If there were any reserved doubts left in the NHL about Carolina as a hockey market, they were obliterated Saturday night as Raleighwood proved that it was indeed ready for the bright lights.
“I’ve been here 23 years,” said head coach Rod Brind’Amour. “There’s zero chance you’d have said when I got here that we could pull something like this off. It’s been a lot of hard work for a ton of people and a testament to the support of the fans that we have here to be able to do this. We’ve come a long way as a hockey market, and I’m pretty proud of that.”
Starting as early as 9 in the morning, fans were lining up in their cars, excitedly anticipating one of the biggest hockey events the state has seen.
The fact that gates didn’t open until 2 in the afternoon barely deterred the Carolina faithful who lined up regardless, throwing their vehicles in park and setting up the tailgates right where they were at as they awaited the opening of the lots.
So in true Carolina fashion, the fans tailgated for the tailgate.
“I think since I’ve been here, it’s been growing and growing and growing over the past five years,” said Jordan Martinook. “Just seeing it culminate to this, a stadium game, and to see it packed. Hockey’s alive and well here. When you’ve got a good product on the ice like we do it makes the fans want to come watch us.”
Even when the gates opened at 2pm, traffic in and around Carter-Finley Stadium continued to flow in, never really letting up even as game time approached. The thousands and thousands of fans, who had made this game the fastest selling outdoor event in NHL history, showed up in force and flooded the property.
Each team was greeted upon their arrival to the venue by waves of fans barely held back by metal fencing and security.
The Canes adorned in old-timey golf attire – the brainchild of Stefan Noesen – and the Caps dressed in their custom varsity lettermans, and for both teams, the fans went absolutely ballistic.
“It was unreal,” said Jalen Chatfeld. “Honestly. Probably better than I thought it was going to be. It didn’t really hit me until we pulled up to the arena and just so many people were here really early and when we walked to the stadium, all the fans were out there. It was probably one of the funnest games I’ve ever played.”
As puck drop approached, the crowd – all 56,961 strong – found their seats and settled in for a treat of a hockey game under the vibrant lights of NC State’s football stadium.
It didn’t take long for the Hurricanes to get on the board as Jesperi Kotkaniemi redirected a Teuvo Teravainen pass on net, past Capitals netminder Darcy Kuemper, just 2:11 into the contest and the place was rocking.
“You see it go in and there’s a bit of a delayed reaction,” Brind’Amour said. “It’s not as loud as PNC Arena. Like PNC Arena, the place feels like it’s going to blow up. But it’s just a different roar and again, it was so exciting for me just because it was different. It was something that I haven’t experienced before. I don’t know how it could be better.”
The atmosphere in the stadium was electric. From all the anticipation that had built up around the event to the ‘Power Sound of the South’ blasting Rock You Like a Hurricane, the old NHL on ESPN theme and more fight songs, the atmosphere was set for the raucous, beer-fueled crowds in what truly had that college gameday vibe.
“I really felt the energy from the fans and just didn’t feel tired at all out there,” said Martin Necas.
The Canes gave the crowd plenty to cheer for, as by the end of the second period, the Hurricanes were up 4-0 over the Capitals and the writing was on the wall. Necas led the way with a goal and two assists and both Teuvo Teravainen and Jesperi Kotkaniemi finished with a goal and an assist.
Although the game is ultimately the focus, the real story from the event was just what it meant for hockey in the state of North Carolina.
A decade earlier, an event like this would be unfeasible to even consider and now it’s actually happened and the sellout crowd showed just what a tremendous success it was.
“We talked before the game that we had a chance to create an awesome memory and we did,” said Sebastian Aho. “For us players, for the organization, for the fanbase, for the whole city. It’s awesome. This fanbase and city, they definitely deserve this. They’ve been incredible for a long time. It’s awesome to give a little bit back.”
The Stadium Series wasn’t just a chance for the Hurricanes to show that they’re a good hockey team. It was a chance to show that the area is a ravenous hockey market that’s grown with the team and organization.
“I’ve been saying this for a long time, but it’s a special community and a special relationship between the players and the people that support this team,” Brind’Amour said. “Hopefully other people got to see that tonight.”
The NHL has been put on notice. North Carolina is a hockey state. If you put on an event here, they will come and come out in force.
Raleigh isn’t scared of the bright lights.