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End of an era in Hartford

by Bruce Berlet

One is “Mr. Wolf Pack.”

The other is “Hawk” – though whether it’s for his ample nose or being a fan of the reigning Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks is open to debate.

But there’s no debating the influence that Ken Gernander and Bob Crawford have had on the Hartford Wolf Pack, whose 13-plus-year chapter of history ends at the XL Center on Saturday night when they appropriately host their closest rival, the Springfield Falcons, whose owners include general manager Bruce Landon, a goalie for parts of the first five seasons of the World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers.

The Wolf Pack officially will be re-branded the Connecticut Whale on Nov. 27 when they host the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. But between Saturday and the 27th, the Wolf Pack will be traveling to five road games, capped by a visit to the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport one day before they change their name, logo and jerseys.

It might seem a bit bittersweet for Gernander and Crawford, but they’ve always been two guys who try to accentuate the positive, even in the most trying of times.

That certainly includes the feelings that they have for each other after spending countless hours together on buses, the occasional airplane flight and in hotels and restaurants throughout the United States and Canada.

“I’ve been around Kenny so long that I almost don’t know if I fully appreciate him like I should,” said Crawford, 44, who has missed only three games in 13-plus seasons while doubling as the team’s director of public relations. “He’s just the consummate professional. I had a chance to watch him go about his business as a player, an assistant coach and a coach, and in all those roles, he has always been so dedicated to doing things the right way. Leading by example is kind of a cliché in sports, but I think he’s really one guy who models the right kind of way of going about things and the right kind of way of behavior rather than talks about it.

“He always expects more out of himself than he does of anybody else, and as somebody who works with him, you want to match that and want to support him in that. I would think that if I’m a player that he’d a guy who would be great to play for just because you know he’s always going to give his best and always going to be pointed in the right direction. All you’d have to do is do what he tells you to do and you’re pretty well assured of success. He takes (bad times) out on himself and isn’t the kind of guy who’s going to say it’s just the wrong combination of players or that the players aren’t pulling their end. He’s going to watch more tape, worry more and think more and put his nose further to the grindstone.

“I’m sure that certainly wears on him after awhile. When you’re a player, you only have to worry about getting one guy ready to play. When you’re a coach, you’ve got to worry about 20 guys, and that’s a heck of a responsibility if you’ve got a few guys who just aren’t ready to go or thinks of everything that you’re trying to do.”

While Gernander has been visible to fans on the ice and behind the bench, Crawford often goes about his business out of sight, especially on the catwalk at the XL Center. But Gernander has appreciated the support that Crawford has offered, especially in the rare down times such as the Wolf Pack (4-9-2-1) have experienced early in their 14th season, including a franchise-record, nine-game winless streak (0-7-2-0).

“Bob is just a nice guy and one of those hockey personalities who has been around forever,” Gernander said. “He’s been with other teams and is one of the guys who’s almost part of the American Hockey League scene right now. I don’t think you could find anybody who has a bad thing to say about Bob. He’s well respected by everybody he works with. He’s very professional, very prepared and very knowledgeable and obviously really enjoys what he is doing.

“I don’t talk strategies with Bob, but he’s been a friend of mine for 16 years and has been very supportive. He’d do anything you ask him to, just a real good team guy. Before any of us had kids, he and wife Martha and me and my wife Kerby would go out for wings and different things. Not that we aren’t friends now, but in Binghamton, we lived in the same apartment and in the same stage of our life. We still go out quite often.”

Gernander and Crawford have traveled tens of thousands of miles together working with three general managers, five head coaches, six assistant coaches and two trainers. They weren’t asked to pick their favorites in those categories, but each did select his five most memorable moments in Wolf Pack history.

Gernander’s Picks

1. The Calder Cup experience in the winning season of 1999-2000: “It’s the only championship that I’ve had since peewee hockey. Just to be able to say you were a champion, that you were better than anyone else, is really special. There’s so much that goes with it. You have to have some lucky breaks, but where everybody has to be on the same page and part of an environment where there isn’t a weak link or a chink. To have everybody be that committed and to have everybody pull together like that becomes so special. It’s not just like a NCAA tournament where there’s one big game or one big upset. The Providence series (in the Eastern Conference finals) was like a lifetime. But that’s what so special about hockey playoffs. Every playoff holds a certain mystique where you can have huge upsets and Cinderella stories, but the essence of hockey is the grind. You can upset somebody in Game 1, and then you have to beat them three more times.”

2. Terry Virtue scores at 7:32 of overtime for a 3-2 victory in Game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference finals on May 21 in the Civic Center, the puck ricocheting off the skate of former Wolf Pack forward Peter Ferraro and past John Grahame to put the team in the Calder Cup finals for the first time and set off the biggest home celebration in franchise history: “That pretty much capped off a pretty big comeback on our part. I don’t think too many people had us penciled in to win that series after we got down 3-1. It sounds a little ludicrous, but the Rochester series (in the Calder Cup finals) was almost anti-climactic. It really didn’t have the same feeling and sensation of that Game 7: coming back, overtime, at home.”

