"The wolf is hungry. He runs to show. He's licking his lips. He's ready to win," the music blared from a pickup truck, the first of many times we would hear "Rock You Like a Hurricane," a huge hit for Germany's biggest band, The Scorpions, and the anthem, I guess, for the Carolina Hurricanes.
OK, 14 Daytona Bike Weeks, Mardi Gras, Rainbow Gatherings, Burning Man, huge demonstrations, both Bush inaugurations—I've been to my share of big messes, and I have a good eye for trouble.
"I went to a prize fight and a hockey game broke out," goes the old joke. So between what I'd heard about the unpleasantness at the series with Buffalo and hockey having such a reputation for being a rough sport, I went expecting to have a wracking experience being forced to observe the worst in humans.
"Seething cluster of hostility," I wrote right off. Wrong. That shows what a prejudiced dog I am.
Like a lot of folks, I didn't have tickets. We couldn't get press passes and $200 was too steep. So we—Derek the photographer, and I—had to console ourselves with covering the tailgate party.
I know next to nothing about sports or hockey. I do know something about tailgating from covering the trial of the 2004 Johnson murders and the alcohol and sports-wrought duality. I have always considered spectator sports training wheels for war. We trudged around the vast parking lot looking for signs of conflict.
Finding none, I talked to a couple, Mike and Katy—he from Montreal, she from the United States—who sort of set the stage.
"It's a cheap thing to bring the family to," she said. I wondered about that after I'd heard that she had paid five grand for each season ticket, which got them to the second level, but whatever. I've paid more for fun.
"We get premier parking," Mike said.
"Tickets, five thousand dollars; Stanley Cup, priceless," said Katy.
"Why hockey?" I asked.
"There's nothing like hockey. It's the noise, the excitement," she said.
I asked her how she felt about the on-ice fighting. "It's all going at a fast pace now. It gets crazy, especially in the playoffs. They have really gone for speed. There is no fighting anymore, it's all about the speed," Katy said.
We kept moving. I found these Edmonton fans, brothers Mark and James, big guys who could do a lot of damage. The biggest excitement on their minds was making a sign.
I asked their bud, Karl, about the legendary reputation of hockey fans for fighting.
"I'm just here for the hockey."
We all know how alcohol brings out the worst in people, right? Here these people were, really slamming brews—doing nothing.
I had the Canadian part covered. Serendipitously, the next people I spoke with were two kids, Cameron and Doug, who were native North Carolinians. I asked them how they got into hockey.
"Computer games," Doug said. "Old school, back in '94—'Gretzky Hockey,' 'Blades of Steel.'"
"What's the appeal, considering the expense? Couldn't you just catch it on the tube?"
"The noise, the atmosphere. Hockey is best live," he said.
That was a familiar theme. Another one was that most everyone I spoke with had become disenchanted with other sports.
* * *
Bill had moved down from Indiana 20 years ago. He was raised a baseball fan, born in Cincinnati. "I was a Reds fan, then a Cubs fan."
I asked him about the attraction.
"It's fun, it's a diversion. I spend time learning more about it. The regular season is fun, but there's nothing like playoff hockey. There's an excitement you can really get into."
"I remember the only other professional hockey game I went to," I said. "Right here. I was down front, by the glass for a while. The first time a player hit the glass, I jumped. It sounded like a car wreck."
"That's right," said Bill. "And I think it's refreshing, 'cause hockey is under the radar. Other sports have gone for the money. The players are spoiled. These guys are really working for the goal. And look at the schedule. There are 82 games in the regular season, and 28 extra if you make the playoffs. Look at other sports. It's all about a moment of glory, the big hit or catch. The time spent actually doing something to make a score? Not much. Mostly they are running around or just standing there. These guys are out there for an hour really working. There are no slow spots. They deserve to win, you want them to win. It's real emotion. I want to see Rod win."
He had two season tickets. Cost: 18,000 bucks.
* * *
What was I to do? I expected to see belly bumping, and these people were just about ready to hug each other. It really was totally counter-intuitive.
I went up to a father and daughter, Dave and Kate. He was from central Pennsylvania—belly-bumping country. He was a sports fan from way back. They had both grown up as sports fans.
"We got bored watching other sports," he said.
Dave knew all about team rivalries.
"Buffalo fans were using the F-word in front of women and children. They trashed their areas," he said, indicating a span of three feet with his hands. "Edmonton fans are classy."
His friend, Travis, piped up. "Some Edmonton fans I talked with said Canes fans were welcoming."
I really was running out of things to investigate. I had been all over the hundred acres or so of parking lots expecting to see trouble and found absolutely nothing. The mood was like other giant outdoor parties I'd been to. This was a love fest. Being a great believer in liberty, I think whatever people do that gives them some pleasure is just great so long as no one gets hurt. It is odd to say that about a game as physical as hockey, and it really is against my normal inclinations, not being a sports fan. But there it is.
The lack of hostility? I don't really know. I suspect it has to do with North Carolinians being basically decent, reasonable people, and hockey being a new phenomenon around these parts. I have to confess that it will take some getting used to. Here is a state where the ponds barely freeze over, but here it is. I applaud everyone for demonstrating exemplary manners.