The whale's tail is everywhere. It is part of the logo of the Hartford Whalers, the hottest thing to hit town since term life insurance.

This city is home to many of the nation's largest insurance companies -- Aetna, The Hartford, The Travelers, CIGNA, all of which are partial owners of the NHL franchise. But the whale could become the city's most visible symbol.

Even cab drivers who say they don't follow hockey know that the Whalers swept the Quebec Nordiques in the Adams Division semifinals and have tied their final series with the Montreal Canadiens at 2-2. Game 5 is Friday night in Montreal.

"There's just a real good feeling here," said captain Ron Francis.

In their only previous NHL playoff appearance, the Whalers were dispatched in three first-round games by the Canadiens. That was in 1979-1980, the final season of Gordie Howe's 26-year career.

The next season, Francis was the Whalers' No. 1 draft pick (fourth overall) in June 1981, after the Capitals took Bob Carpenter with the help of a last-minute trade.

It had been frustration ever since, and it almost was this spring.

"We've come a long way," Francis said. "Last year we just fell short. This year, we fell hard in February [2-10-1], but we came back in March [9-3-2]. The key thing for this organization was to get into the playoffs and play as many games as we could. We needed to get those young players into the playoffs."

Francis is only 23, but he's the only player who was on the team's roster before Emile Francis took over as president and general manager in May 1983.

The transformation of the Whalers from woeful to wonderful is due in great part to Emile Francis, who had the good hockey sense to know that the team he took over wasn't worth a hoot, and the good marketing sense to know that the organization had to sell its product.

"When I came in, they had the worst record in hockey, and you sure aren't going to sit there with that unless you're going to commit suicide," Emile Francis said today.

As center Ray Ferraro said, "When he [Francis] decided he wanted a big-time goalie, he got Mike Liut. When he wanted a big, mobile defenseman, he got Dave Babych. And when he decided he needed more scoring on left wing, he got John Anderson."

Liut came from St. Louis, where he had played under Francis. In Hartford's mad March march to the playoffs, Liut played in 16 of the 17 games and went 10-3-2 with a 2.83 goals-against average.

"You build a team from the goal out," Francis said. That is why he was so proud of Steve Weeks, who is the Whalers' insurance policy in goal and who paid off Wednesday night when Liut could not play because of a bruised knee. Liut looked fine in the Whalers' optional practice today.

Both Francises know it is almost impossible to draw well if you don't have a winner, but they both know a winner does not guarantee sellouts.

"You've got to sell the product," said Emile Francis, who estimated that he has spoken to 150 civic groups in the last three years. "You can't just say you're going to have a game and drop the puck and expect people to fill the place. The players are all aware that they are the only team [in town]. . . . They feel compelled to represent the city of Hartford."

*Oilers 7, Flames 4: Wayne Gretzky had three goals and two assists as Edmonton won in Calgary, tying the Smythe Division final at 2-2. Game 5 will be Saturday in Edmonton.

Gretzky's hat trick was the seventh playoff hat trick of his career and ties Maurice Richard's record.

Included in Gretzky's hat trick were power-play goals in the first and third periods and an even-strength score in the third.

*Blues 7, Maple Leafs 4: Doug Gilmour scored two goals, including one shorthanded, to lift St. Louis in Toronto, evening the best-of-seven Norris Division final series at 2-2. Game 5 is Saturday in St. Louis.