3. A 3-2 victory in Game 5 of the conference finals against Providence: “We were down 3-1 in the series and trailed 2-0 with less than a minute to go in the second period when Derek (Armstrong) scored when he deflected in Drew Bannister’s shot after I won a faceoff. Then we tied it on my goal on a redirect from Jason Dawe at 6:47 of the third period and won on Dawe’s goal at 9:15. That, to me, was kind of the essence of everything.”

4. Raising the championship banner before the 2000-01 home opener on Oct. 7: “When you start a season, your goal is to win a championship, and I think some of those significant moments along the way supersede just a regular-season game or a milestone that’s just a date on the calendar as opposed to something that led to something special in terms of a championship. When they raised some (retired) numbers and I got to meet Gordie Howe was pretty special, but they’re not on the same level as key, pivotal moments in the process of winning a championship.”

5. Raising the Wolf Pack banner before the home opener with 12,943 people at the Civic Center for a 2-2 tie with the Portland Pirates on Oct. 4, 1997, less than six months after the Hartford Whalers beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in their final game on April 13 and then headed to North Carolina to become the Carolina Hurricanes: “We were the same franchise as a Rangers affiliate, but we had a new Wolf Pack logo in a new environment in new city (from Binghamton, N.Y.). It was the novelty of it all, how we were received and all the new optimism and excitement about being in a new market. It was pretty nice building in a pretty nice market, so there were all kinds of positives in being part of a new franchise.”

Crawford has missed three Wolf Pack games – one when his uncle died, one because of a staph infection and a third because of 9/11: His sister, Sara, meticulously planned her wedding so he could attend in February 2002. She even waited until the AHL schedule was released before picking a date. But when the date of the Super Bowl was moved because of 9/11, the Manitoba Moose moved their game against the Wolf Pack to a day earlier, the Saturday of Sara’s wedding.

“I couldn’t bail out on her,” Crawford said.

Crawford has broadcast more than 1,100 games since arriving in September 1997, and here is his top five Wolf Pack moments:

1. Virtue’s series-clinching goal against Providence: “It was the culmination of such a great comeback in the series, arch rival, series-winning goal in overtime. It’s the one I always keep flashing back to as the most goose bump-inducing moment. We were dead in the water in that series: Down 3-1 in the series, down 3-1 in Game 5 with time running out in the second period and down 2-1 in the third period of Game 7. It was a real resurrection, and for it to end like that was the most amazing moment for me, my greatest career moment.”

2. Beating Rochester 4-1 in Game 6 of the 2000 Calder Cup finals on June 4 in Rochester to win the series 4-2 and give Hartford its only professional hockey title: “I almost remember this less than the Virtue goal because of the circumstances of the Virtue goal. But it certainly was fun to go into Rochester’s own barn, see the guys skate the Cup around the ice and then the ride home.”

3. The first home game: “From my perspective, it amounted to a NHL atmosphere. I remember walking onto the catwalk that night thinking, ‘Man, this is something else compared to what I was used to going around to other smaller buildings and smaller markets.’ It was a real festive atmosphere with the opening ceremonies.”

4. Gernander’s goal at 7:49 of triple overtime that gave the Wolf Pack a 4-3 victory over the Worcester IceCats and a four-game sweep of the 2004 second-round series on May 4 in the longest game in franchise history – 100 minutes, 49 seconds: “It was one of those games where it looked like nobody was ever going to score, and Kenny came down the wing and blew one off of Curtis Sanford’s glove and into the net. It looked like it was going to do all night, but he blew one off the glove and suddenly the series was over.”

5. Dan Cloutier’s 52 saves in a 4-1 victory in Game 6 of the second round against Worcester on May 12, 1998, which was part of a 12-year run in the playoffs: “It was a do-or-die game in Worcester, and we got outshot by a ton (53-29). That tied the series, and we ended up winning Game 7 at home (8-2) the next night. That was a weird series. Cloutier played the first two games, and we won them both pretty easily (5-2 and 5-1). Then he was too hurt to play because of a bad groin injury, so Robb Stauber went in and we lost three in a row (6-3, 7-1 and 4-1). So Game 6 is in Worcester, and it’s an elimination game for us and Cloutier gets back out there. He absolutely stood on his head.”

It’s not surprising that Gernander and Crawford would become linked in hockey, which had such a profound influence on them growing up in two quite different locales – Coleraine, Minn., population, 1,100, and Chicago, pop., 2.8 million.

Gernander was born in Coleraine, where he played football and baseball. He played senior baseball until he was 30 but began to think about being a pro when he got drafted by Winnipeg Jets in the fifth round in 1987.

“I always wanted to go to the next level and continue playing,” Gernander said. “I always was striving to get better because then there’s always a possibility of furthering yourself. I was pretty excited to get drafted because I wasn’t a shoo-in to be drafted. I was just happy that someone thought there was something in me.”

Gernander, 41, played four years at the University of Minnesota and then 14 pro seasons, the last 11 in the Rangers organization mostly with their AHL affiliates in Binghamton (1994-97) and Hartford (1997-2005). His most trying moments came after the first two games of the Wolf Pack’s first playoff series with Saint John. He felt fatigued as the teams split the two games but just thought it was because it was the end of the season and the playoffs.

