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20 June 2006 @ 08:53 am
One hockey fan's odyssey  
I already posted this on Randomville, where many of you have already seen it. But, in the interests of completeness, it needs to go into my journal, too.

Nine years ago, when hockey came to my town, I was torn. On one hand, one of my favorite sports had come to Raleigh. And it was the first highest-level pro franchise that we had.

But on the other hand, the team would be spending its first two seasons in Greensboro, 75 miles to the west, as they waited for the arena in Raleigh to be built. I was just out of college, and couldn't really afford the tickets. And, of all the teams to move to North Carolina, we had to get the Hartford Whalers for cryin' out loud. The biggest joke of the NHL.

A new name, new team colors, and a new identity beckoned. Attendance was, to be kind, abysmal. The arena put up curtains in the upper deck of the Greensboro Coliseum to close off thousands of seats and make the arena look smaller (it didn't help). Sports Illustrated ran a story titled "Natural Disaster" and called the franchise the worst in sports. ESPN simply couldn't let go of the fact that the team that had been in they backyard was no more, calling the team the "WhalerCanes" when they were feeling charitable and "the former Hartford Whalers" when they weren't. The play on the ice wasn't bad...they had finished just outside the playoffs their last season in Connecticut and did similarly the first season in Greensboro.

In '98-'99, things got better. I got a full-time job, and could afford to go to more games (helped out by a 2-for-1 ticket deal from Subway restaurants). They instituted a round-trip bus promotion with a stop not far from my apartment, making the trip to Greensboro that much more bearable (and increasing beer-drinking time). I got a Canes jersey as a Christmas present - the same jersey I'm wearing as I type this. And then, miracle of miracles, the team won the Southeast Division and made the playoffs - and I got tickets to Game 2: my first NHL playoff game. They were in the back row of the lower bowl, but when the game went to overtime and the staff had to scramble for intermission entertainment, my seat right by the concourse meant that I was the first person asked to go onto the ice for the bicycle race. I finished last, not helped by the fact that I was three sheets to the wind.

In the fall of 1999, the arena in Raleigh was ready, and the Canes were finally home. No playoffs that year - the team was hurt by a change in the NHL rules that awarded a point for a game lost in overtime, and we missed out by two points to a team with more losses than us. The next season, we scraped into the playoffs - and, having moved to another job and earning a decent salary, I became a season ticket holder for the first time. We lost to the New Jersey Devils, some might say through nefarious means, and a rivalry was born.

In 2001-02, the Canes got off to a hot start and won the Southeast Division for the second team. First on the docket was the No. 6 seed - none other than the New Jersey Devils. After a rough start and a goalie change, the Canes exorcised their old nemisis in six games. Then, something miraculous happened - both the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds lost their playoff series, meaning the Canes had home ice advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs by virtue of being the highest seed left. The Montreal Canadiens were next on the docket - and things looked grim in Game 4 as the team was down by three goals at the second intermission and down 2-1 in the series. The Habs needed only twenty minutes of decent play to take a commanding 3-1 lead, but somehow, some way the Canes managed to force overtime and then win, in a game that was quickly dubbed "The Miracle at Molson." Deflated, Montreal lost the next two games, and the series, and after brushing aside the Toronto Maple Leafs (also in six) the Hurricanes were, improbably, in the Stanley Cup Finals.

The problem was, they had to face the Detroit Red Wings, a team that could put five future Hall-of-Famers on the ice at the same time if they wanted to. Still, that didn't stop the Canes from shocking the Detroit crowd in Game 1, even if we did lose the next four (including a deflating Game 3 loss - the first Stanley Cup game at the newly-renamed RBC Center - that lasted three overtime periods - and I was there until the end).

Needless to say, confidence was high going into the 2002-03 season. That didn't last long. The Canes claimed the ignominious distinction of becoming the first team to go from the Stanley Cup Finals to dead last in the league since league expansion in 1967. The 03-04 season wasn't much better.

And then the league went dark.

