For Hartford Whaler fans like Herm Sorcher, April 13, 1997 is a day that will forever live in infamy, a day when their hearts were broken.
On that day, the long lamented Whalers took the ice at the Hartford Civic Center for the final time before Connecticut's only major league professional sports franchise relocated to North Carolina.
Sorcher, who worked in the Whalers' ticket office from 1989-91 and got to interact with hockey legend Gordie Howe, calls it a "horrible moment."
So when the New Jersey native got a chance to become part of the ownership group of the Danbury Whalers' franchise that will debut in the new Federal League this fall, he jumped at the opportunity. He also instantly knew what the team would be called.
"I'm usually a pretty creative guy," he said on Friday during the first of the team's two-day tryout camp. "People said, 'What are you going to call this team?' I couldn't think of any name but the Danbury Whalers. There was no other choice for me."
The team, which will play its games at the 2,200-seat Danbury Area, has the Whalers' old logo (a green "W" with a blue whale's tail to create the letter "H") and will don the Whalers' distinctive green and blue unis.
The game-day experience will include an organ, a tugboat horn and, yes, the "Brass Bonanza," the Whalers' beloved fight song.
"We're gonna put out a great hockey product here, and I think the fans are going to identify with it," said Sorcher, the team's chief executive officer and managing general partner. "They're gonna love it."
The Danbury Whalers will play a 60-game schedule in a six-team Class A minor professional league with four franchises in New York and one in Canada.
The New York teams will be located in Brooklyn (New York Aviators) , Rome (Rome Frenzy), Chenango, which is near Binghamton (Broome County Barons), and Alexandria Bay (Thousand Islands Privateers).
The Canadian franchise is the Akwesasne Warriors, named after the Akwesasne Mohawk Indian reservation that straddles the Canadian-U.S. border as well as the Quebec–Ontario border.
This is not the first stab at minor league hockey in Danbury. Actually, it's the fourth attempt in the last six years, so there likely will be some initial doubts.
The Danbury Trashers lasted two seasons in the United Hockey League, the New England Stars played one season in the North Eastern Hockey League, and the Danbury Mad Hatters only survived a single campaign in the Eastern Professional Hockey League.
Still, Danbury gained a reputation for having fans that weren't too hospitable toward opponents.
Danbury Whalers coach Chris Firriolo found out how tough the Danbury fans could be every time he visited the city as the coach of the Brooklyn Aces when they played in the EPHL.
"The fans here are some of the best fans I've ever since in professional hockey," Firriolo said. "They make it very, very difficult for the opposing team and the opposing coach to be successful. When I was (with Brooklyn), I hated it, but now I'm here and I'm on the other side of the fence and I'm excited to be part of it."
The fan support is one reason, among many, why Sorcher believes his team will survive long term when its predecessors didn't. Sorcher is so sure of it that he and his six partners took out a ten-year lease at the Danbury Arena.
All the partners have extensive backgrounds in marketing and business. Some, like Sorcher, worked with the Hartford Whalers and one is the son of Peter Barnes, the founding father of the New England Whalers in 1972.
"I think very much it will be successful," Firriolo added. "I think there's been a long need for a high end class A pro hockey league. There's been some people that have tried to bring that level of hockey here. It didn't quite work out for various reasons, but I tip my hat for those people doing that because it helped paved the way for us."
Sorcher has more than 20 years of experience in sports, having recently worked as the vice president for sales and marketing for the EPHL.
Ideally, he would like to average 2,000 fans per game, but thinks 1,000 is a more realistic goal. He isn't only pursuing jilted Hartford Whalers fans but all hockey fans in the Danbury area and throughout Fairfield County. The team has been targeting the right demographic group - youth hockey leagues, schools and camps.
"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel," Sorcher said. "We're trying to use proven formulas of success. It's been done before. I see no reason why we can't have success with it."
"My philosophy on it is give the highest level of customer service, listen to people, know their names, talk to them, listen to what they're saying. That's a winning formula in any business. If I was running a pizza place, I would do the same thing. I would be successful."
Bridgeport Sound Tigers assistant coach Pat Bingham, who was on hand to help the Danbury Whalers' coaching staff run the practices and evaluate talent during the tryout sessions, points out that the hockey landscape has changed in the last decade.
"It's the perfect time for a good, quality single-a hockey league in the northeast with hockey the way it is going right now," Bingham said. "There's a lot of Double-A teams folding up shop. It's been a trend. It was booming in the 90s. In the last decade here, you see a lot of ownerships struggling with cost, travel."
Bingham thinks Danbury actually could be the model franchise in the Federal League. His concern is how well the other teams perform, because a fence is only as strong as its weakest link.
To survive, Bingham thinks the franchises in the Federal League have to act as business partners and not rivals. One advantage is that most of the trips will be by bus, which should keep down some of the expenses.
The Sound Tigers, who are affiliated with the New York Islanders, will keep an eye on the Danbury Whalers during the season in case an emergency arises and a player is needed on an overnight basis.
"There's less pro teams on every level right now," Bingham said. "Where are those good hockey players going, the overflow of guys? So they should go to a really good Single-A league, play in a good market. I'm sure this will be the gem of the league as far as places to play. It's a beautiful facility."
It's much too early to project what the Whalers' final roster will look like. Any players who stood out during the tryout camp will be invited to the team's full ten-day training camp in October.
While Firriolo suspects the team will have some Connecticut players on the final roster, it isn't necessarily looking to load up with local talent. The objective is to put the best product on the ice, regardless of where the players come from.
According to Firriolo, they could come from a variety of places- the top NCAA Division I leagues, like Hockey East and the ECAC, the best Division III college programs and the premier Canadian junior leagues, such as the Ontario Hockey League.
There may even be one or two former professionals not ready to hang up their skates just yet.
In the meantime, Sorcher can't wait to hear that first "Let's Go, Whalers" chant or the initial playing of the "Brass Bonanza."
"We're trying to put together a whole mix of players who are talented, who are going to be popular here, committed to the community (and be) good character individuals," he said.