Part 3 of a three-part series
There was a time, not long ago, when the Hurricanes' attendance numbers at the Greensboro Coliseum were the laughingstock of the NHL. National media wondered what in the world Peter Karmanos was thinking, moving his team to a city where an arena wouldn't be ready for two years and forcing a 150-mile round trip for anyone wanting to follow the team that would eventually call Raleigh home.
Today, things are a bit different. Rather than being forced to travel to follow the Canes and keep up to date on the organization, more and more fans are making a day of it by traveling around North Carolina, either to catch a Canes game in Raleigh or a Checkers game in Charlotte.
Call it hockey tourism, Carolina-style.
Since the Canes moved to North Carolina in 1997, two ECHL franchises and four teams in the Southern Professional Hockey League have called the state home, including the original ECHL Charlotte Checkers. With such low-level hockey to choose from, and no marketing budget to speak of, the minor-league teams essentially operated in their own little fiefdoms.
With the AHL Checkers' entry into the state, the ground rules have changed. Now, fans in the western part of the state are more aware than ever about what's going on with the Canes, and Canes fans likewise are more engaged with the rest of the Carolina system.
"Because they are within driving distance, we have a better opportunity to see the games in person and follow the progress of the players better," says Amy McCall, a Knightdale resident and a Canes season ticket holder. "We also have paid more attention to their scores and game outcomes now that they are in Charlotte."
It's also given fans from other parts of the state an incentive to pay attention to the whole system, not just the Canes specifically.
"It's probably safe to say that I follow the prospects and call ups a little more closely since I can watch them more frequently," says Brandon Gunning of Salisbury. "In that regard I follow the Canes organization more closely [now] than I did when the AHL team was in Albany.
Chris Ashley of Cornelius, who has owned Hurricanes season tickets with his father since the Greensboro days, agrees. "My interest in the Checkers has definitely increased since the change in affiliation. Seeing players here in Charlotte who, sometimes in the same week, have played games with the Canes is fantastic. It certainly impacts the way in which I follow the Checkers."
For their part, the McCalls have become well-acquainted with I-85 over the past two seasons. "We have made trips to Charlotte at least half a dozen times specifically to go to the Checkers games. Most recently, this past January, we planned a mini vacation to attend back to back games," Amy McCall says.
As the hockey ties between the two cities grow deeper, the opportunities for cross-promotion increase as well. The Hurricanes' preseason game in Charlotte last September had a great impact on the Checkers organization, but Ashley says it also had the same effect on Charlotte's hockey fans. "The street hockey exhibition that Eric Staal, Cam Ward and Jeff Skinner did the day before the pre-season game gave us here a chance to see them in person while off the ice. While I see them in Raleigh frequently, it had a huge impression on the more casual fans and kids here in Charlotte."
The Checkers' announcement last week that, had they made the AHL playoffs and not earned home ice advantage, the first two games of a first-round playoff series would be held at PNC Arena is further proof that both franchises see the other not as an opponent, but rather as a partner in growing the game.
While the plan fell through when the Checkers did not qualify for the playoffs, the underlying principle remains sound: North Carolina no longer comprises little minor-league fiefdoms, but increasingly contains a unified fan base with two distinct franchises to support, both in tandem and individually.
"Before the transition to the AHL I only went to a couple of Checkers games over a couple seasons," says Gunning. "I definitely follow the Checkers now, which is something that I can't say that I do with many minor league teams."
Ashley says that the feeling is reciprocal in the Queen City. "Having the Checkers as the primary affiliate in Charlotte makes Charlotte a Canes town, as well. Additionally, it promotes a much greater 'family' feel to the entire organization."
It's a family that continues to grow, thanks to the efforts of both organizations and their commitment to hockey in the Tar Heel State.