13 October, 2005

A History of Violation

So the question comes up every once in a blue moon: Why does the Extra-Sucky Poker Network always slag the ‘Canes?

And the answer invariably comes back (usually from the Carolina side of the fanbase): They’re upset about the move, because they were all Whalers season ticket holders.

BZZZZZT. I’m sorry, that answer is incorrect.


The Worldwide Leader in Poker has made a sport of Whale-bashing (and now Canes-bashing) since very soon after the Whalers’ entry into the NHL. Sure, there were people like Chris Berman and the Fabulous SportsBabe (who was on ESPNRadio at the time of the move) who were upset STHs, but they were in the minority at ESPN.

To understand why ESPN is the way they are, one has to know the history of the network and its relationship with the WHA/NHL team that lived in their back yard until April of 1997.

The Entertainment and Sports Programming Network was formed in 1978 to show Hartford Whalers home games and UCONN hoops (the Sports part), plus other things like movies and even music videos (this was back before MTV got started). It was this way even into about the middle or so of 1980—I remember visiting my grandmother’s house in North Dakota a few months before I moved up there, and seeing (of all things) a Gary Numan video on ESPN. Let's hear it for a stolen cable connection.

So, anyway. The founder of ESPN, one William Rasmussen, was the original voice of the Hartford Whalers back in their WHA days. The network was cordial with the Whalers—downright friendly, even—up until about 1981ish, when then-owner Howard Baldwin (you know, the guy who spent the Pittsburgh Penguins into bankruptcy? Yeah—he used to own the Whale) had a falling-out with Wild Bill and his crew in Bristol. The nature of the feud isn’t entirely clear, but the result is that the Whalers’ broadcast rights were yanked away from the still-fledgling network and given to SportsChannel America—a move that damn near killed ESPN, which was deep in debt and on the verge of collapse.

And thus, the sport of Whale-bashing was born. ESPN slagged the Whalers every chance they got—even after Rasmussen and Baldwin patched up their differences, the bashing continued because it had become such a part of the corporate culture that it was pretty impossible to root out. Pierre Maguire, the TSN talking head who at one time coached the Whale, used to comment a LOT about Bristol’s bias against the team. Richard Gordon (the worst owner EVER of the Whalers) pissed and moaned about ESPN’s slapping a “Curse of the Bambino” on the franchise after the Francis trade (though honestly? He deserved it). Jimmy Rutherford had a rather public feud with Keith Olbermann in the mid-90s over a series of “scoops” that Olbermann ran on Sportscenter—stories that alleged fraud in the Whalers’ 95-96 season ticket drive and a supposed deal on the table to move the team to Nashville (which was complete bunkum). Olbermann wound up getting the short end of that stick when his “confidential sources” backed away quickly, but still.

The move from Hartford and the very acrimonious way in which it was handled by both sides (not to mention the piss-poor treatment of Greensboro during the transition years and the Canes' complete lack of clue when it comes to marketing the team) only added fuel to ESPN’s fire and has led a lot of people down here to claim that ESPN holds the move against the ‘Canes, which isn’t exactly true.

ESPN does hold a move against us—but it’s not the Whalers’ move to North Carolina.