Hartford, Conn. — For a city of only 136,000 population, Hartford is heavy on happy surprises. It has a world-class art museum in the Wadsworth Atheneum. It's the home of three dozen major insurance companies with their glassy, modern office towers. Its Civic Center is a model of progressive urban renewal, with 60 intriguing restaurants and shops encircling a large arena.
In that arena we find the biggest surprise of all, the green-clad Hartford Whalers, who have come from somewhere south of believability to win the National Hockey League's rugged Adams Division this season. To do that they had to beat out no less than the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens.
Now it's playoff time, and the first-place finish means Hartford plays fourth-place Quebec in the division semifinals, while Montreal must take on Boston. The Whalers also get the home ice advantage in the best-of-seven series opening here tomorrow night, and if they win they'll have the home edge again in the division finals against the Canadiens or Bruins.
Whalermania, as it's called in this rather stolid capital of commerce and the state of Connecticut, has reached ecstatic proportions. Prosperous civic leaders attend home games with Whaler jerseys pulled on over dress shirts and ties.
The president of the Whalers Booster Club (an Episcopal priest) carries souvenirs adorned with the team insignia, a fancy ``W'' and whale motif that looks like Groucho Marx's mustache after he got off a particularly stinging one-liner.
``I predicted last year when we made the playoffs that we'd win the division this year,'' says the Rev. Jerry Carroon. ``It was just a matter of time.''
For simply making the playoffs a year ago, the Whalers were given a gala parade through the center of town. Imagine what celebrations must await them if they should win the Stanley Cup.
``Realistically, that shouldn't be quite within our reach yet,'' says Mike Liut, the team's leader and probably the best goaltender in the NHL this season. ``Edmonton still intimidates us. The Oilers added three tremendous players late in the year, and we're still about three players away from being a cup contender, so that's a six-player swing. But in the playoffs a team can get hot and go a long way.''
Especially with the kind of goaltending Liut has been providing all year. He led the league in shutouts and was near the lead in victories. The Whalers wouldn't have won their division title without the rangy, 31-year-old veteran.
``I had Mike when I was in St. Louis and knew I could build a winner with him here,'' says Hartford's president and general manager, Emile Francis, a former NHL goalie. ``He has great concentration and he plays the angles well. But the thing I really like about him is that he makes the tough saves when the game is hanging in the balance. So many times after those big saves the play turns around and you go down and score.''
Liut contributes almost as much intangibly in the locker room as he does on the ice. He barely abides losing, and early on let his young teammates know he expected them to play with total intensity at all times. A goalie stick crashing against a locker underscores his message, a message that has helped make the Whalers one of the league's most tenacious teams when protecting a third-period lead.
Says Liut, a handsome Ontario native who scarcely appears fatigued after a game except for his sweat-soaked long johns, ``Our nucleus players are all 24 years old or younger. They've done a great job of taking on responsibility.''
Eight players have scored 20 or more goals, but the major cogs beside Liut are captain and center Ron Francis (Liut's second cousin), underrated all-round winger Kevin Dineen, flashy scorer Sylvain Turgeon, and ubiquitous defenseman Ulf Samuelsson. All have played brilliantly the second half of the season, Francis and Turgeon after overcoming physical setbacks.
``We held it together while they were out, which isn't easy to do,'' says Liut. ``You have to ask more of other guys, and that catches up to you over a period of weeks. The coach's composure helped, then we gained momentum when we got everybody back in the lineup.''
The coach is Jack Evans, a bulldog-faced disciplinarian whose daughter you wouldn't want to bring home late from a date. Evans expresses little emotion, but is a solid teacher and tactician.
Liut also points to parity in the fiercely contested Adams Division as a contributing factor in Hartford's improvement.
``You play largely to the level of the opposition. In our division, nobody is ever halfhearted about a game. Everybody's always looking to grab two points for a victory, because if you lose three or four games in a row you're liable to miss the playoffs. It's hard-checking playoff hockey all year. That kind of competition has brought along our young team quicker than you'd expect.''
Don't forget Liut's clutch goalkeeping, though. Resembling a brooding egret behind his elongated white mask and throat guard, he misses nothing on the ice. He can identify opposing shooters by the blades of their sticks and the type of tape on them. Then he can stop those shooters cold, which is why the Whalers are so surprising.
``We've come a long way,'' he says. ``Round 2 two is coming up.''