They departed the state for North Carolina twenty years ago, but Connecticut still has a deep fondness for the Hartford Whalers. You can find the Whalers logo in restaurants, bars, and for sale at the airport. Another place you can always find it is Dunkin' Donuts Park, the Hartford home of the Yard Goats baseball team.
Since designing the Yard Goats logo ahead of the scheduled 2016 season, the team knew it wanted to be connected to the great history of the Whalers in Hartford.
“When you look at our logo and the colors involved, the Whalers have always had a presence here even though they’ve been gone for several years," said Tim Restall, general manager of the Hartford Yard Goats.
With this connection between the teams in mind, the Yard Goats planned a "Whalers Alumni Weekend" for this season.
"For us to embrace that [history] and have an alumni weekend, it was an automatic for this year," said Restall.
The Yard Goats sell Whalers hats regularly at the Retro Brand Team Store at the ballpark. "Brass Bonanza" plays from the stadium speakers at games. This a team that is well aware of the professional sports history in Hartford.
The Yard Goats are organizing a Whalers Alumni Weekend from Friday, July 14 through Sunday, July 16. Each game during the weekend will allow the Yard Goats players to wear special jerseys made just for this weekend that throw back to the time two decades ago when the Whalers skated around the Hartford Civic Center.
"We've always been fans as an organization of the Whalers," said Dean Zappalorti, executive director of corporate partnerships for the Whalers. "Our past has always been top of mind."
Zappalorti, a Connecticut native and lifelong Whalers fan, was given the task of organizing and planning the weekend. He knows the excitement that the Whalers captured in Hartford, but he also knows the pain when the team moved south.
"For me, it's a labor of love to reach back out to all these guys I watched play for the Whalers as a kid, up until I was an adult and had the means to purchase season tickets," Zappalorti said.
At least 15 former Whalers will return to Hartford for the weekend's festivities. Among the names coming back are Marty Howe, Dave and Wayne Babych, and Mark Janssens. Chuck Kaiton, the voice of the Whalers, will also be taking part in the weekend's events.
“There still is a lot of passion in this market for the Whalers," said Zappalorti. "To have these guys want to come back to some of their most memorable years of their playing days, and many of them still have very good friends in the area, it means a lot. It makes me feel really good that these guys haven’t forgotten us because we haven’t forgotten them."
Jordy Douglas, who played several seasons in Hartford in the late 70's and early 80's, is looking forward to returning.
"My wife Joni and I are very excited to have the opportunity to return to the Hartford area......my first home and her first ever visit!!!!," Douglas wrote in an e-mail to NBC Connecticut. "Hartford is truly my first love and I am blessed to have wonderful memories and great friendships in the Hartford area!!!!!! We are looking forward to reconnecting with our friends, and making some new memories!! We especially want to THANK the Yard Goats for putting the Whaler Weekend together and for including us in their plans!!!!"
In addition to the special jerseys and the appearance of the players, Whalers weekend will also include audio clips of Chuck Kaiton calls from Whalers games, Whalers trading cards on the video board, and Whalers trivia.
"We play Brass Bonanza anyway when we hit a home run," Zappalorti said," but it will definitely be more prevalent that night."
Fans will be able to buy special Whalers weekend t-shirts as well as hats featuring the famous goat, but this time chewing on a hockey stick. There will be both fitted and adjustable snapback versions of the hats.
Saturday afternoon there will be a charity luncheon at the YG Club at Dunkin' Donuts Park. Fans can buy tickets for the event, which benefits the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Hartford. Every table at the luncheon will have a former Whalers player sitting there. The event will be emceed by Jeff Dooley, the voice of the Goats, and Chuck Kaiton. Tickets are still available on the team's website or at the Dunkin' Donuts Park box office.
Before the game on Saturday night, fans will be able to meet the former Whalers and get autographs and pictures with them. The players will then come onto the field to be recognized during the pregame festivities.
Sunday's game will feature a special Whalers alumni poster giveaway for the first 2,500 fans through the gates.
Fans of both teams are already excited for what the weekend will hold.
"We're getting a lot of questions and feedback through Twitter and Facebook," Zappalorti said. "The feedback and the response has been fantastic."
The Yard Goats say this year's weekend is just the start.
"This is just the beginning," Zappalorti said. "Our intention is that this is just year one and we’re going to be doing this every year. So this year it will be 15 or 16 guys, and next year it may be 30. There were many guys that for one reason or another just had a conflict in their schedule and couldn’t come but said ‘I’m in for next year, make sure you include me.'"
Whalers fans no doubt will feel a great deal of nostalgia at the ballpark this weekend.
"It will be a special weekend," said Restall. "So this is something we'll be able to do annually, to celebrate the history that was here with hockey, and incorporate it into minor league baseball."
To purchase tickets to the Whalers alumni luncheon on Saturday, click here. Proceeds from the luncheon benefit the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Hartford.
Here is the full list of confirmed Whalers players to return for Whalers Alumni Weekend:
Chuck Kaiton (voice of the Whalers)
Dave & Wayne Babych