Emotional end to Whalers’ 25 year run

It never gets any easier to watch.

With many people around the Ontario Hockey League still reeling at the shock and sudden news of the franchise relocation in Belleville during the past near two weeks, a just as sad ending has come for the Plymouth Whalers. The Whalers lowered the curtain on the OHL in suburban Detroit last Saturday after 25 years of playing in the area.

The Whalers began their final regular season game Saturday night knowing that only for the second time in the franchises history they would not be taking part in the post-season. The only other year of non playoff OHL hockey in the Detroit area came during the franchise’s first year in 1990-91, when they were the Detroit Compuware Ambassadors, playing out of Cobo Hall in downtown Detroit. The 23-year string of playoff appearances was the league’s longest active streak.

In 1992, the Ambassadors moved across the street to the Joe Louis Arena and became known as the Detroit Jr. Red Wings. After an overtime loss in Game 7 of the OHL final in 1994 to North Bay the team saw its pinnacle in downtown Detroit when it captured the 1995 OHL title, defeating the Guelph Storm. That season also saw record numbers at the gate as the Jr. Red Wings took the place of the Red Wings during the NHL’s first lockout.

Not long after, the Jr. Red Wings were given the boot from the Joe and eventually landed in Plymouth at the new Compuware Arena in 1997, taking the Whalers nickname.

Since then the Whalers franchise has continued to be a success on the ice with several trips to the finals that culminated with the 2007 OHL championship, defeating a cinderella Sudbury Wolves squad.

While the on-ice product was always enviable, the stands were often sparsely populated in the Compuware Arena. At times the Whalers would be rewarded with large crowds, but for the most part the team existed in obscurity. An owner can only take losing money so long, as the league saw two years ago when Scott Abbott took his Battalion to North Bay after losing money hand over fist for 15 years in Brampton. Earlier this season, Karmanos sold his beloved Whalers to IMS USA, who are moving the team and have renamed it the Flint Firebirds.

Whalers fans, while mindful this season could be the last one in Plymouth, eventually learned the news they didn’t want to hear in mid-January. The sale was approved on Feb. 2.

A run of above-.500 hockey in the final month of the season gave Plymouth fans hope of seeing a 24th consecutive playoff berth. In the end, the Whalers dropped both ends of a home-and-home series with the Saginaw Spirit, who would claim the final Western Conference spot. That removed any doubt March 21 would be the final day of their franchise. Tickets were gobbled up weeks in advance.

For years the Whalers enjoyed successful playoff hockey in front of a half empty building. In the end the opposite occurred as non-playoff team played to a sellout crowd of 4,070, many of whom kept the energy up through tears of sorrow through out the night.

On this night, the Whalers just couldn’t keep up with the older, stronger, faster and more skilled Otters team led by top NHL draft prospect Connor McDavid. The Whalers did avoid being shut out in their final game (unlike Brampton two years ago) when a Yannick Rathgeb point shot on a power play with just under three minutes remaining bounced into the net off a defenceman, to tear the roof off of Compuware one last time despite the fact the outcome was long decided.

A few minutes later the game ended and the crying began. A heartfelt stick salute and one last lap of the ice by the young Whalers, to the sounds of the Foo Fighters’ My Hero sent many people over the edge in emotion.

Eventually the team posed for one final photo with teammates and, later, Whalers staff under banners raised before the game thanking the Plymouth fans for 25 years of memories.

Many fans lingered in the stands long after the final buzzer not wanting to leave, not wanting to leave their team, their friends, their second family, their memories. Being a sports fan can be a hard emotional investment, even at the best of times. The loss of one’s team is the greatest pain a sports fan can fell. Many may tell fans to get a grip, but that often comes from people who just don’t understand the connection fans have to their team especially at the major junior level.

For several hours following the game, a throng of fans gathered at the CJ’s Brewing Company restaurant inside the facility to swap stories and memories with like-minded hockey fans. Once CJ’s cleared out, the arena was left as quiet as a tomb. While Compuware Arena will host hockey again this fall, it began to set in that its days as OHL setting are over, as is the life of a team that had passionate fans, even if there weren’t enough of them to sustain the team.

The franchise and the players will try to forge a new identity in Flint. Yet a large hole has been left behind in the OHL. While life moves on the fans in Plymouth will have feel that hole for some time.

One comment on “Emotional end to Whalers’ 25 year run
  1. MH says:

    I’ve read quite a few articles regarding the lead up to and final game of the Plymouth Whalers. This one however captures the actual emotions perfectly.

    Keep up the excellent work.

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