PORTLAND - Eric Weinrich saw a player walking through the Portland Pirates' locker room wearing a Hartford Whalers hat, and the blue and green logo immediately resonated with him.
"Wow, what made you buy that?" asked Weinrich, an assistant coach with the Pirates and a former Hartford Whaler.
"I thought it was cool, the logo and everything," the player told him.
"They really do catch your eye because they're not around anymore," said Weinrich, who grew up in Gardiner and played at the University of Maine.
The Whalers left Hartford for North Carolina in the spring of 1997, shortly after current Pirates coach Kevin Dineen scored the last goal in the history of the Whalers.
In an unusual twist, Dineen's team opens the first round of the AHL playoffs at 7 tonight against the Connecticut Whale. Originally the Hartford Wolf Pack, the organization renamed itself the Whale in November, complete with green and blue uniforms reminiscent of the Hartford Whalers.
Many of the Whale's fans are holdover followers of the Hartford Whalers, a team with the iconic logo of a simple blue whale's tail above a green "W" with a noticeable "H" in the background white space.
The NHL licenses the Whalers' name and logo and markets Whalers merchandise through its NHL Vintage Hockey Program. The Hartford Courant reported last year that the Whalers' line of apparel was the top seller marketed by Mitchell and Ness, a Philadelphia-based sports apparel company.
Dineen played nine of his 19 NHL seasons with the Whalers and regards the logo as one of the best in sports.
"There's different logos that are so busy and have so much action, but the Whaler logo? Definitely," Dineen said.
In Connecticut, the legacy of the Whalers continues. They were a team that never got past the second round of the NHL playoffs but regaled crowds with a catchy theme song and played in an arena adjacent to a shopping mall in Hartford.
The Whalers have created their own niche in pop culture. "Brass Bonanza," their longtime theme song, is a staple at Boston Red Sox and University of Connecticut basketball games.
The paparazzi photographed actress Megan Fox wearing a "Property of Hartford Whalers" T-shirt. Even Kevin Smith, a director, producer and hockey aficionado, referenced the Whalers in the 1995 movie "Mallrats" as a conversation ensued between Brodie Bruce (Jason Lee) and Rene Mosier (Shannen Doherty).
"Breakfasts come and go, Rene. Now Hartford? The Whale? They only beat Vancouver once, maybe twice in a lifetime."
STILL A LOYAL FOLLOWING
Prior to the emergence of UConn basketball in the 1990s, the Hartford Whalers were the game in town and there was a distinct connection between the Whalers and their fans.
"We had a very strong community presence, and Hartford was like the stepsister of New York and Boston," said Mark Willand, the senior vice president of business operations for Whalers Sports and Entertainment, which manages the Whale.
"There are a lot of people transplanted from across Connecticut throughout the United States. As a franchise we were somewhat cast as the lovable losers. ... But being the only major league team here in town, the people who were here and moved away still have a fondness for the team."
While Dineen spent the bulk of his playing career with the Whalers, Weinrich spent two seasons in Hartford, playing at what was then the Hartford Civic Center. Fans couldn't get into the building without walking through the Hartford Civic Center Mall, which was demolished in 2004.
"Whenever they announced it on ESPN, they'd say, 'We're going to go to the Mall here for the highlights from the Whalers game,'" Weinrich said.
Willand worked in media relations for the Whalers from 1986 to 1991, and he jokes that even though owner Peter Karmanos moved the team to North Carolina after the 1997 season, the Whalers are still referred to as the 31st NHL team because of their loyal following.
"When people come from Connecticut," Weinrich said, "they never forget the Whalers. It's really been their only true major sports team."
Godfrey Wood, the CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, helped found the Whalers in 1971 when the franchise joined the now-defunct World Hockey Association as the Boston-based New England Whalers.
Wood was a part owner of the Whalers for three years and noted the community's support of the organization after it relocated from Boston to Hartford in 1975. What makes the brand so recognizable years later?
"There's a cult following to it and a lot of people over a lot of years supported the Whalers," Wood said.
"My daughter is 23 and buys Whalers stuff that she wears, and she's bought me Whalers stuff, as well. And I run into people all the time who talk about it and they say, 'I loved the Whalers.'"
Dineen still sees the logo every now and then, sometimes in the most unlikely places. He recently toured a prep school with daughter Hannah, and a student wearing a Whalers T-shirt walked past.
"It was out of context," said Dineen, who was the last Whalers captain. "But it is all over.
"It's a little bit different than if you saw a Red Sox or a Bruins logo out there. There's a little bit of uniqueness to it because the franchise is no longer there.
"It's certainly a conversation starter. You get a lot of response out of it."
The logo resonates with many.
"You think about how many people a team was able to impact," Willand said. "A lot of teams disband in so many sports and so many of those teams are forgotten.
"To know that the team mattered then to people and matters now is very meaningful."