AN HONORABLE MAN
It’s almost as if we’ve come full circle in the Hartford Whalers-Carolina Hurricanes saga.
Yesterday Jim Rutherford stepped down as the Hurricanes general manager, the only GM in Hurricanes history, the last general manager of the Whalers. He’s replaced by the greatest player in Whalers history, hall of famer Ron Francis. It’s always been important to me that Rutherford be remembered as an honorable man, not one of the bad guys in the scenario that cost Hartford it’s National Hockey League franchise. There were two incidents during the final year of the Whaler’s existence that made it clear to me there were two agendas at work under Peter Karmanos, and Rutherford was not party to the more subversive of the two.
Karmanos had brought in a public relations specialist from Detroit named Russ Gregory and appointed him a co-general manager, responsible for community and media relations, while Rutherford served as the general manager of hockey operations. Karmanos’ first effort to move the team came two years into his ownership. An effort spearheaded by then lieutenant governor Jody Rell led to an agreement to keep the team in Hartford for one more year while a season ticket campaign was mounted. If the goal was met the team would stay.
At an update meeting in Rell’s office at the state capitol I informed Gregory of my growing concern over hearing from several business leaders who’s efforts to assist in the drive were being regularly spurned by his office. Gregory said he’d find out who those business leaders had been talking to in his office and get back to me. I told him there was no need, in every case they told me it was him.
The ticket drive produced the necessary results and the Whalers were expected to continue the relationship in Hartford when Rutherford appeared on WTIC Sportstalk on Tuesday evening, March 24th, 1997, on which I filled in for the regular host, a rare appearance for the general manager that season, as he had frequently passed off his appearances to other team officials. The next night, as the Whalers were being badly beaten by the Colorado Avalanche at the Civic Center, on the way to falling nine games under .500, Whalers public relations director Chris Brown informed me that Rutherford wanted to speak with me in his skybox. Rutherford told me he felt our interview the night before had been the most substantive he’d ever done on the station, insightful and informative, avoiding no issues, and he was going to call the radio station the next morning and agree to make scheduled weekly appearances the following season, but only if I’d agree to host those segments.
It was less than an hour after that game that Tom Monahan of NBC-30 broke the news that Karmanos was backing out on his deal with the state, regardless of the season ticket effort, and would move the team at the end of the season, in less than a month. There were many reasons why Jim Rutherford would not have had that conversation with me had he known what would be announced in the next couple of hours, no good reasons why he would.
Those two incidents have always served as evidence to me there were two agendas at work under Peter Karmanos and that Jim Rutherford was not one of the villains of the tragedy of the Hartford Whalers.
As he turns the reins of the Hurricanes over to Ronnie Francis he should always be remembered as an honorable man.
With a comment from the sports world, I’m Scott Gray.