by Alex Thomas | AHL On The Beat
April 13, 1997.
It’s a day that will live in infamy in Connecticut sports history. That’s the day the Hartford Whalers defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning by a final score of 2-1 at the Hartford Civic Center in the final game played by the Whaler franchise.
An emotional scene developed following the game, as fans showered their hockey heroes with love. Their hockey heroes showered them back, throwing sticks, pucks, and other items into the crowd as a “thank you” to the Hartford faithful. There was even Keith Primeau bowing to the “Hail Primeau” sign that hung from the stands.
On May 6, it was formally announced that the Hartford Whalers were bound for Raleigh, North Carolina.
There’s an old saying in life: when one door closes, another opens. Less than a month after the Whalers headed south, another happier announcement was made. The New York Rangers’ American Hockey League affiliate, based in Binghamton, N.Y., was purchased by Madison Square Garden and would be moved to the Hartford Civic Center in time for the 1997-98 season.
On October 3, 1997, in Providence, R.I., the Hartford Wolf Pack took to the ice to battle the Providence Bruins in the first game in Wolf Pack history.
This Friday against Bridgeport, the Wolf Pack will become the 10th team in AHL history to play 2,000 games based in one city.
It’s a milestone that signifies the successful marriage of a hockey-crazed market and a team committed to the community they play in.
“Not many teams have been lucky enough to play 2,000 games in the same community,” said Erik Hansen, the Wolf Pack’s vice president of business operations. “Because of the support of this community, we’re stronger than ever and we believe the next 2,000 games will be even better.”
The Wolf Pack haven’t just enjoyed success at the box office and in the community, they’ve enjoyed it on the ice too. In fact, the Wolf Pack enjoyed immediate success upon their arrival in Hartford.
The club made the Calder Cup Playoffs in each of their first 12 seasons and 14 of their first 15 in the Connecticut capital.
In each of their first three seasons, the Wolf Pack won at least one round in the Calder Cup Playoffs. The team advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in their inaugural season of 1997-98, then made it to the second round in 1998-99.
And in 1999-2000, the Wolf Pack took themselves higher, reaching the pinnacle with a Calder Cup championship. The Pack defeated the Rochester Americans in six games to claim the first – and to this point only – championship in franchise history.
The biggest moment of that run was arguably the overtime goal scored by Terry Virtue in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, eliminating the defending Calder Cup champion Bruins.
His moment will live forever in Wolf Pack history as one of the most special. He’s loved by this city and fan base, one that will welcome him with open arms when he returns on Friday night as part of the celebration.
While the moment will forever be special to the fans, this city and team will forever be special to Virtue.
“It’s not just a place I played hockey,” Virtue said. “It’s a very special city to me as we won a championship there. I think most important to me is my son was born there. I built some great friendships and made some best buddies on that team.”
No team in professional sports, regardless of the level, can survive without a passionate and caring fan base. One of the key reasons that the Wolf Pack have thrived through 2,000 games is the diehard fans who continue to fill the XL Center.
“Being a Wolf Pack fan for 27 seasons has been one of the most meaningful things in my life,” said Kat Bunko, a Wolf Pack season ticket holder and booster club member. “The team brought together my second family and gave me the greatest lifelong friends. We have had so many core memories created because of this team.
“Seeing the guys out in the community, making an impact, creating bonds in schools and at the Children’s Hospital only helps to bring in that next generation of fans. We couldn’t be prouder of our team and to see our players out in the Hartford community.”
Of course, in the American Hockey League, if you are going to have success, you’ll need a strong and supportive affiliate. The Wolf Pack’s affiliation with the New York Rangers is the second-longest in the league, behind only Providence and Boston.
“Over the course of the Hartford Wolf Pack’s first 2,000 games in franchise history, the Wolf Pack and New York Rangers have built a strong partnership that continues to grow each season,” Rangers assistant general manager and Wolf Pack GM Ryan Martin said. “The tireless work of staff members past and present, along with the passionate support from our fans in Hartford, has made the Wolf Pack one of the premier organizations in the AHL, and we look forward to many more productive years together.”
The milestone comes at a perfect time, amid a renaissance for the franchise. The Wolf Pack had their most attended season in 16 years in 2022-23 and have continued to draw quite well during the 2023-24 season. The club also made the Calder Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2015 last spring, advancing to the Atlantic Division Finals.
Two thousand games have come and gone for the Wolf Pack. Friday night will bring forth a celebration in the Connecticut capital for the longest-tenured pro hockey team in the city’s history.
Then, on Saturday night, the next 2,000 games begin, fittingly enough against the Bruins.