader in games played (1,186), goals (382), assists (793) and points (1,175). Francis stands fifth on the NHL’s all-time scoring list with 1,789 total points. If there were a “Mr. Whaler”, it would be Francis.
2.Rick Ley, Defenseman, 1972-81.
Rick Ley joined the Whalers in 1972 and helped the team capture the AVCO Cup at the end of that inaugural season. He remained with the Whalers through its entire seven-year WHA run and holds the league record for most games played with the one team (478). Ley’s jersey (No. 2) is retired.
3.Kevin Dineen, Right Wing, 1984-1991 and 1995-1997 (and 1997-1999 with Carolina).
When Kevin Dineen joined the Whalers in 1984, he and Ron Francis immediately clicked. In 1985-86, they both scored better than a point per game. As a result, the Whalers won their first and only NHL playoff series win, against the Quebec Nordiques. Dineen finished his Whalers career with 503 points, second only to Francis.
Gordie Howe and son Mark both were among top Whalers
4.Gordie Howe, Right Wing, 1977-80.
At age 49, Gordie Howe was still near the top of his game, at least the WHA version of his game, when he joined the Whalers, along with sons Mark and Marty, for the 1977-78 season. That year, he tallied 34 goals and 96 points in 76 regular-season games. Howe brought an intangible, regal presence to the franchise as it made the transition to the NHL in 1979. His number 9 was retired by the team in 1981.
5.Mark Howe, Left Wing/Defense, 1977-1982.
Although Mark Howe’s tenure with the Whalers was relatively short, he had impact. Howe registered 107 points in his final WHA season and gave the team a superstar player as it made the leap to the NHL in 1979. On Whalers teams that had to compete regularly against the likes of the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins, Howe was the one player those teams had to watch out for.
6.Nick Fotiu, Left Wing, 1974-76 and 1979-81.
Stats don’t begin to tell the story of Nick Fotiu’s immense popularity with Whalers fans or even his on-ice contributions to the team. Simply put, Fotiu was a fearless pugilist on skates, arguably the best fighter in well populated heavyweight class of WHA enforcers. Fotiu brought fans out of their seats in anticipation of his dropping the gloves.
7.Tom Webster, Right Wing, 1972-79
Tom Webster also joined the Whalers in 1972-73, and quickly became the soul of the team’s offense. He led the club with 53 goals and 103 points in the regular season, and added 12 goals and 26 points in the playoffs. As a result, the Whalers won the AVCO Cup title. Webster remained with the team through the 1977-78 season, finishing as the team’s all-time leader in total goals (220) and points (425).
Al Smith is the only goalie among the top 10
8.Al Smith, Goaltender, 1972-75 and 1977-80.
Every championship team needs a great goalie, and Smith backstopped the Whalers to the club’s first and only WHA championship in 1972-73. Smith enjoyed two tours of duty with the Whalers, winning 30 or more games four times.
9.Larry Pleau, Center, 1972-79.
After a short stint with the Montreal Canadiens, Larry Pleau joined the Whalers in 1972-73 and played a key role in its run to the AVCO Cup. He scored 39 regular-season goals and 12 more in the playoffs. Pleau played every season for the team during its seven-year WHA history and finished second only to Rick Ley in career games played with 468.
10.Jacques Ysaye, Composer, 1976-1992.
OK, so Jacques Ysaye never played on the ice for the Whalers. However, his contribution of the Whalers fight song – “Brass Bonanza” – still remains one of the most memorable and important relics of team history. Every true fan of the team knows and cherishes this song because it’s a symbol of the club’s best moments.