“I had chest pains at times and all kinds of diagnosis from (teammates) Todd Hall and Chris Winnes,” Gernander recalled. “I coughed up a blood clot in our room at one point, and we dismissed that as sinuses. But there were a couple of things that led me to believe something wasn’t right.”

After he and the Wolf Pack returned to Hartford, he began to feel worse, so he went to the hospital at 4 a.m. for some tests that didn’t show anything. The pain then began to subside, so Gernander went home and then to practice, where former trainer Tim Macre said, “You look awful. You’re all gray. We’ve got to get you in the hospital and looked at.”

Gernander returned to the hospital for several more tests from Dr. David Grise that showed Gernander had a pulmonary emboylism, a blood clot in his lung.

“I think it could very easily have been missed,” Gernander said. “But I think given the history that the two of us had, he did some tests that probably wouldn’t have showed that was anything wrong except for the fact that he knew I was a pro athlete and that my levels should have been a lot higher for someone who had that kind of conditioning. So he kept probing until he ordered a final test that showed I had something life-threatening.”

The Wolf Pack were eliminated when they lost the next three games at home, though Gernander, showing his captaincy aplomb, got out of sick bay and went behind the bench for Game 5, which turned out to be the series finale.

“I made it back for moral support,” Gernander said.

Gernander was captain the last 10 years, eight in Hartford, and is the Wolf Pack’s all-time leader in shorthanded goals (14), plus-minus (plus-93), games played (599) and playoff games played (78). He also ranks second all-time in goals (160), assists (187) points (347), power-play goals (50) and game-winning goals (30) but was rarely called up to the Rangers, playing in only 27 NHL games, 15 in the playoffs, and finishing with two goals and three assists.

After retiring as a player after the 2004-05 season, Gernander was an assistant coach under Jim Schoenfeld for three years and is in his fourth season as head coach. He retired as the AHL’s all-time leader in career playoff games played (123) and is the all-time leading scorer among American-born players with 624 points in 973 games. He has the most coaching victories in franchise history (136), having passed AHL Hall of Fame member John Paddock’s 130 at the end of last season.

Gernander now lives in New Britain with Kerby and their three children – McKenna, 11, Micah, 9, and Miranda, 5. McKenna and Micah play hockey, and Micha and Crawford’s son, Billy, play on the same team on odd-numbered years.

Crawford lived in Chicago through high school and then attended Harvard, where he appropriately earned a degree in linguistics in 1988 while broadcasting Crimson men’s hockey games on student radio station WHRB-FM. During that time, Harvard won the national championship, beating reigning Hobey Baker Award winner Stauber and the University of Minnesota 4-3 in the title game.

Crawford broadcast games that included players such as captain Lane McDonald, the son of NHL players Lowell McDonald whose rights were acquired by the Hartford Whalers in a trade with the Calgary Flames after he took a year off to play on 1988 U.S. Olympic team and then returned and won the 1989 Hobey Baker Award as college’s top player as a senior despite playing his entire career through chronic migraines that eventually impaired his vision and forced him to retire while trying out for the Olympic team in 1992, which was 13 years before he was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame; future Wolf Pack and Rangers center Ted Donato, who worked part-time in the equipment room to help pay his tuition, played on the 1992 U.S. Olympic team and was Crimson coach from 2004 to 2009; Allen Bourbeau, Peter Ciavaglia, C.J. Young and goalies Allain Roy and Chuckie Hughes.

Just months after graduating, Crawford, who always was around radio because his father was in the business, said he “lucked into” a job with the Adirondack Red Wings after sending demo tapes to every minor-league team that he could find.

“Their guy, John Kelly, was leaving to back up Marv Albert on the Rangers’ MSG Radio broadcasts,” Crawford said. “But Marv could only make about 25 broadcasts a year because he had so many other commitments, so Kelly left to join the Rangers. He’s now with the St. Louis Blues.”

Crawford was with the Red Wings for six years, including Calder Cup championship seasons in 1989 and 1992, the latter when the visiting team won every game in the finals, with the finale being in St. John’s, Newfoundland. That title was the springboard for Red Wings coach Barry Melrose to become coach of the Los Angeles Kings when Wayne Gretzky was in town and eventually a hockey analyst for ESPN.

Crawford worked for the Providence Bruins in 1994-95 before moving on to the Binghamton Rangers for two years and then on to Hartford, where he’s now in his 23rd AHL season.

Crawford lives in New Britain with Martha and two hockey-playing sons – Mac, 12, and Billy, 10.

“They both play for the other Bob Crawford’s Connecticut Whalers organization,” Crawford said, referring to the former Whalers and Rangers right wing who owns three area rinks and is president and chief operating officer of Whalers Sports and Entertainment. “He’s the more celebrated Bob Crawford.”

Maybe in NHL and state/national/international amateur hockey circles, but not with the Wolf Pack – or the future Connecticut Whale.

Gernander and Crawford will always hold a special place in Wolf Pack history – and rightfully so.