RALEIGH — Every year in 30 NHL locker rooms, exit interviews and media availabilities center around what went wrong. How a team came up short. Missed opportunities that every player in the locker room will think about during a summer that is longer than they hoped it would be.
While that disappointing feeling was present during Monday’s exit interviews for the Carolina Hurricanes, the sense of pride and optimism was overwhelming for a team that built a culture from the ground up and changed the future of hockey in Raleigh over the course of one season.
“It came from everybody,” captain Justin Williams said about the culture that his team created. “It starts at the owner, to the general manager, to the coach, to the strength coach, to the captain, to the assistant captain. If anyone’s off-road, then that’s where players can go awry. Everything was in sync this year, and that’s how you develop a culture. That’s how you develop care.”
Going down the line, that was the moral of every player’s story of how this season and this culture came to be.
Some of those guys haven’t been through what others have with regards to sticking it out through the truly horrible years. Dougie Hamilton is one of the new guys, a guy who was brought in over the offseason to be part of the solution.
In Hamilton’s case, he came to Raleigh with some baggage. Deserved or not, that’s what happened. He arrived as a total stranger who had been dragged by the media on his way out of two big hockey markets for not having a typical hockey personality. He didn’t know what to think or what to expect. He didn’t know anyone on the team.
Less than a year later, things have changed dramatically. While he isn’t a typical hockey player, Raleigh isn’t a typical hockey market. And this peculiar place embraced him with open arms.
“Just looking back on how we came together as a team with so many new people, and me being a new guy and not knowing anybody. To now, looking forward to next year and seeing your friends and staff and seeing everybody, I think that’s really exciting for me,” Hamilton said on Monday. “Just how we came together as a team, doing the storm surges and interacting with the fans. I think it’s cool to see, now, how much we get recognized in public and how many people are fans now and watched all the games. I think that’s pretty cool how we made it exciting to be a Cane and watch Canes games in Raleigh, so I was happy to be a part of that.”
Hearing those words from someone who knew little to nothing about Raleigh or about the Hurricanes last July is a pretty big statement to what this year’s team was. Even the guys who weren’t here through the bad times know how special this team is and how special this fan base is. They take pride in knowing that they were a part of what made things right.
Then there are guys like Justin Faulk. Outside of Rod Brind’Amour, no one in that locker room experienced the hardships of the past decade more so than Faulk, who had been the subject of a lot of criticism over the years and seemingly endless trade speculation.
For him, this season was very personal and the success that the team had was a huge source of pride.
“I think the way we were able to bring some life back into this place,” Faulk said of what he was most proud of this year. “You guys (the media) have been here, I’ve been here through it all. A lot of these guys haven’t been. It was pretty rough for a while there, I think. You had a group of fans who stuck through it 100%, and you appreciate that. There were some that lost a little bit of interest, and you can’t blame them. We didn’t give them anything to be excited about. We didn’t have a product for them to even want to watch. To bring that life back for them and come back to games and get excited and have fun. I mean, my family is tailgating and stuff. Now they know. They got to see what it’s all about. It’s just nice to give them a good product to be excited about.”
Part of being a leader is accepting ownership of your failings. Justin Faulk has done that every step of the way, and while last year’s co-captaincy experience was nothing short of a colossal failure, it doesn’t change the fact that the 27-year-old d-man is a leader for this Hurricanes team.
It’s the leadership from him and many others that helped form this new culture. They bought into Rod Brind’Amour’s message. They helped turn a team into a family.
Brett Pesce, now a veteran of four NHL seasons all with the Hurricanes, is a vital piece of this team’s future. He went into detail when describing just what it means to be more than just a group of athletes, what it means to be a real family.
“When guys were down, we’d pick each other up,” Brett Pesce said. “Just how much we cared about each other was pretty amazing. I was talking to a few guys last night, and it was just a special team. I’ve never been a part of anything like that. It was cool, it was exciting, but there’s definitely more to give.
“We were such a close team,” Pesce continued. “Even in the playoffs, we’d always have a lounge in the hotel. It was literally the whole team in there most of the time just messing around and playing cards or whatever. It’s just so important. You’re not going to find that on a stat sheet, but you just learn to know the people better and you care about them and you want to win for them and do it together. In years past, we had close teams, but nothing like this. It does go such a long way. I remember Roddy and Willy saying that you have to care about each other and you have to be a family. I think we did that and never stopped believing in each other.”
That mindset led to some serious on-ice success. The Hurricanes finished the regular season as one of the hottest teams in the league and carried that momentum to eight wins in their first 11 playoff games before their unceremonious sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final.
Now, the focus is on what this team can do to get better and improve on what the 2018-19 season was. Obviously, nothing in this league is guaranteed, though. Just because the Canes made it to the Conference Final this season doesn’t mean they’ll be back there again next year, but the foundation that has been put down is one that exudes confidence and optimism.
“It’s a place where I want to play,” Teuvo Teravainen (who signed a five-year contract extension in February) said. “I want to be here to build this team to be a Stanley Cup team again. I think we have a lot of good pieces here that we can build on. Really, it feels like it’s becoming a place where people are starting to want to come.”
“I think the future for this team is really bright, and I’m excited to be a part of it,” said Trevor van Riemsdyk, who gave his body up for the cause and will be rehabbing his shoulder over summer.
“This young core is going to be good for a really long time, so it’s exciting to see and try to add more pieces to make the team better and create that culture that we started and the work ethic that has driven this team to where we are,” one of the most influential leaders in the locker room, Jordan Staal, said. “It’s just a lot of fun. It’s a good time in Raleigh and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
You get the point. The optimism and pride in the Carolina locker room on Monday was fresh. And it was real. It felt so different than in years past where there was just “hope” for better days ahead. Better days have come, and that’s something to be supremely proud of.
With those better days come higher expectations, though, and while spirits are high, an Eastern Conference Final appearance isn’t the end goal. They want more. They expect more.
Brett Pesce put it pretty succinctly:
“None of us are satisfied, that’s for sure.”