The New England Whalers were a charter franchise in the maverick World Hockey Association when it was founded in 1972. Their first game was a 4-3 win over the Philadelphia Blazers on October 12, 1972, and won the Avco Cup (the WHA's championship) during their first season. They first played their home games in Boston, but were unable to compete with the Bruins. In 1975 they moved to Hartford, Connecticut, but would temporarily relocate to Springfield, Massachusetts after their arena's roof collapsed in 1978.
In 1977, they scored a major coup by signing both long-time Detroit Red Wings legend Gordie Howe and his sons Mark and Marty. They would reach the Avco Cup finals again in 1978, but would be swept by the Winnipeg Jets.
When the WHA folded in 1979, four of the league's teams, including the Whalers, were absorbed by the NHL. The team's name was modified to the "Hartford Whalers" and a new logo and uniforms were introduced. Gordie Howe would spend one last season in the NHL before retiring. In addition to Howe, the Whalers would also acquire a 40-year-old Bobby Hull, but he would only play 9 games for the team before retiring.
Through most of Hartford's 18-year term in the NHL, they were synonymous with futility. The team's lone bright spot was in the mid-to-late 1980s.
After missing the playoffs for five straight seasons, the Whalers, led by Sylvain Turgeon (who had a career-best 45 goals) and second-year Ray Ferraro, made the final playoff spot in the Adams Division by four points over the Buffalo Sabres in 1985-86. They stunned the Quebec Nordiques with a sweep in the first round, and lost in overtime of game 7 to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens in the second round. It would be the furthest the Whalers ever went in the playoffs before they moved to Raleigh.
The Whalers followed that season up by finishing first in the Adams in 1986-87, but lost to the Nordiques in the first round. They would then make the playoffs each year until 1992, but lose in the first round each time.
After five more years of losing hockey, fan support was dwindling and owner Peter Karmanos wanted a new arena. After the state said no, he turned over a new leaf in 1997 and moved the team to North Carolina. The team was renamed the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Hurricanes played in a temporary arena in Greensboro their first two years, where they pulled in fewer fans than they did in Hartford. Doubts were raised over whether North Carolina could support NHL hockey.
On the ice, however, the Canes were out of the doldrums by 1999. Led by Keith Primeau's 30 goals and Gary Roberts's 178 penalty minutes, they won the new Southeast Division by eight points and made the playoffs for the first time since 1992. Tragedy happened when at the end of their playoff series with the Boston Bruins, defenceman Steve Chiasson was killed in an auto accident driving home from a players' end-of-season party.
The Canes played lackluster hockey in 1999-00 and 2000-01, but broke out in the 2002 playoffs. They survived a late charge from the Washington Capitals to win the division, but expectations were low entering the first round against the defending Eastern Conference Champion New Jersey Devils. Arturs Irbe and Kevin Weekes were solid in goal, and two games were won by the Canes in overtime as they put away the Devils in six games.
The second round matchup was against the Canadiens, who were riding a wave of emotion after Saku Koivu's return from cancer treatment. In the third period of game 4 in Montreal, the Hurricanes were down 2-1 in games and 3-0 in score, before the Hurricanes rebounded to win 4-3 on Niklas Wallin's overtime winner. The Habs were dejected and Carolina easily won the next two games to win the series.
The conference final was against the heavily favored Toronto Maple Leafs. In game 6 in Toronto, the Leafs' Mats Sundin tied the game with 22 seconds remaining to send it to overtime. The Canes took over from there. Martin Gelinas scored in overtime to send them to their first Stanley Cup final, against the Detroit Red Wings, thought to be the prohibitive favorite all year.
After the first game of the final, where Ron Francis scored in the first minute of overtime, Detroit stormed back to win the next four games in a row to win the Stanley Cup. Game 3 in Raleigh featured a triple-overtime thriller (won by the Red Wings 3-2 on a goal by Igor Larionov), which sportscasters called one of the best Stanley Cup Finals games in history. Despite the 4-1 finals loss, it was by far the most successful season in franchise history.