By Bruce Berlet

The Connecticut Whale proved to be some really good hands people again Sunday.

CT WhaleInstead of trying to shoot, score and bang around the opposition, the Whale players were serving meals, taking tips and challenges and playing games with young and old alike at the eighth annual Tip-A-Player Dinner and Sports Carnival at the XL Center.

There were no last-second heroics, as wing Brodie Dupont pulled last year when he agreed to allow several fans to clip and then shave his head for about $800 in “Puck Bucks” that earned him Server of the Day and led to him being named the Hartford Wolf Pack’s American Specialty/AHL Man of the Year for his outstanding contributions to the Hartford community and becoming one of 29 finalists for the Yanick Dupre Memorial Award, honoring the overall winner. It also helped the Wolf Pack raise $41,000 for Gaylord Specialty Healthcare at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford.

Dupont couldn’t defend his title because he’s one of an astonishing eight Whale players on recall to the parent New York Rangers after wing Evgeny Grachev and defenseman Michael Del Zotto were summoned Saturday night after a 5-1 victory the Springfield Falcons. Dupont’s co-successors were defenseman Jared Nightingale and center Ryan Garlock, who were requested most by fans to participate in various contests.

With fans and teammates kibitzing as they surrounded a table on the floor of the XL Center, Nightingale and Garlock stacked the “Puck Bucks” that they had won into four piles, with Garlock appearing to have the slightest edge. But in a fitting show of teamwork and the signature moment of the evening, Garlock and Nightingale shook hands and mugged for imaginary cameras as a Gaylord official said BOTH players would receive a grand prize: a foursome for golf at The Farms Country Club in Wallingford.

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“This allows us to take advantage of the platform that is given us,” said Nightingale, who has made several trips to Gaylord Hospital with different teammates to visit patients rehabilitating from serious and traumatic injuries. “Seeing the patients at Gaylord Hospital puts life into perspective. Hockey or jobs or your career isn’t everything. There are much more important things in life, and I think we can make an impact by donating our time and money. It’s more rewarding for us.”

Nightingale spoke as Garlock and All-Star right wing Jeremy Williams earned “Puck Bucks” for signing their rendition of the national anthem, which wouldn’t ever be confused with the Tony Harrington version sung for years before Hartford Whalers games. But who cared? It was all in fun and for a good cause.

So, too, was Nightingale participating in a session of “Simon Sez” on a platform in the midst of dozens of tables and displays of free food and desserts supplied by 19 area restaurants. Emily Derick of Wethersfield asked Nightingale to sing “Happy Birthday” as a belated present for her 14th birthday on Saturday. Nightingale obliged with help from hand-picked Tomas Kundratek and Chris Chappell.

“Jared is my favorite player,” Emily said when asked why she paid for the tune. “He picked the other guys.”

On other fun fronts, Garlock got the fans’ vote over Wade Redden for the best whale noise; goalie Cameron Talbot obliged fans asking for a few bars of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” by the Righteous Brothers; and Russian defenseman Pavel Valentenko got halfway through the Russian national anthem before stopping to chuckle and say, “I forgot the rest. I know the American national anthem better than the Russian national anthem.”

A smiling Valentenko received rousing ovation from a crowd that had suddenly been respective quiet for the signing of a national anthem.

Then there were marshmallow tosses, dance contests, autograph signings, picture taking, food serving for tips and participation in several games in an adjacent sports carnival, all in the name of adding to the more than $250,000 raised in the first seven years. A final take from the players’ activities and a silent auction could be known on Monday.

The event was the brainchild of former Hartford Wolf Pack officials Joe Flanagan and Mary Lynn Gorman. After the Wolf Pack “Casino Nights” had to be discontinued, Flanagan, the Wolf Pack marketing director who overcame a horrific auto accident thanks to help from Gaylord Hospital, and Gorman, the community relations director, harkened back to the Tip-A-Whaler dinner when the NHL team was in town.

Flanagan felt indebted to Gaylord Hospital for what it had done for him, so he, Gorman and rest of the Wolf Pack family decided the Wallingford facility would be a worthwhile beneficiary.

The event began at the former Coach’s Restaurant partly owned by UConn basketball coach Jim Calhoun but outgrew that facility in three years, enabling Flanagan to fulfill a goal in 2006.

“After a 10-year gap, Joe said he was ready to get back and wanted to get the dinner organized,” said Jim Cullen, president and CEO of Gaylord Hospital. “But he always said his dream was to have this event on the floor of the Civic Center, and he accomplished it.”

Now there are about 70 volunteers connected with Gaylord Hospital, personnel from New Alliance Bank took care of money issues, and officials from the Whale and XL Center.

“This is awesome,” said Howard Baldwin, the chairman and CEO of Whalers Sports and Entertainment, which took over the business activities of the Whale in October. “I didn’t realize how many companies and people were involved. This is terrific.”

