The day the Whale ate the Devils lunch
Through all the years the Whalers were in Hartford there are plenty of memorable stories that come from Howard Baldwin’s Jr’s time as a kid with the Hartford Whalers. His Father, Howard Baldwin, was part owner of the Whalers and was a major cog in the wheels that moved the Whalers from Boston to Hartford.
The Whalers were a franchise in Hartford for 22 seasons and over some of that time Baldwin Jr. worked and watched many practices and games.
You could say he had the childhood that every Whaler fan could only possibly dream of, one minute he would be hanging out with Gordie Howe and the next he would be skating around the Hartford Civic Center with Ron Francis and Kevin Dineen.
His relationship and love for the Whaler players was very important to him. What follows is one of those stories which is not written in the history books but it is sure to live on. After all, it is not often that you can say a team got its lunch eaten on and off the ice with some help from a 14 year old kid.
On December 26, 1984 the Whalers were playing the New Jersey Devils, the Hartford Civic Center was buzzing as fans poured in for the game one day after Christmas. As he normally did Baldwin Jr. was busy working for Whaler equipment manager Skip Cunningham in the opposing teams’ locker room. Baldwin Jr. had worked the opposing teams bench many a game and while he enjoyed it, this game had started to get under his skin. The Hartford Whalers were in the middle of a very chippy and scrappy game with the Devils. Baldwin Jr. was watching the Devils take cheap shot after cheap shot all while the referees weren’t looking. He wanted the Whalers to win, especially the players who treated him like a kid brother, but the mean spirited play by the Devils started to make Baldwin Jr. very angry. As he watched he noticed that the Devils had thrown in more elbows and slashes than he was used to seeing and they were checking the Whalers more aggressively too.
Now the New Jersey Devils had not done anything personally to Baldwin Jr., after all he was usually busy folding towels and carrying hockey sticks, but as Baldwin Jr. watched the extra mustard being delivered on checks from the Devils’ players he began to feel like he needed to teach the Devils a lesson. After watching a really rough play Baldwin Jr. had decided he couldn’t just sit still and let the Devils intimidate his “big brothers”. "I don't remember the game minute to minute but I definitely remember a very dirty elbow hit on Ronnie(Francis). That made my blood boil to the point that I couldn’t let it go without getting back at them.", Baldwin said as we talked about his childhood growing up with the Whalers. Ron Francis means a lot to Hartford, he is a Hartford Hockey legend and he is one of the greatest NHL players of all time. "He taught me how to shave and he handed me the Stanley Cup when we were in Pittsburgh together, in a lot of ways he was like an older brother to me. The players were great to me and they treated me like I was a part of the team. I was extremely loyal to them and as a kid I took the Devils players hits personally."
Part of Baldwin Jr.’s job working the visitors' locker room was to put a prepared lunch on every seat in the visiting teams' bus for their ride home. He had done this for every home game and it usually took him a few minutes to put a lunch on every seat in the bus and then return to the opposing teams’ locker room. After some time had passed, Bob Gorman, another Whaler Equipment Manager, whom had told Baldwin Jr. to put the lunches on the Devils’ bus, began to wonder where Baldwin was after he not returned within a normal timeframe. Baldwin Jr. was gone for over] 45 minutes and Gorman began to wonder what he was doing and where he was.
Meanwhile, back on the ice the Whalers wound up winning the hard hitting game over the Devils 5-3. The Devils' players and coaches packed up their stuff, changed and then got ready to head to Newj Jersey. As the Devils' bus rolled out onto Uccello Street and out of Hartford, Gorman found Baldwin Jr. and asked him why it took 45 minutes to put the lunches on the bus. Baldwin Jr. explained that he had been upset at how the Devils treated the Whalers and while putting the lunches on the bus he had carefully unwrapped each sandwich and taken a 14 year old stuffed face bite out of each of them. Then Baldwin Jr. carefully rewrapped each sandwich and placed them on the seats.
You can imagine the Devils’ bus ride home, all the players had a bite out of their sandwich, all the coaches had a bite taken out of their sandwich, the General Manager had a bite taken out of his sandwich. Even the bus driver had a bite mark into his sandwich. Baldwin Jr. said that usually after putting the lunches on the bus he would grab something to eat in the Hartford Civic Center but he recalls not being too hungry after. "When I first got back, Gorman offered to get me something to eat but I did not want anything. There was no way I could eat anything else. I was full after eating some of the sandwiches but kept going so everyone had a bite taken out of their sandwich.” While it had to be a strange bus ride home no further mention of the sandwich incident came up, the season rolled on and the next team came to town.
Baldwin Jr. would go on to work with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Philadelphia Flyers, he would go on to hold the Stanley Cup but when I asked him about a memory it was eating the Devils’ lunch that first popped into his head. After 40 bites of different sandwiches Baldwin Jr proved one more thing, that he loves the Whalers just as much as Hartford does.