⇒ Read also: "What Jussi Jokinen did on his summer vacation"
Carolina Hurricanes vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Friday, Oct. 2, 7 p.m. @ RBC Center
There are different ways to build a successful professional sports team.
One way is to break the piggy bank and sign an All-Star free agent for a bazillion dollars. But in the age of salary caps and tight budgets, such bold strokes are difficult to execute. Some teams opt to take a chance on a young stud who could either light up the scoreboard for years to come or flame out and become the subject of one of those intriguing "where are they now?" posts floating around on the blogosphere. (Remember Pavel Brendl? No one else does either.)
Over the last several seasons in Raleigh, however, Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford has shown a tendency to look to the past in order to bolster the team for the future. Last season was probably saved by Head Coach Paul Maurice, the first to coach the 'Canes in Raleigh, who returned to take the reins for a second time.
Rutherford mostly kept his checkbook in his pocket over the summer, but his most significant signing is also a 'Canes veteran: three-time Stanley Cup-winning blue-liner Aaron Ward. Ward says he doesn't care to be compared to a plastic bottle.
"I don't like to use 'recycle' because it means we're completely empty at some point," Ward mused. "How about 'repurposed'?"
"Repurposed" it is.
Ward and Matt Cullen signed free-agent contracts after the 2006 Cup run with the New York Rangers. Each found his way back to Carolina within three years. Ward didn't even sell his house in the Triangle when he moved from the Rangers to the Boston Bruins in 2007. He was golfing at MacGregor Downs in July when the news reached him that his drive home would be much shorter than previously anticipated.
"With the success of the team we had in Boston last year, you make the assumption that the components that made up that team are going to stay pretty firm," Ward said. "I was surprised to be moved."
But Ward and Stephane Yelle, who signed with Carolina several weeks later, didn't fit under Boston's salary cap and were sent south one at a time. The ever well-spoken and good-natured Ward, a fan favorite during his earlier four-year stint in North Carolina, was welcomed back readily.
However, Ward says the fans have become more educated and invested in the hometown hockey team since he left.
"The environment is familiar, the locker room is familiar, but there's an elevated level of attention to hockey here in Carolina that has existed in the last three years since I've been gone," Ward said. "There's more of an impassioned feeling for the game."
This devotion is almost as strong as the one Rutherford has to his former players. Erik Cole was gone for less than a full season in 2008-09, and bringing him back paid dividends for the 'Canes' postseason hopes. (It didn't work out too poorly for Cole, either —his former team, the Edmonton Oilers, finished 21st in a league of 30 teams and missed the playoffs.) And of course, Maurice is also back behind the bench after Peter Laviolette couldn't invigorate his troops during the doldrums of November and December last year.
It's striking that the Hurricanes have matured enough to have an institutional identity that is attractive to players. "It's good to see guys back that you've had success with and that you enjoy playing with," Cullen says of returning to the 'Canes. "We were lucky to have a pretty special group in '06, and that was a big part of the reason why we won. I was lucky to be one of those guys [who came back], and we're lucky that guys want to come back."
Still, the veterans of that team are starting to become nonrecyclable. If Bates Battaglia drops in, it will only be to operate the storm siren before a game. When Arturs Irbe, who shared net-minding duties in 2002, comes to town, it will be as goalie coach for the Washington Capitals.
Most tellingly, when 2006 vet Bret Hedican retired a few weeks ago, he gave a statement on his way out the door, saying, "To the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes Stanley Cup team, you guys will always be my brothers."
Later, he told The News & Observer: "The one thing I really am sad about is that I didn't retire a Hurricane. I really wanted to. I wish it was possible to sign a one-day contract."
In a few years, when such current elder statesmen as Rod Brind'Amour, Ray Whitney and Aaron Ward hang up their skates, the legend of that 2006 team will fade off into distant memory, and it will become harder and harder for Rutherford to lasso his players back into one more stint.
But then, with promising prospects such as Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman, Brandon Sutter and this year's first-round draft pick, Philippe Paradis, there will be a whole new generation of 'Canes to utilize—and repurpose.
The Hurricanes' new season begins at 7 p.m., Friday, Oct. 2, at the RBC Center versus the Philadelphia Flyers. The Independent will again be there, following the team faithfully on Triangle Offense, our sports blog. For more information, visit hurricanes.nhl.com.