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Plymouth Whalers fans brace for team’s uncertain future

By Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Plymouth Township — The mere thought of her beloved Plymouth Whalers leaving town disturbed Rasa Poorman.

Decked out in her green Whalers jersey Saturday at the team’s annual alumni game at Compuware Arena, Poorman was expecting to wear it many more times in the future.

The Whalers leaving? Poorman dreaded the possibility.

“I can’t imagine it happening,” Poorman said. “I’m hoping it doesn’t happen. I’m superstitious. Don’t say anything. I don’t want to jinx it.”

When the Whalers begin their exhibition season Aug. 30 — they open their 25th Ontario Hockey League regular home season Sept. 27 against Erie — the focus will be on stands as much as on the product on the ice.

The inability to gain any traction among metro Detroit sports fans, empty stands at Compuware Arena, and strong interest from Ontario cities fueled owner Peter Karmanos to issue a challenge to area hockey fans this summer.

Show up, Karmanos said, or the team will be moved.

“Right now it’s the Plymouth Whalers and they’re playing out of this arena,” Karmanos said when issuing his challenge in May. “They’ll be here at least another season and we’ll just have to keep evaluating.

“When you put a quality product on the ice and you win every year, you’re in the playoffs for 23 straight years, sooner or later people have to start coming.”

Trying to attract attention while competing with the Red Wings, Tigers, Lions, Pistons and Michigan and Michigan State has been an annual battle for the Whalers.

But an avid, loyal following remains.

Poorman and her husband, Glenn, have been avid Whalers fans for “many years.”

Their devotion and passion has extended to the point where they are a billet household, housing Whalers players for the past five seasons.

The couple doesn’t understand why more Detroit sports fans — hockey fans, specifically — haven’t turned into Whalers fans.

“Maybe it’s because not enough people know about the team,” Rasa Poorman said between glimpses at the ice and watching the likes of David Legwand and Tyler Seguin make plays during the exhibition.

“I work in the medical field and when I talk to patients, they’ve never heard of the Plymouth Whalers. It’s more about getting people in here and getting to know this brand of hockey.

“We did, and we ended up being billets. Now, it’s a way of life for us.”

Said Jacob Moorely, 15, of Plymouth: “The Whalers are my favorite team. We come here and watch a lot of their games. I’d be upset if they didn’t play here.”

The Whalers ranked 19th out of 20 OHL teams last season, averaging 2,478 fans (64.3 percent capacity).

Playing in a smaller market in the OHL proves beneficial. Saginaw, the Whalers’ rival to the north, were 12th in the league with a 3,711 average (66.9 percent capacity), while Windsor was third with a 5,306 average.

Fourteen of the 20 teams in the OHL averaged over 3,000 fans per game.

“If we could get attendance to where we think it should be here, the future is great,” Karmanos said. “If we continue to draw a couple thousand people a game, we’ll have to look at some options.”

The Whalers were 28-33-7 last season but have an experienced group returning, and are intent on attracting fans, said assistant coach John Vigilante, a Dearborn native and Whaler from 2002-06 before playing in the Red Wings and Nashville Predators farm systems.

“There’s a lot of competition (in the sports marketplace) and at times the stands are packed, at times they’re empty,” Vigilante said. “Our goal, and it’s something we’ve talked about as a staff and management, is to get people in the stands and have them keep coming.

“We’re hoping to get fans in the stands. The better the place is rocking, the team feeds off that atmosphere.”

Former Whalers who participated in Saturday’s alumni game were surprised by the speculation about a Whalers move — and hope it doesn’t take place.

“It’s a great area, a great hockey team, great organization,” said Legwand, a Grosse Pointe native who starred with the Whalers (1997-99) before embarking on his current NHL career (Ottawa Senators). “I was excited to be part of it when I was here.”

If Karmanos were to sell the Whalers, there would be plenty of potential buyers eager to get into the OHL, one of the more popular junior leagues around.

Hamilton appears to be a leading contender for relocation, with Flint and Chatham other contenders.

Flint has an arena available in the Perani Arena and Events Center, but whether the area can support an OHL team is debatable.

Sequin only heard about the rumors of the Whalers possibly moving after Saturday’s alumni game. He said it would be a loss for the OHL.

“It was awesome here,” said Sequin (2008-10 Whaler alumni), now starring with the Dallas Stars. “Everything about the area, billets, school, it was awesome.”

Rasa Poorman sure doesn’t want to see her favorite team leave. She hopes her Whalers jersey gets worn many more times in the future, and hopes for many future Whalers living in her family’s house.

“I’ve gotten hooked,” Poorman said. “Other people would, too, if they came to the games.”