Whalers Sales: Long-Gone Team's Merchandise Among The Hottest Sellers In NHL
By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN
August 16, 2010
The line of thousands of Whalers Fans wearing jerseys and T-shirts with the team logo on Saturday at Rentschler Field was a testament to the lasting popularity of the team and its merchandise in Hartford.
But Whalers goods are hot sellers beyond the hometown market – creating an oddity that's hard to explain. After all, the Hartford Whalers haven't touched hockey stick to ice in 13 years, and the team never made it further than the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Their market was one of the smallest, sandwiched between the hockey meccas of Boston and New York.
And yet, all these years later, newly made Whalers jerseys, T-shirts and caps are among the hottest sellers of all NHL teams.
"It's been one of the top lines, and it's not just Connecticut," said Marc D'Amelio, an East Coast sales representative for Mitchell & Ness, a major vendor of Whalers T-shirts, jackets and caps. "Nationally, it's in the top five, no problem."
The Whalers can't touch the champion Chicago Black Hawks this year, but the distinctive blue, green and white merchandise could easily tie with the Detroit Redwings, Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, D'Amelio said.
Selling was particularly brisk last week at The Parade of Novelties Sports at Westfarms mall, as the days drew closer to Saturday's Whaler Fan Fest at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.
The event reunited fans with some of their most beloved players, including Gordie Howe, Ron Francis and Kevin Dineen. Beyond keeping memories alive, many fans still hold out hopes that major league hockey will return to Hartford.
The NHL, which says it is responsible for licensing Whaler merchandisers, agreed that Whalers apparel has become quite popular, but a spokeswoman Friday could not place it in an official ranking with other NHL teams. The NHL Store in midtown Manhattan referred questions to the league office and Reebok, which jointly opened the store in 2007. Reebok did not return calls Friday.
Sales of merchandise with the whale tail are kindled by a mix of nostalgia among those who faithfully followed the team through its ups and downs, plus a new following by a far broader base of fans in Connecticut and beyond. The new fans may only have heard stories about the team or have just recently become aware of The Whale.
"People are sharing memories with their children, and the children are getting excited about the memories and then there is talk about maybe we can get an NHL team back," said Alan Victor, president of the Hartford Whalers Booster Club.
Last year, Victor got an e-mail from a father in Minnesota who wanted to get a Whaler jersey for his 10-year-old son. The boy had seen the jersey somewhere and wanted one, Victor said.
Recently, the Whaler logo has gotten some high profile exposure, too. Adam Sandler wore a Whalers T-shirt in the film "Grown Ups." The NHL also approved the use of the logo in a video game, and, according to Ihor Stelmach, the Westfarms store's general manager, the rapper 50 Cent wore a Whalers shirt at a concert last year and threw some team shirts into the crowd.
Along with its lasting fame, the whale logo appears to be the subject of some urban legends. Various websites and media reports claim the trademark expired last year. Some say the state owned the rights. The expiration is used to explain the recent onslaught of new merchandise.
But there is no evidence in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office of a recently expired trademark. According to records, the last trademark owner was KTR Limited Partnership in 2001. KTR was owned by Peter Karmanos, who moved the team to North Carolina in 1997 and renamed it the Carolina Hurricanes. The NHL also was a previous owner, and could still be the owner — a person or organization can own a trademark even though it isn't registered.
The Connecticut Development Authority, a partner in the Whalers operations, said the state never had those rights when it came to merchandising. Marie O'Brien, the authority's president, said Friday the state theoretically could have sought permission from the NHL to introduce a line of merchandise.
"In many ways that's not CDA's role," O'Brien said. "We don't merchandise in any way, we don't sell [products]. That's not our core role."
For years, fans could only find Whalers clothing on e-Bay, most dating from the days when the team was still playing in Hartford. But the NHL began licensing companies to begin making new Whalers items, first clothing and now, items such as key chains, clocks and even a hockey stick golf putter.
At the sports store at Westfarms mall Friday, Dawn Newton, of Colchester, was searching for something for her 9-year-old son, Sean, to wear to today's event.
"My son wants to wear something with the Whalers on it, and I'm not letting him wear my jersey," Newton said.
Her jersey is from when the Whalers were still playing in Hartford. Newton and her husband attended dozens of games over the years. Her son has heard the stories, and the family still watches a lot of hockey on television.
"We loved them when they were here, and we'd love for them to come back," she said.
Newton picks up a cap, but it would be too large for her son. She settles on a size small men's T-shirt, tagged at $24.99, with the whale tail logo.
A little while later, Stacey Chatigny walks in with her 14-year-old son, John, looking for a birthday gift for his older brother. John was just 1 year old when the Whalers left Connecticut, but he's a fan now, too.
It's no wonder: His older brother went to a lot of games and his father played hockey.
"He got it by osmosis," Stacey Chatigny said.
Stelmach, the store's general manager, said Whaler clothing accounted for nearly 20 percent of the store's sales in 2009, the first year he carried the merchandise. It's likely to be about the same this year, even though the store has moved to a smaller space in the mall.
He said the items have a strong drawing power. On Monday of last week, he set up a display of Whaler items in the store's window. The next day, 40 percent of the store's sales were Whalers-related.
Fans who remember the sound of "Brass Bonanza" at the old Civic Center in Hartford are happy to find new merchandise being made.
"The old ones may have been thrown out, lost or they no longer fit into it, Stelmach said, "so they are treating themselves."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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