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So this is what it's like for a non-fan during March, when talk of college basketball dominates local sports discourse...

Canes mutiny 

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY V.C. ROGERS

So this is what it's like for a non-fan during March, when talk of college basketball dominates local sports discourse, when calculation of Sweet Sixteens and Elite Eights and Final Fours is the only math that seems to matter, when a bystander can become an outsider even in their own hometown.

Only this was worse, much worse.

This was relentless. This lasted two full months, from April 21 to the final days of spring. This escaped the normal bounds of sport, as week after week the Carolina Hurricanes commanded a story or dominant photograph on the front page of Raleigh's News & Observer, a paper that wants us to take it seriously.

This was eight pages daily in the N&O sports section, with the me-too Durham Herald-Sun, habitually almost indifferent to hockey, suddenly trying to keep breathless pace in its own, scaled-back manner.

This was not only an evening sports report on local TV outlets, but news-side features that frequently packed the piddling punch of a legislative ethics bill. This was coverage so chauvinistic a Triangle resident would be hard-pressed to know the Edmonton Oilers, Carolina's opponent in the finals, was among the great underdogs in recent pro sports history, its successful ascension to the penultimate round of the Stanley Cup a first for a team seeded so low.

Mercifully, the saturation Canes coverage temporarily eclipsed The N&O's favorite sensational saga--the ongoing tale of alleged rape and abuse involving a black stripper and white Duke lacrosse players. That benighted story magically reappeared above the fold on those rare June days hockey didn't make the front page, and of course returned to prominence as soon as the newspaper ran out of parades and the shearing of hirsute players to chronicle.

TV's live news reports likewise abandoned arena parking lots following the Stanley Cup in favor of the usual on-the-spot hawking of murder and mayhem, the sanguinary staple of local coverage.

Fascination with hockey and the Hurricanes, whose season culminated with the capture of the National Hockey League championship, is easy to understand. The players are by all reports approachable and appreciative. And, for those who attend games, hockey is easy to love. The sport combines grace, strength, speed, stamina, balance and ferocity.

Hockey is a sport best seen in person, as the full effect of the game eludes the television camera. There is no capturing the resounding thump of players' bodies propelled into the sideboards that encircle the rink, the shush of skates as players rush forward at great speed in patterned attack, the ringing ping of a frozen, rubber puck smacking off a metal goal post as a goalie sprawls before the net.

That elusive quality, plus the basic difficulty of following the puck on a small screen, partially explains why even the Stanley Cup finals, the culmination of the seemingly endless playoffs, drew smaller TV audiences than women's softball.

Hockey has fallen far behind other major sports in popularity for other reasons, too. Resembling a chain of stores that over-extends its resources in eagerness to conquer new markets, the NHL ballooned to encompass alien venues such as North Carolina, where the game is called "ice hockey"--as if field hockey were an equivalently prominent sport. Here, the marketing is simultaneously directed toward hockey enthusiasts, ridiculed Yankee transplants and a pickup truck set that doesn't mind waving a Confederate flag or two.

Many around the NHL refer to Raleigh as Mayberry, and not just because a statue of Andy Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor once graced a city park. "The Hurricanes still are perceived by many in the hockey community as the Beverly Hillbillies of the NHL, interlopers from a strange land," Scott Burnside wrote on ESPN.com. "Worse, the argument goes, is they remain strangers in their own land."


Hockey was once an intimate, tradition-laden affair played in downtown arenas in cold-weather climes. The NHL had six teams until the late 1960s: Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, Detroit, Boston and New York. The Montreal Canadiens were the dominant power, the sport's equivalent of baseball's New York Yankees. Fans knew every player on every team. Rivalries were enduring and intense. No Duke-UNC basketball game surpassed the fervor of '60s contests at Madison Square Garden matching the fifth-place Boston Bruins with the perennial also-ran New York Rangers of Eddie Giacomin, one of the last goalies to play without a mask, and the great line of Rod Gilbert, Vic Hatfield and Jean Ratelle.

Many were the Saturday nights when my brother, father, cousins and I sneaked upstairs during meetings of the Wexler Family Circle, a monthly gathering of the clan at a Bronx brownstone, to catch a Rangers' telecast while my mother's relatives played bingo in the basement. Our celebratory shouts on the infrequent occasions when the Rangers scored inevitably revealed our delinquent conduct.

My teenage friends and I had no trouble taking a train from the suburbs into Manhattan, buying standing-room tickets at the Garden, where we perched near the rafters, our view of the rink obscured by cigarette smoke thick as fog.

The cigarette smoke is gone now, even in North Carolina. Raleigh made sure there is scant independent access for non-drivers, either. The arena was built on the western outskirts of town, reachable almost exclusively by automobile. This occurred even as cities such as Washington, D.C., and Charlotte brought new sports facilities downtown, where time after time they sparked a renaissance in commerce and vitality.

Raleigh is still struggling to rejuvenate its downtown nine years after $136 million in public funds--including $18 million from the state--was lavished on constructing the arena now called the RBC Center, naming rights having been sold to a Canadian bank. The latest scheme to transform downtown, besides removing a pedestrian mall on Fayetteville Street that was itself a fashionable but futile revitalization stratagem, features the construction of a $215-million convention center.

Meanwhile, the city with a near-indiscriminate lust for major-league status got in bed with Peter Karmanos, a self-described "hard-liner" in labor negotiations who led owners in locking out NHL players, canceling the 2005 season.

Karmanos engineered an alleged sweetheart deal, underbidding other suitors, when he bought the Hartford Whalers in 1994. Connecticut's governor was named to the board of directors of the new owner's computer company shortly after the sale was consummated.

The Whalers soon became the first professional team to abandon a city without having a definite place to go. Karmanos settled upon Raleigh, where lack of interest in hockey was apparently less important than access to an inexpensive new building in a modestly exploited pro market.

Fans in Hartford still pull for their old team, but not for its owner. "My heart is torn in about a million directions," the head of the still-active Hartford Whalers fan club told columnist Jeff Jacobs of the Hartford Courant. "The thought of Mr. Karmanos' name on a [Stanley] Cup just turns my stomach."

Little is said of such matters in the Triangle, where Karmanos is hardly alone in cashing in on the Canes. The N&O owns a luxury box at the RBC Center. The chain's corporate types surely want the featured attraction to prosper, which may help explain the orgy of Stanley Cup coverage. Of course, such conflicts of interest for media outlets are common at major-league venues, and rarely commented upon.

A more intriguing clash of values occurred outside the old state capitol in late May, when Raleigh native Davis Jones cut down several oversized Hurricanes jerseys affixed to statues of former presidents and governors, claiming use of the monuments as advertising billboards was unauthorized and therefore illegal. He was quickly arrested, and goes before a judge this week to face charges of causing injury to the personal property of the state.

"It really is distressing to see those statues treated in such a disrespectful and frivolous way," an unrepentant Jones said. "Once you establish this precedent of draping things on monuments, where does it stop?" Jones was particularly critical of state officials, whom he claimed sent the message "a very high profit, very important business venture can pretty much do anything they want to do."

Unfortunately, this is not news in a setting where the chancellor of N.C. State touts economic development--not scholarship or research or education--as his institution's leading priority, and state government positions and policies are frequently bought and sold in plain view.

Celebrate the Canes as the first major professional team from North Carolina to win a championship. (This assumes no NCAA champs were surreptitious pros.) Embrace hockey as perhaps the most elegant and demanding of team sports. But if you feel a bit manipulated, if a vague sense of unease persists that somehow a great game has been disrespected to catch your attention, you are not alone.

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