Jim Cullen, president and CEO of Gaylord Hospital, shared similar sentiments of an event sponsored by Aetna that is the hospital’s second largest fundraiser to its annual golf tournament at The Farms Country Club. Cullen met with Baldwin and his son, Howard Jr., president and COO of WSAE, in October about continuing the event and to thank him for continued support even with the group hosting the historic “ Whalers Hockey Fest” on Feb. 11-23 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.

“It’s an incredible event, and we’re very, very grateful,” Cullen said. “It’s wonderful to see the fan support, the players, the team and us to be the beneficiary, and (coach) Ken Gernander and his wife Kerby have been at the event every year since when he was a captain of the Wolf Pack.

“It’s friend-raising, as well as fun-raising. It spreads the word of Gaylord Hospital, and the fans of the team have been very supportive. It’s a great combination, and we’re just very, very appreciative.”

So, too, are the Gaylord patients and their families such as Garrett Mendez, who suffered a stroke five years ago but now is an ambassador for the hospital and head of “Strength Over Stroke, Hope Comes in Many Forms.” Mendez played four years at Notre Dame-Fairfield High School before he sustained a brain stem stroke at 19 and needed years of rehabilitation to where he can now skate with his friends and family.

“Every day I tell him, ‘Thank God that I can say that you’re a pain in my butt,’ ” said Mendez’s father, Gary. “I bless God and Gaylord every day for the ability to say that to my son because without these folks, like my son said, they gave him his life back. There isn’t anything that a family can’t do to repay people as wonderful as they are to be able to give a father back his son.”

No use saying any more. Gary Mendez said all that needed to be said about what the Whale does for the local community.


While the Whale was again raising money for a wonderful local cause, Grachev and Del Zotto were rejoining the Rangers after being called up Saturday night. At the same time, wing Dale Weise was being reassigned to the Whale after being scratched from the Rangers’ 3-2 shootout victory over the Atlanta Thrashers, in which call-up Mats Zuccarello scored the only goal in the skills competition to improve to 3-for-3 in the NHL.

Grachev and Del Zotto became the seventh and eighth call-ups this season because of injuries to Brandon Prust (foot) and former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Dan Girardi (ribcage) on Saturday night. Grachev and Del Zotto flew to Washington, D.C., on Sunday morning and will be eligible to play in the Rangers’ game Monday night against the Capitals.

“I don’t know what kind of lineup we’ll have, but we’ll be there,” Tortorella said.

The same could be said for the Whale on Tuesday night, when they host Providence in the start of a four-game homestand. They will have to make more changes as wing Chris McKelvie will have surgery Monday to repair a sliced toe sustained when he was stepped on in the second period Saturday night. McKelvie was playing his first game since being called up for the second time from Greenville of the ECHL on Thursday.

Grachev, 20, made major strides since he returned to the Whale after not getting a point in six games with the Rangers in mid-November. He continued to struggle when he first got back to Hartford, but his entire game showed why the Rangers made him a third-round pick in 2008 after Gernander started using the 6-foot-4, 222-pound Russian on the penalty kill.

Grachev immediately got more physical and involved in all facets of the game, attributing it to more ice time. He had 11 of his 12 goals and five of his six assists since his first stint on Broadway, capped by his first hat trick as a pro Saturday night. Grachev put the Whale ahead to stay with two goals in 29 seconds late in a first period off a wrist shot to the top corner and a strong move in front for a shot into an open net off a second assist from Tim Kennedy.

“It’s exciting to get called up (again),” Grachev, whose plus-7 rating was second on the team to fellow Russian Valentenko (plus-14), said after the game. “In the few weeks here, I played better and scored some goals.”

Del Zotto, 20, the Rangers’ first-round pick (20th overall) in 2008, had his good and bad moments with the Whale after changing places with rookie Ryan McDonagh on Jan. 3 so he could get lots of playing time in all game situations and try to eliminate some of the high-risk plays in his game. Del Zotto, a member of the NHL all-rookie team last season, demonstrated his offensive prowess with seven assists in eight games, including setting up winners by Kennedy and Jeremy Williams in his first two games. He also was plus-4 with an assist in a 6-3 victory over the league-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins after back-to-back losses to Portland and Providence, which is at the XL Center on Tuesday night at 7. His assist on Grachev’s first goal Saturday extended his assist streak to four games, and he left town tied for second among Whale defensemen in assists and third in points (seven). He earlier had two goals and seven assists in 35 games with the Rangers.

“I’m feeling really good,” Del Zotto said, “and I think the biggest thing is playing so many minutes and being put in every situation, playing penalty kill, 5-on-5, 5-on-4, 4-on-4, and every situation I’ve been playing in. I think that is the best way to get your confidence back is playing all situations and just feeling comfortable in every aspect of the game.

“The biggest thing since the day I got here was taking it one day at a time and keep (working) at getting back to where I used to be, and my confidence has been building every single day and I just want to keep it going. It was a bit different at first, and obviously it’s never happened, but I think being down here has been the best thing for me.”

