Few would have predicted that the game of hockey could survive and thrive here in the Triangle, the land of NASCAR, sweet tea and the "art" of tailgating. While Sidney Lowe, Coach K and Ol' Roy are the highly paid, high-profile ringmasters of winter sport in the Triangle, Peter Laviolette, coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, could possibly go unrecognized while browsing hockey sticks at Dick's Sporting Goods.
However, survive hockey has, and over the past 10 years Triangle sports fans have created an atmosphere in the RBC Center that is unlike that of any other barn in the National Hockey League.
From eastern Canada, where British soldiers popularized the game in the 1850s, hockey trickled down the Atlantic coast and, finally, past the Mason-Dixon line. The then-Whalers arrived from Hartford, Conn., and briefly roosted in Greensboro, where team management had to give away cars during period breaks to keep fans in the seats.
Once settled in Raleigh, Carolina caught a whiff of victory in 2002, when it lost in the Stanley Cup finals to perennial powerhouse Detroit. In 2006, they finally sipped from hockey's holy grail, Lord Stanley's Cup.
Since that victory, the ice has been scattered with chips and especially slippery patches. The 'Canes led the Southeast Division for much of last season, and winning it would have guaranteed them at least a 3rd seed in the playoffs. But, for all but a few days during the regular season, the upstart Washington Capitals were never far behind. The Hurricanes had the lead, and all they needed was a win in either of their last two games.
The final home game—Fan Appreciation Night, in a sick twist—was against the lowly Florida Panthers, whom Carolina had dominated in Raleigh since 2002. When it counted most, the Hurricanes couldn't get it done, falling 4-3. Because of this, the former champs were given the regrettable honor of becoming the first team in NHL history to miss the playoffs two years in a row after they won the Cup.
"Although the last two years were disappointing, I think we had really good teams both years—we were just underachieving," goalie Cam Ward says, speaking after practice at the RBC Center last week. "I think we have a strong core in this locker room."
Although Southern hockey fans are widely criticized across the league for being disloyal and uneducated (admit it, the "redneck hockey" motto can't be helping that notion), North Carolinians are sticking by their team. They forgave the Hurricanes after they failed to show up for the 2006-07 season, and they filled the RBC Center to the rafters the following year. They sat through months of win-lose hockey and watched as not one, but two, rounds of the flu decimated the 'Canes' ranks and a majority of the names on red sweaters were ones they'd never heard before. They watched sadly as that excellent start to the season, that sizable division lead, the hopeful expectations and those already-purchased playoff tickets went to waste.
But enough about the past. After two years of mostly mediocre hockey, there is excitement in the Triangle again. A new season is approaching quickly, and all of last year's failures will fade into the background. This Friday, Oct. 10, is opening night, and the 'Canes are pitted against a certain Sunshine State team whose mascot is one angry kitty. Sound familiar?
"Opening is always fun, the house is always rocking," says center Eric Staal. "We've got some ex-teammates and some guys we've gotten to know over the years, so it should be a good game."
"Plus," Staal adds, "it's Florida."
"I don't see any reason why we can't be back in the playoffs, competing with the top teams in the league," Staal continues. "We've got a good mix of older guys and new faces, guys with skill and speed. That's the style we like to play."
It appears that the team's management agrees with Staal about the fundamental strength of the team. For the second year in a row, General Manager Jim Rutherford and the Hurricanes' upper staff shied away from drastic changes and merely tinkered with what they had. They re-signed All-Star center and probable future captain Staal to a seven-year, $57.75 million deal and kept No. 1 stay-at-home defenseman Tim Gleason around with a four-year deal. The one blockbuster move was trading fan favorite Erik Cole, who had been with the team since 2001, for defenseman Joni Pitkanen, a 25-year-old NHL journeyman who has yet to meet his first-rounder potential.
Pitkanen, however, thinks he has finally found his niche.
"Playing against Carolina with other teams, I always liked how the Hurricanes played," Pitkanen says in his Finnish-accented English. "I am hoping that I will find a good fit here."
One of the most intriguing additions to the squad may well be Brandon Sutter. The ninth member of hockey's most famous family to be drafted into the NHL, the 19-year-old Sutter scored 48 points with his junior team, the Red Deer Rebels of Alberta, Canada, and is favored to make the leap to the NHL and center the 'Canes' fourth line.
