Although the weatherman called for 80 degrees today, the morning air had a bite. I switched from shorts to long pants, threw on a sweatshirt and headed to the RBC Center.
The wardrobe switch was a smart one: Inside the arena, it was cold—drafty, even—as a steady stream of frosty air hit the back of my neck in section 105, the spot designated for us media types during today's pre-season open practice.
I had spoken with Mike Sundheim, Carolina Hurricanes media relations director, a week before and told him I wanted to ask the players a few questions.
"What kind of questions?" he said.
"Music questions," I responded. I wanted to know what sort of tunes the players listened to, and if they ever grew sick of hearing AC/DC and the Scorpions pumping out of the P.A. as they took the ice.
Hockey, unlike most pro sports here in the United States (soccer excepted), is an international affair: Plenty of Canadians, including franchise player Eric Staal, and a handful of Americans are among the Canes' ranks, but Finns (Tuomo Rutu, Jani Pitkanen), a couple of Czechs (Frantisek Kaberle), a Swede (Niclas Wallin), a German (Dennis Seidenberg), a Russian (Sergei Samsonov) and a Ukranian (Anton Babchuk) call the RBC Center home, too. According to Sundheim, country and rock seem to be the most popular genres, but the Europeans also listen to "European" music like electro clash. The players would be open to questions after practice, he said, and I'd be able to pose my most pressing questions. Not "Why so many penalty minutes?" or "How could you let that guy get passed you?" but rather "Who is your favorite band?"
That morning, at 9:30, there was only a lone player on the ice: 38-year-old Rod Brind'Amour, team captain and a Raleigh resident. His back was stained with sweat and grimace decorated his face as he slid across the ice, alternating leg stretches as he prepared to return after a season-ending knee injury last year. John Forslund—the Canes' television play-by-play guy, armed with a coffee cup, laptop and cell phone stuck in his ear—was to my left.
The News & Observer's Chip Alexander sat behind me, and Chuck Kaiton, the voice of the Canes, stood on the other side of Forslund. Kaiton has been the franchise's play-by-play radio announcer since the team joined the NHL in 1979 as the Hartford Whalers. He's been the president of the NHL Broadcasters Association for 21 years. His voice is as familiar to hockey fans as the late, great voice-over actor Don LaFontaine is to movie trailers. Fitting, then, that he wore shorts and a T-shirt while I froze my ass off, pumping my legs up and down while stuffing my palms under my armpits to warm myself to no avail.
Trip Tracey, the Canes television color commentator and former goalie for the team, was two rows back, sounding like a Greek chorus, tossing out comments that sounded like non sequiturs to my amateur hockey ears.
I've been a fan of hockey since the 1980s, when The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, entered the league to much hype and when the U.S. Olympic hockey team pulled off its "miracle on ice." Growing up in suburban Maryland, I'm a Washington Capitals fans at heart and can recall the glory days of Mike Gartner, Bobby Carpenter, Kevin Hatcher, Scott Stevens and helmet-less defenseman Rod Langway. With a February birthday, a Caps game was a common request—a father-and-son tradition that faded once I got to high school and thought there were cooler things to do than hang with dad at a hockey game.
But since I moved to North Carolina, I've adopted the Canes as my team, in part because their relocation from Connecticut in 1997 came just a couple of years after my own move South. Still, in spite of my passing fandom, I am today's odd man out.
The practice, which started at 10:30 a.m., seemed to go on forever. At one point, Sundheim looked at me, shrugged his shoulders and said, "I've been here 10 years and have never seen a two-hour practice ... especially in pre-season." Practice finally ended, and the players trotted off into the locker room. The media gang trailed them, and I dutifully followed.
Suddenly, I've found myself in the bowels of the RBC Center, in the locker room of a professional hockey team and in the midst of a true Plimptonian moment: I've been in the pit, onstage and backstage, but I've never been in the locker room of a professional sports team. It's odd. Maybe it's seeing the players in various stages of undress, or maybe it's the ease of access, nothing like trying to secure a tour bus interview with Willie Nelson or a phoner with Aerosmith's Joe Perry. Either way, I'm a duck out of water, and I can almost read the thought bubbles above the heads of the other guys, asking, "What's that duck doing here?"
I looked toward Sundheim, his arms crossed with a look of "Now what?" He pointed to a player: "Try Eaves over there."
Patrick Eaves—number 44, a right wing forward acquired in a trade last year that sent Mike Commodore and Cory Stillman to Ottawa—sat shirtless at his locker.
"What was the first concert you went to?" I asked.
"Pearl Jam," he said. More recently, he had seen the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who he listed as one of his favorite bands, along with Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen and The Kooks, an alt.rock band from the UK.
Chad LaRose—number 59, a center acquired as a free agent in 2003—was more forthcoming. His first concert was AC/DC. "Yeah, I was like, 16," he said with glee as his eyes widened. His most recent concert was one by country artist Kenny Chesney, "about a month ago." Like his teammate Eaves, LaRose also cited Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers as favorites, along with Led Zeppelin.
But does he grow tired of hearing those same songs by artists like Guns 'N' Roses, AC/DC or the Scorpions as he takes the ice? LaRose says he's too focused on the game to hear them. Good Cane.
"Guitar Hero or Rockband?" I asked.
"I haven't gotten past [Foghat's] 'Slowride,'" he said. "But my fiancé beat the whole game a while ago," he said with pride.
I asked which teammate he felt was the most musically clueless. A teammate next to him mentioned defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. "Seidenberg, yeah, he'll hear a Pearl Jam song and then say 'Man, this Limp Bizkit song rocks!'" said LaRose, followed by laughter. He then pointed across the room at Tim Gleason and said, "Gleason doesn't know anything about music."
Gleason—number 6, a defenseman—came to the Canes in 2006 from a trade with the Los Angeles Kings. "LaRose says you're musically clueless," I said.
"LaRose? Shoot, he doesn't know anything about music!" said Gleason looking in LaRose's direction. A self-professed Coldplay head ("I love Coldplay"), Gleason's musical tastes are actually the most diverse yet. His first concert was Our Lady Peace, a hugely successful Canadian alternative rock band that won four Junos and 10 MuchMusic Awards. He recently saw Kid Rock and considers South Carolina's Need To Breathe and Brooklyn's Citizen Cope favorites, alongside Coldplay. Currently on his iPod's rotation: Hotlanta's Young Jeezy and Akon, two of hip-hop's biggest hitters.
As for ever tiring of hearing the same old songs pumped out over the P.A., Gleason said he was more tired of LaRose's playlist. And who does he think is the most musically clueless on his team? Gleason looked over to LaRose, who was unlacing his skates, and loudly replied, "I would never throw another teammate under the bus like Chad did..."
The two shared a laugh: Mission accomplished.
Citizen Cope plays Lincoln Theatre Monday, Feb. 2, and Tuesday, Feb. 3, at 8 p.m. The Hurricanes play in Raleigh Thursday, Jan. 29, and Saturday, Jan. 31, before hitting the road for a three-game West Coast swing. They return to Raleigh to play Florida Feb. 12.