The signs at the state line on Interstate 95 proclaim North Carolina the “Nation’s Most Military Friendly State.” It’s a reflection of the importance of the military to the fabric of the state, home to the third-largest concentration of active duty military of any state in the country (behind California and Texas) and the eighth-largest in terms of the number of veterans who call North Carolina home.
Fayetteville, Goldsboro, Havelock, Jacksonville, and other military cities and towns across the state are not only large components of North Carolina’s economy and worldwide reputation, they’re home to countless servicemen and women. They’re also not far from Raleigh, where the Carolina Hurricanes have made military outreach and appreciation part of their organizational identity.
“We’d like to be known as the most military-friendly team in the NHL by 2020,” says Doug Warf, the Hurricanes’ vice president of marketing and executive director of the Kids ‘n Community Foundation.
The expanded outreach to the military and veterans started in earnest in 2010, when the Canes’ AHL affiliate moved to Charlotte. It was at that time that the team began building a statewide base, having established a strong regional following in the years after the team’s deep runs in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But the ties between the Canes and the military go back further than that, all the way back to 2006, when the team took a bonding outing to Fort Bragg and not only grew closer as a team, but also gained an appreciation for the jobs that the soldiers and airmen at Bragg and Pope Army Airfield do on a daily basis.
In September 2011, the Canes partnered with Defending the Blue Line, an organization dedicated to encouraging and assisting with sports participation by children of members of the military, for the first time. Two years later, that partnership came to the rescue when Bragg’s Cleland Ice Rink was in danger of closing early in 2013.
The Canes, Defending the Blue Line, and the Cape Fear Youth Hockey Association stepped in, with the Canes donating $10,000 to ensure the future of the rink. Warf says that it was money well spent. “They’ve got their numbers up right now where I don’t think that [the rink] will come into jeopardy like it did three or four years ago,” he says. “There are so many kids playing hockey now, which was the goal. We just want to keep pushing that.”
From there, the connections just kept multiplying.
In the 2013-14 season, the Canes introduced the Military Rush ticket program. Patterned after the longtime successful College Rush program, it allows members of the military and their families to buy discounted tickets on the day of the game, and has been a hit to the tune of around 150 seats per game. It partners with the long-running Military Appreciation ticket discount for advance ticket sales to give military families multiple options to take in a Hurricanes game.
The next year, the Canes conducted the first-ever NHL practice on a military installation when they traveled to Cleland, an event that was so successful that it has become an annual tradition. The Canes will be returning to Bragg in February 2017 for their fourth visit to post, combining a practice with learn-to-play classes and a youth hockey clinic.
And the Canes have put their money where their skates are, donating $70,000 in cash since 2013 to Defending the Blue Line, now known as the United Heroes League after a merger earlier this year with a similar organization dedicated to baseball.
But it’s not just the KNCF that’s reaching out to the military. Hurricanes players have done so as well.
In 2015, defensemen Justin Faulk, John-Michael Liles and James Wisniewski teamed up to sponsor the True Defenders program. At select games, military members and their families were invited to watch a Canes game from a luxury box, meet the players after the game, receive gifts from the team and be recognized on the scoreboard.
Liles and Wisniewski left the Hurricanes after last season, but fortunately, there was another defenseman who was almost a too-perfect fit to join Faulk in co-sponsoring the program this season.
Noah Hanifin comes from a family with a long pedigree of military service. His father’s brother was a Marine who served in Asia years ago, and he has two older cousins both serving their country. Danny, 22, just graduated from the Naval Academy in May. Ryan, 23, is in training to become a military pilot.
“I have so much respect for people who serve our country. It’s such an honorable duty,” he says. “It’s nice being in a state where they respect the military and have so much pride.”
The pride in Hanifin’s face when he speaks of his family members who serve in the military is obvious. The Canes knew they were getting a standout defenseman in the 2015 draft, but to have a young man in the locker room who ties right into the team’s efforts to thank and honor military service makes it an even more prescient move.
His military appreciation has given Hanifin plenty of lessons that he’s taken with him throughout his hockey journey.
“We’re in the spotlight a lot, being pro athletes and getting a lot of attention,” Hanifin says. “But they’re the ones who put their lives on the line and allow us to do what we do for a living. They do that without tons of credit.”
The Canes aren’t done yet. Last year, the KNCF made its first cash contribution to the USO, a $10,000 donation after years of in-kind donations and recognitions at PNC Arena. Warf says that the team is making plans to expand the True Defenders program, allowing fans a chance to express their appreciation by making care packs, creating appreciation notes and videos, and shipping Hurricanes promotional items like flags and T-shirts to members of the military stationed overseas.
More ideas are forthcoming, especially - and appropriately, on Veterans Day - surrounding those who have completed their honorable service to the nation. As the Canes welcome members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars North Carolina and their families to tomorrow’s game against the Capitals, the first of the eight-game True Defenders series this season, Hanifin doesn’t hide his admiration.
“They’re the real heroes,” he says. “It’s pretty humbling. I’m lucky to be able to do what I’m doing.”