On the defensive side, the Hurricanes lost a player to Russia, but re-acquired one as well. Former backup goaltender John Grahame hightailed it to the motherland as soon as he hit free agency, but enormous young defenseman Anton Babchuk, who won the Cup with Carolina in '06, re-signed with the team after taking a short sabbatical. The 'Canes looked in-house to replace Grahame—in whom Laviolette admittedly had little faith—tapping minor-league affiliate Albany River Rats goaltender Michael Leighton for the No. 2 spot, after he won the AHL Goalie of the Year title last year. Leighton made history in the AHL playoffs, stopping 98 shots in Game 6 against the Philadelphia Phantoms, only to have his team lose in five overtimes.
Ward says he and Leighton are there to support each other, and to engage in some good-natured jostling for the No. 1 spot.
"You look down the ice and see how well he's doing, and it pushes you to try and be better," Ward says. "We all know that it takes two good goaltenders to carry a team."
During the offseason, an aging defense that was 25th in the league (out of 30 teams) last year in goals allowed received a fresh new look. Bret Hedican put his career on hold for the time being in order to support wife Kristi Yamaguchi, the Olympic skater who received renewed fame after her win on the reality show Dancing with the Stars. Glen Wesley, the 39-year-old Raleigh staple who had been with the franchise since its Hartford days and is the all-time leader in games played with 1,457, will have his jersey retired Feb. 17 when the Hurricanes face his old team, the Boston Bruins. Spectators may want to bring a hankie.
Comebacks seem to be the story of this year's Hurricanes squad in its early stages. Sergei Samsonov, who was waived by the Chicago Blackhawks midway through last year and left for career road kill, came over to fill in during the second rash of illnesses and more than earned his keep. He moved between the top two lines and lit the lamp 14 times, showing the teams who passed him over what they were missing.
Samsonov said he does not expect his pace to slow down.
"I definitely feel more comfortable, playing for a team a little longer and getting to know the guys," Samsonov says. "I've found good chemistry with a lot of the guys, and that's pretty rare. I'm just trying to keep it going, and it's been a lot of fun so far."
In the preseason's most poignant narrative, Hurricanes all-time leading goal scorer Jeff O'Neill came very close to donning No. 92 once again for the 'Canes this season, but he was released after a lackluster training camp. Patrick Eaves, who was so often injured with his former team, the Ottawa Senators, that he rarely got the chance to showcase his talent, will have an entire season with the Hurricanes to demonstrate what he can do. The Hurricanes hope that Joe Corvo, who came over as a part of the same trade, will breathe life into their power play, which hovered around the middle of the league standings last year.
The season hasn't begun, and already there have been setbacks: It wouldn't be the Carolina Hurricanes if there weren't a rash of freak injuries to keep things interesting. Last year, the team lost 333 man-games to injury, and many were to major players such as captain Rod Brind'Amour, '06-'07 leading goal scorer Justin Williams and playmaker extraordinaire Ray Whitney. The injuries have occured early and often this year: Williams is out until at least January with a torn Achilles tendon; Brind'Amour is recovering from knee surgery; and Gleason and agitator Tuomo Ruutu are rehabbing undisclosed ailments.
There is no telling which way this season will go. Several major authorities, including Sports Illustrated, have already written the Hurricanes off, saying that, come April, they will once again have their faces pressed against the glass while other teams fight tooth and nail for Lord Stanley's Cup. However, 'Canes fans remember what happened the last time their team faced such low expectations.
Regardless of what the numbers are at the end of 82 games, Hurricanes fans will still be in the stands next spring. College basketball may be king in the Triangle, but hockey—redneck or otherwise—is still the area's only major league sport. There are 41 home games this winter: Think of it as 41 opportunities to discover the difference between a power forward and a power play. To learn that no-touch icing is not something that covers an intricately decorated cake. To realize there is a new prince in town, and his name is Rod "The Bod" Brind'Amour.
For information on the Carolina Hurricanes' season schedule, visit hurricanes.nhl.com.
Kate Shefte covers Hurricanes hockey for the Indy's new sports blog, Triangle Offense, and will be live-blogging the Hurricanes' home opener against the Florida Panthers this Friday, Oct. 10, at 7 p.m. Click the above link to visit the blog; you can also find it on this Web site by clicking Our Blogs in the upper left corner of the page, or by using the Menu button or arrows on the Our Blogs widget on our home page.