The Carolina Hurricanes were awarded an outdoor game over the weekend. You may have heard about it. And as soon as the news started to spread across social media on Saturday morning, speculation instantly began on the identity of the opponent for the Stadium Series game.
For a while, it was seemingly a slam dunk to be the Washington Capitals. It just made sense: the closest geographical rival to the Hurricanes, the recent history of a playoff upset, a true rivalry in every sense of the word, the protestations of a vocal minority of Caps fans notwithstanding.
And then Samantha Pell and Tarik El-Bashir, two well-connected Caps reporters, tweeted nearly simultaneously Saturday afternoon that the Caps would not be the opponent. An existential dread descended upon Hurricanes fans as they realized that meant it was likely the opponent was going to be the one team whose fans take over PNC Arena like none other.
Suddenly, it seemed likely that the Hurricanes would become the first team in NHL history to be awarded an outdoor game in which their own fans would be the minority.
Every national reporter, almost at once, seemingly tweeted some variation on “hmm, the Pittsburgh Penguins sure make sense! Somewhat nearby, lots of fans, built-in storylines, a GM who worked for both teams...I’m not saying, but I’m just saying! Who says no?”
Me. I say no. Please, NHL, for the love of everything that’s holy, please pick literally any other team as the opponent.
Yes, the Penguins are nearby, but almost half the league is within a day’s drive of Raleigh. More to the point, a good number of those Penguins fans who show up when they visit PNC Arena already live in the Triangle. I mean, have you ever been to Sammy’s for a Steelers game? The place is packed to the hilt.
Many of those fans are themselves Hurricanes season-ticket members. It’s a Trojan horse. You can’t restrict ticket sales to specific zip codes, because Penguins fans in those zip codes - and there are plenty - are going to snap them up quicker than you can spell Guentzel.
And I know of plenty of Hurricanes STMs who want nothing to do with Penguins games. Who can blame them? The cheers when Wade Minter announces the opponent tend to be louder at those games than when he announces the home team. So they dump their tickets on the secondary market, where they’re snapped up by - you guessed it - Penguins fans.
To be fair, this isn’t exclusive to the Penguins. Rangers and Bruins fans, and to a lesser extent Sabres fans, do the same thing. But it’s most noticeable when Pittsburgh comes to Raleigh, and while longtime fans either suck it up and deal with it or get out of town during Penguins games at PNC, this is a showpiece event, probably the first time since the 2006 Stanley Cup Final that the eyes of the league will be on the Hurricanes. What is it going to say about hockey fans in the Triangle when two-thirds of the crowd at Carter-Finley Stadium is wearing black and gold?
As I said to The Athletic’s Devils reporter Corey Masisak, a former Caps beat reporter who knows well how this market’s fans turn out for big events, this is a Hurricanes home game that happens to be played outside. It’s not a Winter Classic which, although it has assigned home and road teams, functions more like a neutral-site game. Hurricanes fans should get to fill up Carter-Finley without being overrun by fans of the opposing team.
Yes, the NHL has good reason to make sure that the opposing team is represented at an outdoor game. One needs only look as far as this year’s Winter Classic, when a large contingent of Predators fans went to Dallas and had a blast. That’s not the issue here. No one is going to complain if there are thousands of fans of any other team - even if it’s the Penguins. If the crowd is 75/25 in favor of the Hurricanes, we’re fine.
But we have plenty of evidence that a Penguins game will not be 75/25 in favor of the Hurricanes, and that’s reason enough to look elsewhere.
When asked about how hard Tom Dundon pushed for this event on a conference call Saturday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called him “relentless,” and said that Dundon wanted to “do this for the community, do this for the fans.” Well, there’s one way to guarantee that you’re doing it for the community: invite literally any other team to serve as the opponent.
This area turns out for big events. It always has, going back to the 1987 U.S. Olympic Festival, and through to the 1999 Special Olympics World Games, the 2011 NHL All-Star Game, countless NCAA championships, and plenty of others. Hurricanes fans will fill Carter-Finley and don’t need help from any other team to do so.
The Lightning? Fine. The Predators? Yes, please, even if they’re probably not an option thanks to the aforementioned Winter Classic. A circling back to the Caps? No one would complain.
Please - please - not the Penguins.