“One of the saddest things in my life was being traded,” Hangsleben said, alluding to being acquired by the Washington Capitals for right wing Tom Rowe in the middle of the Whalers’ first NHL season (1979-80). “I loved the area. I loved the people. I loved the team. I had been with the Whalers for 51/2 years and really grew up in Hartford.
“When I first got there (in 1974), there was nothing there. The Russian Lady (bar and restaurant) wasn’t there. You didn’t even want to go downtown at night until the (Hartford) Civic Center was built…”
But after considering – and reconsidering – his return to the Land of Steady Habits, the 57-year-old Hangsleben decided it was time to revisit where his pro career began nearly four decades ago…
“I should have come back before, but it was really, really hard,” Hangsleben said. “Every time I thought about Hartford I got a lump in my throat. I had such great memories, but it was hard because I just kind of walked away from it and left the great memories, the way the people treated me, the camaraderie I had with the players and the charity softball games. It was good for me all the way around.”
The hard-hitting Hangsleben, who played defense and left wing, felt the most love after the 1977-78 season, when he was named Favorite Whaler and the team’s Unsung Hero. But 21 months later, he was headed to the Nation’s Capitol.
Hangsleben didn’t make it back for the Whalers reunion hosted by former defenseman Joel Quenneville and his wife, Boo, at their home in South Windsor three years ago. But Hangsleben finally figured he had been away from Hartford long enough. Plus, he learned this reunion was being backed by former Whalers managing general partner Howard Baldwin, the CEO of the new Whalers Sports & Entertainment group that is trying to revitalize hockey in the area with hopes of returning a NHL team to Hartford.
Hangsleben is reminded of Baldwin daily. He has a picture on the wall in his home in Lothian, Md., of Baldwin’s two children, Howard Jr. and Rebecca, sitting on his lap during a Christmas party at Baldwin’s house.
“One of the main reasons I thought I’d come back is that Howard was involved,” Hangsleben said. “He was there when I was first there.”
One of Hangsleben’s not-so-fond memories of his time with the Whalers was when the Hartford Civic Center roof collapsed early on the morning of Jan. 18, 1978 while the team was 2,500 miles away in Edmonton, Alberta.
“I remember seeing a picture of the Zamboni that had been crushed by the steel beams that had come down,” Hangsleben said.
Hangsleben, who grew up in Warroad, Minn., was drafted by the World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers and National Hockey League’s Montreal Canadiens in the fourth round in 1973. He played his junior season at the University of North Dakota and then decided to forego joining the NHL’s most storied franchise to enter the WHA.
“I couldn’t speak French and my middle name wasn’t Pierre, so I had to sign with the Whalers,” a chuckling Hangsleben said. “And I’d seen enough snow in Minnesota, so I really didn’t need to see any more.”
In a more serious vein, Hangsleben knew he would have a better chance of playing with the Whalers despite them having several standout NHL defectors such as Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Dave Keon, Johnny McKenzie, Captain Ted Green and most of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ defense – future captain Rick Ley, Brad Selwood and Jim Dorey.
“The best part of joining the Whalers was playing with Gordie and his two sons (Mark and Marty) and childhood superstars like Keon and McKenzie,” Hangsleben said. “And Hull was in Winnipeg playing with (Ulf) Nilsson and (Anders) Hedberg. It was a boyhood dream to be able to play with and against such stars. Bobby Hull was my boyhood hero, so to be able to play against and with him was pretty amazing.”
Hangsleben also was awed to play for Team USA in the 1976 Canada Cup against a Canadian team that started Hull on left wing, Phil Esposito at center, Guy Lafleur on right wing and defensemen Bobby Orr and Denis Potvin. All five are in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Hangsleben has a picture in his house of him and Gordie Howe running a Russian player in the corner during the Whalers’ stunning 5-2 victory over the seemingly invincible Soviet hockey machine at the Civic Center on Dec. 28, 1976.
“My elbow was down, but Gordie’s were not,” Hangsleben said with a laugh. “I was legal, but Gordie was a little bit illegal. … He taught me more about the fringes of illegalness than anybody I know. I remember going to his 50th birthday, and he could still play. They said everybody let him play, but no. He could still play and still compete. He’d even practice with a left-handed stick (he was right-handed) just so he’d be able to turn both ways with his stick during games.
“They talk about (48-year-old defenseman) Chris Chelios playing until last season, but all he’d do is grab the puck and rifle it off the boards or glass. He never really had to handle the biscuit like Gordie.”
After five seasons in Hartford, the Whalers were among four WHA teams to merge with the NHL in 1979. Hangsleben then became a bit infamous for being part of a backroom deal that enabled the Canadiens to retain standout defenseman Rod Langway, the first American to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame. The Canadiens, who still retained Hangsleben’s NHL rights, left him unprotected for the 1979 expansion draft, and he was claimed by the Whalers. It was part of a pre-arranged deal in which Montreal agreed not to reclaim defenseman Gordie Roberts in exchange for a promise that the Whalers would select Hangsleben and not Langway off the Canadiens’ roster.
“Langway was good,” Hangsleben said of one of his regular teammates on the Capitals’ alumni team. “He was very, very good.”
After being named Favorite Whaler and receiving the Unsung Hero Award named after Hartford Courant sports writer Frank Keyes who broke the story of the Whalers moving from Boston to Hartford in 1973, Hangsleben played one more season with the Whalers and 37 games in the 1979-80 season before heading to Washington for Rowe. Rowe would later be a scout, assistant general manager and radio announcer with the Whalers before joining the Carolina Hurricanes, who replaced the Whalers when they left Hartford at the end of the 1996-97 season.
