With the ghosts of Hartford Whalers past brought back to life for a one-night stand in Raleigh, North Carolina this past weekend, a glimpse at attendance numbers may give some perspective on what was, what is, and what might have been. The Carolina Hurricanes home attendance in the 31-team National Hockey League ranks 29th in the league thus far in the 2018-19 season, after 20 home games, not including Whalers night. The team has been drawing considerably better on the road (17,258) than at home (13,245).
That home attendance figure should come as no surprise. It is on pace for last season’s home attendance average over 41 games of 13,320. Then as now, it was the third lowest home attendance average in the league. Only Arizona and the New York Islanders drew fewer fans to home games.
It’s no wonder that the Hurricanes were seeking to recapture some of that Whalers magic – or should we say Bonanza. And also cash in on merchandise sales, as well as seeking an attendance boost, even if only for a night.
In early 1996, a 45-day “Save the Whale” season-ticket drive in Hartford resulted in 8,300 season tickets sold, about 3,000 more than the previous year. In the aftermath of the season ticket drive, and heading into the 1996-97 season, the Whalers management said they would remain in Hartford for two more years, in accordance with their lease. Yet they ended their 18-year history as the Whalers in Hartford, moving to Greensboro, North Carolina seeking redder pastures and becoming the Carolina Hurricanes for the start of the 1997-98 season.
In the Whalers’ final season in Hartford, 1996-97, attendance at the Hartford Civic Center had grown to 87 percent of capacity, with an average attendance of 13,680 per game. Published reports suggest that the average attendance was, in reality, higher than 14,000 per game by 1996-97, but Whalers ownership did not count the skyboxes and coliseum club seating because the revenue streams went to the state, rather than the team. Attendance increased for four consecutive years before management moved the team from Hartford. (To 10,407 in 1993-94, 11,835 in 1994-95, 11,983 in 1995-96 and 13,680 in 1996-97.)
During the team’s tenure in Hartford, average attendance exceeded 14,000 twice – in 1987-88 and 1986-87, when the team ranked 13th in the league in attendance in both seasons. The Hurricanes had somewhat higher attendance numbers in the immediate aftermath of winning the Stanley Cup a decade ago, but they did not sustain those levels and were among the top half of NHL teams in attendance only once.
Keep in mind that as we approach 2019, after two decades in North Carolina, the Hurricanes are only a couple of seasons removed from the recent low water mark in NHL attendance. In the 2016-17 season, the average home crowd was the lowest in the NHL – only 11,776. It was the second consecutive season that the Hurricanes had the league’s worst home attendance numbers. (They were second worst the previous year.)
The Hurricanes/Whalers will next skate in Boston against the Bruins in early spring, taking to ice in the green uniforms originally worn as road uniforms by Hartford from 1985-89, then again in 1991-92. The Whalers, by the way, are now undefeated this season, as the Hurricanes defeated the Bruins 5-3 on Sunday afternoon. The win was not without criticism, with one published report describing the Hurricanes new first-year management as leading "the desecration of a grave and a shameless ploy to drum up some jersey and merchandise sales. A cash grab."
The crowd was, as CBS Sports phrased it: "much bigger than they’re used to": 17,491.