April 13, 2015

18 years after departure, Hartford Whalers brand still a money maker

PHOTO | Contributed
PHOTO | Contributed
PHOTOs | Contributed
Hats are Reebok’s bestselling Whalers gear.

The Hartford Whalers left town about 18 years ago but the team's ageless logo is still proving to be a money maker.

In fact, Whalers merchandise, including hats, sweatshirts and jerseys, still has a cult following not only among fans in Connecticut but around the country. Retailers in and outside the state are still peddling the team's paraphernalia, drawing customers and revenues. Whalers gear is currently Reebok's top selling non-current, or defunct, NHL hockey team, a company executive said.

Even celebrities and athletes still dawn Whalers gear: rapper Snoop Dogg appeared on "The Jimmy Kimmel Show" wearing a blue Whalers cardigan; actress Megan Fox was seen sporting a white "Property of Hartford Whalers" T-shirt, and L.A. Clippers' Nate Robinson was spotted with a green Whalers cap.

The continued popularity of the Whalers brand is indicative of the strong following both the team and its logo left behind, retailers and others say.

"[There is] the sentimental aspect of a team that had a lot of followers and that was deeply loved by the constituency," said Peter Good, the Connecticut designer who was commissioned to create the Whalers logo.

After the club left Hartford in 1997 to relocate to North Carolina, there was still high demand for Whalers gear. Companies, however, weren't able to make it for several years because they didn't have the rights to do so. There has always been some mystery around who owns the rights to the Whalers mark. What is known is that the National Hockey League (NHL) allowed companies to start using and producing the logo again in 2009.

Once clearance was given, a number of brands such as Mitchell & Ness, Old Time Hockey, New Era, Reebok, CCM (a division of Reebok), Original Retro Brand, Majestic, '47 Brand, and Zephyr started making Hartford Whalers merchandise.

SFG Sports' Parade of Novelties Sports store in Meriden has been carrying Whalers gear since companies re-introduced it to the market. Ihor Stelmach, general manager and CEO of SFG Sports, says that sales were "outrageous" when the products first came out, accounting for 10-15 percent of overall sales.

Reebok too saw significant sales when it came out with jerseys, hats and T-shirts featuring the original Whalers logo in Kelly green, royal blue and white. Keith Leach, director of NHL Merchandise at Reebok, says that the first year Whalers products were re-introduced by the company, sales reached close to $1 million.

Today, Whalers merchandise is Reebok's top selling non-current NHL team. While the company has expanded its lineup to include Whalers logos from different eras, Leach says gear featuring the team's original logo is still the most popular and is offered every year.

Of Reebok's Whalers selection, jerseys and hats are the best sellers. The other area that does well, Leach adds, is their CCM apparel line, which includes long sleeves and hoodies.

Stelmach said sales of Whalers merchandise at his store remain "consistently, pleasantly surprising," although they have cooled off a bit from when the products were first re-introduced.

He points out that Whalers gear currently accounts for a solid 15-20 percent of his hockey merchandise sales. Boston Bruins and New York Rangers gear are his top sellers but "I wouldn't be surprised if the Whalers beat the Penguins for No. 3," Stelmach said.

That's not bad for a team that hasn't played for almost two decades.

Feeling nostalgic

Not surprisingly, sales of Whalers merchandise are higher in New England because of the following the team had. Stelmach says his primary customer for these goods is former fans — typically in their 40s or older — who are still nostalgic for the team.

Stelmach said that his secondary customers for Whalers gear are "high school, college, and young people who love hockey and actually know who the Whalers were and/or want to represent the city of Hartford."

Joanne Cortesa, president of the Hartford Whalers Booster Club, agrees, explaining that younger people are wearing the team's clothing "because someone in their family was a Whalers fan or because their friends have something Whalers and they want to wear it too. All ages like the logo. It is the Connecticut identity."

While it might be part of Connecticut's identity, Whalers merchandise is sold in stores in other parts of the country as well, such as New York, Philadelphia, Raleigh, North Carolina and even cities in California. It is also offered online by many of the major sports retailers in the U.S. such as Dick's Sporting Goods and Just Sports.

In addition, Leach points out that Reebok has "registered fairly good sales in Canada." In fact, the LIDS Canada website features 25 different styles of Whalers hats from a number of brands.

Popular logo

So why has Whalers gear transcended regional lines? One of the reasons is because of the logo itself, which often appears on lists for the best ones in sports.

Initially, Good, the Connecticut designer who created the logo, said he had an "H" for Hartford and "W" for Whalers as part of the logo.

He later experimented with incorporating a whale's tail in the design since it was the one characteristic that was so indicative of the animal, which was the team's mascot. "Then, all of a sudden," he remembers, "there was a eureka moment when the whale's tail seemed to work with the W and H."

"The form created this crest-like image [and] the H became the negative shape between those two forms," Good said. He adds that the negative space is "one of the phenomenal perceptive things about the logo."

Another reason for the continued popularity of Whalers merchandise is it "hits that trend of having a defunct or a non-current mark," Leach says. People weren't able to buy the clothing for a long time and "it's sort of trending on a lifestyle perspective to have those kinds of vintage marks."

During a 2013 Connecticut Forum panel, for example, comedian John Hodgman admitted he didn't follow sports, but that he was "a big fan of the Hartford Whalers because they're a non-existent hockey team and they're still selling the shirts at Bradley Airport, which is so fantastic."

Good said the logo has become an icon "floating around in culture," that has value beyond the team. And the NHL is benefiting from it.

It's not known how long interest in Hartford Whalers gear will last, but Leach says, "until the demand goes away, we'll definitely keep offering it."

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