Weise, 22, didn’t have a point in limited ice time in 10 games in two stints with the Rangers after getting seven goals and five assists in 16 games with the Whale. When he was recalled a second time on Dec. 29, he ranked fourth on the Whale in goals and was tied third with four power-play goals despite missing 18 games because of injuries.

Goalie Chad Johnson, gritty wing Devin DiDiomete and newcomer Bretton Cameron also earned high marks Saturday night. Johnson rebounded from three goals allowed on six shots, and being pulled, in 6:02 in a 7-3 loss to Hamilton on Friday night – to a confidence builder that started with two big stops at 45 seconds on his way to 35 saves, an amazing nine off Falcons’ newcomer Kyle Wilson, who scored Springfield’s only goal.

DiDiomete doubled his scoring output this season with the first two-goal game as a pro while playing on a line with Cameron and Garlock, whose assist on DiDiomete’s first goal gave him four points in three games after he had had one assist in 10 games. Much of that could be traced to more ice time in key situations with five forwards already with the Rangers. And Gernander made a classy move when he put DiDiomete on the ice during a late power play, and the wing came within inches of notching a hat trick.

“Anytime guys get called up or there are injuries, I’ll have an increased role on the team,” said DiDiomete, who had two goals on three shots and was plus-2. “It’s nice that (Gernander) trusts me to put me on the ice in situations like that. It’s good to be contributing after (Friday) night obviously was not a good game for us. We kind of blew up a little bit in the first period, but (Saturday night) we bounced back really well.”

Cameron had a solid AHL debut after signing a professional tryout contract to give the Whalers 12 healthy forwards, though Chappell, recalled from Greenville on Jan. 11, was scratched and defenseman Jyri Niemi moved from defense to left wing on a line with McKelvie and Oren Eizenman. Cameron, who was in Whale training camp, played sound defense and got the primary assist on DiDiomete’s first goal when his shot hit off Falcons goalie Gustaf Wesslau and lay near the crease. The trio had that goal playing against the Falcons’ top line of Wilson, Tom Sestito and former Hartford Wolf Pack wing/captain Dane Byers, acquired from the Rangers on Nov. 8 for wing Chad Kolarik, who is on recall to the Rangers.

Cameron had a team-high 13 goals, 10 assists and was plus-10 in 29 games with the Stockton Thunder of the ECHL this season after notching a team-high 40 goals and 27 assists in 68 games with Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League last season. He had one assist, one shot and was plus-2 in his Whale debut.

“I thought (Cameron) did all right,” Gernander said. “It wasn’t the first time we’d seen him, so it wasn’t complete unexpected or a complete shock, and I’m sure he’ll get more and more comfortable as things go on. The part that makes it easier for individuals to join the team and to participate is when everybody is adhering to the structure. You don’t have to adlib or freelance at all.”

Gernander had the line of the night when asked if he thought Tortorella would hand out some more kudos to him and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller for developing so many young players ready to help the injury-ravaged Rangers continue their improbable play this season.

“I just want to increase my per diem,” Gernander said, an impish smile filling his face.


Former New England Whalers goalie Bruce Landon is mainly responsible for keeping hockey alive in Springfield. Now the personable Landon believes he has a real reason for optimism since Charles Pompea took over as majority owner on Dec. 21, though the loss to the Whale before 6,232 at the MassMutual Center wasn’t how Pompea wanted the first game he saw as the big boss to end.

Still, Landon said Pompea is an upbeat retired steel executive who has pumped life into a franchise that has rarely made the playoffs in the last decade. Pompea was has  Masters and honorary doctorate degrees from the University of New Haven, was vice chairman of the board of directors for 15 years and is now on the board in an emeritus position.

Pompea got his first taste of hockey watching New Haven Blades games but got seriously interested in buying into the Falcons on Oct. 10, when he played in a charity golf tournament with Landon, who has remained as the team’s president and general manager.

“This is the cost of going to a movie, and since I bought team, we’ve been up an average of nine percent (in a tough economic climate),” said Pompea, who has an apartment in New York City and spends his summers in Old Saybrook and winters in Jupiter, Fla. “We’re promoting a lot more, and I think the people are excited to know the team is going to stay. The grey cloud is gone, and the more we can get the word out about having a good time at a hockey game, I think the better off we’ll be.”

You could have sworn that you were talking to the Baldwins. They, too, have led a charge to increase player participation in the community in attempt to revive the local hockey market. In fact, Landon joked about the Whale staying out of their territory, then quickly added that both sides can help each other by promoting the game in tough economic times for many people. … Pompea and the rest of the Falcons family was feeling a lot better Sunday after Byers (two goals) and former Wolf Pack goalie David LeNeveu (23 saves) led the home team to a 4-2 victory over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Byers scored the winner in the second period and added an empty-net goal on the Falcons’ only shot in the third period.