RDU AIRPORT/RALEIGH—Love or hate the move from Hartford, it’s hard to argue against the fact that North Carolina has added several fascinating contributions to the sport of hockey. Tailgating, for one – the rest of the league has no idea what they’re missing. Ric Flair, whether the sport wanted him or not. Cowbells are a recent addition. And now, there’s the motley assemblage of hard-core Caniacs that gather along the street at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport after an away game and wait patiently for the team’s plane to land so they can cheer them on as the players, coaches and staff climb into their luxury cars and drive home. I’m not sure if Carolina originated this tradition, but fans here have certainly made it their own.
Most of these fans have work the next morning, and a few will be in school in a mere few hours. Whether the game is a blowout or is settled in overtime – as it was last night – fans will pack up their jerseys and coolers and head out. Estimated Times of Arrival, which are almost never correct until the plane has taken off, are linked to all over the internet, but if you want a good seat, you’d better get there early anyway. Cheers go up every time a shuttle bus drives by or the fans think they see the right plane, even though the aircraft they’re often cheering for usually contains a drowsy group of American Airlines patrons flying in from La Guardia.
Some of the players seem to like it – they can be seen waving, high-fiving or even videotaping out a window, if they’re not the one driving – and some just seem ready to get home. A shout goes up every time a car horn blares…every single time.
Hundreds of fans brandishing signs and flags are out there; more if it’s a big game. These numbers have swelled with time, as has the media coverage. It used to be a few people, but now there are cameras, news trucks and even giveaways by media outlets. The only way I can think to describe it would be like a Rocky Horror Picture Show for the sports-loving set. The wilder your outfit, sign, or car, the more enthusiastically you will be greeted. On Thursday night, the plane didn’t get in until well after 2:30, but fans sat outside in their postgame best for hours beforehand for just a few minutes of seeing their favorite sports idols through heavily-tinted glass. In case you weren’t there, here are a handful of shots from the post-Game 7 festivities.