Some say that hockey truly arrived in North Carolina in the summer of 2006, when Rod Brind'Amour hoisted the Stanley Cup in front of an RBC Center packed house that had spent the entirety of Game 7 standing and cheering on their hometown team.
But the true measure of a hockey town doesn't come when the team is winning, but rather when it isn't. And while the Hurricanes likely won't play to packed houses night after night during the 2010-11 season the way the Canadiens, Maple Leafs or Rangers will — regardless of results — it's clear hockey has officially found a home in North Carolina.
And here's why.
1) Caniacanens (Finnish for Caniacs)
This via Hurricanes director of media relations Mike Sundheim's Twitter account:
Welcome to the 300 Caniacs who made journey to Finland for #NHLPremiere
That's right, 300 Hurricanes fans made the trip to Scandanavia for Carolina's season-opening, two-game series with the Minnesota Wild. That may not sound like a whole lot, but consider this: Latvia is often labeled hockey-mad for having about a thousand fans travel across the globe for major international events. The Canes had 300 fans of a Sunbelt team make the expensive trek across the Atlantic for two regular-season games against a team they could see every year.
2) It's Always Sunny In Carolina
Even the Sunbelt critics have seemed to lay off Carolina in recent years. While Florida, Atlanta and Phoenix continue to earn top billing as Southern franchises that haven't worked and don't deserve an NHL franchise, Carolina usually goes unmentioned by those weighing in on the debate. Throw in the relocation of the team's AHL affiliate from Albany, N.Y., to Charlotte and you have a statewide hockey entity that can unite and excite fans. That certainly wasn't always true.
It was one thing for there to be a huge, league-wide buzz about Eric Staal heading into his rookie season in 2003-04. The lanky 18-year-old had led the NHL in preseason scoring, plus was the top non-goalie drafted that June.Throw in that he was the oldest in a burgeoning hockey empire, and Staal's story was an easy one to hype.
When Jeff Skinner was selected seventh overall by Carolina three-plus months ago, most fans uttered a "Whaaa!?" and wondered why GM Jim Rutherford didn't tab hotshot defensemen Cam Fowler or Brandon Gormley, or super-skilled Euros Mikael Granlund or Vladimir Tarasenko with the pick. But after an impressive summer that saw him flash skills on YouTube (see below), thrive at the Traverse City Prospect Tournament, and hold his own in the Canes’ training camp, the fervor around Skinner has spread from Raleigh to the entire NHL. A market that was mostly an afterthought has become a common talking point for the biggest names in hockey media. While Skinner has a lot to do with it, you can't help but think that Carolina's improving reputation is contributing.
4) Hey Now, You're An All-Star
The Hurricanes have hosted two Stanley Cup Finals series, another Eastern Conference Finals series and the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. This year they complete their hosting quest by finally landing the All-Star Game that has eluded the city for nearly a decade. While the talk about the game has been relatively quiet in the Triangle so far — the biggest reveal was the giant All-Star Game poster adorning the side of the RBC Plaza building downtown — there's no doubt the excitement will build as the game approaches.
5) Self Congratulations
This blog, started by Bob Wage in 2006, has grown to enormous proportions. There are several reasons, in my opinion, for that:
- Bob's dedication to making this the best daily stop for Hurricanes news. He spends countless hours writing, reporting, interviewing, and traveling to give the readers all of the Carolina hockey news. He's gone to Albany for River Rats games, been to the 2010 Entry Draft in Los Angeles, attended road games in Washington, and will be at the Checkers' home opener in Charlotte. He doesn't do it because a boss tells him to go, he does it on his own dime because he loves it and he's committed to make this site great.
- The contributions of HockeyMomOf2 (Twitter here!) and LTD (Twitter here, especially since she's among those in Finland right now!) to the site. HMO2 is endlessly scouring the Web for any and all stories, video, audio and other minutiae, then compiles them and ties them together in smart, funny, informative posts that keep our rabid readers busy clicking, clipping and commenting. LTD has become, in the opinion of all us here, the source for Hurricanes photos. Not only does she take great game photos, but she documents the players in practices when they're showing their softer side.
- It can't go unsaid that a lot of this wouldn't be possible without the cooperation of the Hurricanes and their media relations department. We're also working with the Checkers to bring insight on what's happening on the farm in Charlotte. Without their assistance, a lot of what you read here would lack the insight it does now.
- The move to SB Nation has helped grow the site by teaming us with other hockey blogs across North America and getting our content on sites like NHL.com, Yahoo! Sports, SI.com and more. We've also had great support from Yahoo! Sports’ Puck Daddy and other peers on the Web.
- Finally, the community here. Canes Country's readers prove what is now undeniable: that North Carolina — and beyond — hockey fans get hockey. And not just the fights and the goals, but the most obscure rules (on and off the ice), the draft and grooming of young players in the minors and junior hockey, and the strategies that take place every day at the rink. Read through the hundreds — sometimes thousands — of posts that are made in every game thread at Canes Country and you'll experience varying opinions, but they're almost always well-thought out and informed.
So hockey and its fans are in North Carolina — in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Cary, Charlotte and beyond — and it's not the "Redneck Hockey" many think it is, even if the fans have cheerfully embraced the moniker.
It's hockey that has meaning and, I think we can finally officially say, a permanent home.