“I was sad and surprised about the trade, but I kind of figured something was coming up because they moved me from defense to left wing,” Hangsleben said. “I didn’t know where I was going or what was going on, but I ended up going to Washington to protect their two Swedes.”
The Swedes were Bengt Gustafsson and Rolf Edberg, but Hangsleben didn’t make it through the second period of his first two Capitals games against the Broad Street Bullies, alias the Philadelphia Flyers.
“It was back-to-back games, and I got into one fight in the first period and two fights in the second period of each game,” Hangsleben said. “I thought, ‘Oh, boy, here we go.’ ”
Hangsleben knows that likely wouldn’t happen today.
“The game has changed 100 percent,” he said. “Now you don’t dare look at anybody or they’ll give you a penalty.”
Hangsleben played with the Capitals until he was released 17 games into the 1981-82 season. He joined Hershey as an unrestricted free agent to stay competitive and in shape and hopefully land another NHL job. Selwood was an assistant coach of the AHL’s New Haven Nighthawks, the top affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings, who within a week acquired Hangsleben for Rick Blight on Dec. 7, 1982. But Hangsleben never played for the Kings, retiring after two more AHL seasons with the Nighthawks and Moncton Alpines.
Hangsleben played 10 pro seasons, getting 36 goals and 73 assists in 334 WHA games and 21 goals and 48 assists in 185 NHL games. Not bad for someone who grew up working on a 1,600-acre family farm six miles outside of Warroad, which is 2.6 square miles and had a population of 1,722 in the 2000 census.
Hangsleben started skating at age 4 on “the ditch,” a 3-foot-by-25-foot strip of ice adjacent to the driveway. One day his mother bought a box of junk at an auction, and in the bottom of the box was a pair of size 7 skates. Little Alan put two or three pairs of socks in the toes of the skates and began skating on “the ditch.”
“I’d skate, fall, skate, fall,” Hangsleben recalled. “But what do you do up there? You watch it snow, watch the smoke rise and play hockey. That’s about it in northern Minnesota in the winter time. It’s so damn cold that you’ve got to stay inside.”
But much of his time through college, Hangsleben worked on “a diversified” farm and was the reason he never exercised or lifted a weight. The farm had dairy cattle, then beef cattle, sheep, just beef cattle, grain and hay that he baled. The property included 500 acres of potatoes, which were packed in 80-to-90-pound bags, lifted onto trucks and taken to where they were stored in the winter.
“I was in seventh, eighth, ninth grade but was boosting with dad on the side of the truck, so I did all my exercise on the farm,” Hangsleben said. “But that’s old school. Now players train 12 months a year.”
When not working the farm, Hangsleben played hockey, baseball and football. He started playing on the high school hockey team in ninth grade, won numerous awards, including All-American, and received 70 college scholarships for the three sports. But between his senior year in high school and his freshman year at the University of North Dakota, Hangsleben grew from 5-foot-7, 165 pounds to 6-1, 195.
Hangsleben played hockey and baseball until after his freshman year at UND, where his cousin, Gordie, later was a goalie for the Fighting Sioux. His brother, Gerald, played eight years in Germany.
“I guess I always wanted to be a hockey player,” Hangsleben said.
Hangsleben, who played for Team USA in the 1973, ’74 and ’81 World Championships, has 23 credit hours left to become a teacher and complete a double major in physical education and industrial arts, which helped him with his construction career.
Hangsleben lives with his wife, Carmela, in Lothian, which is about halfway between Washington and Baltimore and 20 minutes from Annapolis, Md., home of the Naval Academy. He has been a general superintendent for a large roofing company, Gordon Contractors Inc. in Landaham, Md., for nearly 30 years. While with the Capitals, he began working for the company for two summers for something to do.
“I’d go home for the summer, sit on the balcony and build a shroud for the TV so I could watch soap operas,” Hangsleben said, chuckling. “Then I’d go to the bar every night. It was just not very conducive for training camp, so I had to do something.”
Hangsleben became a laborer for Gordon Contractors, then about a month into the job, the superintendent quit. The company’s owner told Hangsleben that he had been there the longest and threw him a set of keys to the superintendent’s truck.
“I’ve been there ever since,” Hangsleben said. “Construction is hard because it has been so darn hot, but I love it. It keeps you active, and I’ll never stop skating. I’ve got bad knees and can’t run, but I can still skate.”
Hangsleben is active with the Capitals’ alumni team, which has a nucleus of about 15 regulars, some of whom double-dip playing for teams representing Washington and the Flyers. They played for the Hershey Bears, who were the AHL affiliate of the Flyers and then the Capitals. The group has been playing six to eight games a year but plans to expand their outings.
“We weren’t really getting pushed by the main team (the Capitals),” Hangsleben said, “so we’ve taken it upon ourselves to go out in the community and do more charitable and beneficial things for the area and kids.”
Hangsleben, who has three children and three grandchildren, said he hopes to get an invite to play in the Whalers-Boston Bruins alumni game during the Whalers Winter Hockey Fest Feb. 11-20 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. The event will include a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the NHL All-Star Game in Hartford. The NHL has given its approval to Baldwin’s event, so a number of former stars will appear Feb. 19 in a game against a group of Hollywood celebrities to commemorate the All-Star Game held at the Civic Center on Feb. 3-4, 1986.
Hangsleben’s invitation should be a foregone conclusion, and this time he won’t have to worry about any more second – or third – thoughts.