The lockout, although it deprived me of my beloved hockey and the Canes for an entire season, turned out to be a godsend. Not only did the economic structure of the league change, with a salary cap keeping the big teams from fielding star-studded lineups like the Red Wings did in 2002, allowing for talent to be more evenly distributed, but the on-ice philosophy did as well. Gone was the defensive, slow-down, clutching-and-grabbing style of play pioneered by teams like the Devils. In was a greater emphasis on enforcing the rules, including holding and interference penalties. The game became like it had been in the '80s - where speed, puck handling, and flowing offense were rewarded. Games moved fast and were high scoring, and the Canes, behind Head Coach Peter Laviolette, were leading the way.

For a while the team had the best record in the NHL. When the dust settled, they finished second in the Eastern Conference and third overall, behind Detroit and Ottawa. But when the playoffs arrived, there was great optimism, as it was thought that the Canes had just as could a chance as anyone of lifting the Stanley Cup.

Too bad someone forgot to tell the Montreal Canadiens.

Game 1 was, to put it simply, a disaster. What else can you call a 6-1 playoff loss at home? Game 2 wasn't much better, with the Canes down 3-0 before the fans had settled into their seats. At that point, Coach Laviolette made a fateful decision, pulling Martin Gerber, the goalie who had an outstanding regular season and set a franchise record for wins, and inserting rookie goalie Cam Ward. He served to settle things down, and the Canes actually battled back to take the lead before eventually falling in overtime, 6-5. Although the team was down 0-2, I actually felt somewhat better than I did at the start of the evening. The Canes had showed some heart, and they went on to win four straight, clinching the series back at the same building where the Miracle of Molson occured, and setting up a second round series with, you guessed it, the New Jersey Devils.

Meanwhile, out west, the Detroit Red Wings fell to earth with a thud, dropped by the No. 8 seeded Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers then went on to beat the San Jose Sharks in six games, while the Canes won the first three against the Devils. Despite an embarassing shellacking on the road in Game 4 (in a game on national TV where Ward was pulled in favor of Gerber), the Canes regrouped, behind Cam Ward, and beat New Jersey in Game 5 for the first series-winning victory at home in franchise history.

The Eastern Conference Final against the Buffalo Sabres was a war. For the first time in the playoffs, we were playing a team that had the same gameplan as we did (perhaps that's why we were the last two teams standing in the East). The Sabres had knocked off Ottawa in convincing fashion, and were ready to do the business against us. To make matters worse, the Sabres fans, many of whom drove down here for the weekend games because they couldn't get tickets up there, were loud, obnoxious boors. Reports of fistfights and bloody faces were plentiful. In many ways, this series was fated to go the full seven games, which it did. Somehow, the Canes survived, after two more goalie changes (Gerber for Ward in Game 3 in Buffalo, Ward for Gerber in Game 5 at the RBC). It was truly the 4-3 series...not only was that the score of the series, but it was the score of three of the seven games! (Another two were also one-goal victories).

So that brings us to the Stanley Cup Finals, against those Edmonton Oilers, who put away the Anaheim Ducks in five game to win the West. Game 1 - amazing. Down 3-0 late in the second period, the Canes came back to win 5-4. Game 2 - incredible. A 5-0 destruction of the Oilers, and dreams of the Cup begin to formulate in everyone's head. The was potential disaster looming on the horizon, though. Game 5, should it be needed, was scheduled for Raleigh on June 14 - the same day as the D.C. United exhibition match that we were putting on. I might have to miss the Stanley Cup-winning game by the Canes because I had to work!

Sure enough, the teams split the two games up in Edmonton, which meant there would be a Game 5, and the Canes would have a 3-1 series lead going into it. I must admit, a very large part of me didn't want the Canes to win that night. To have supported the team for nine years - though all the jokes, the incredibly lean times, the countless questions asked to me by new fans because I seemed to know what was going on with the game - well, it seemed to me to be quite a bit unfair that I would have to miss out on the franchise's greatest moment. Thankfully, the Oilers (and Cory Stillman) saved the day, with Fernando Pisani becoming the first person in Stanley Cup history to score an overtime short-handed goal, and the series would live to see a sixth game.

Unfortunately, in Game 6, the Canes laid an absolute egg. A 4-0 loss, and a performance that could charitably be described as lackluster. No heart, no effort, no hustle. Key players largely anonymous for the entire game. Not even the return of Erik Cole, back after missing 45 games with fractured vertebrae after a cheap shot by the Penguins' Brooks Orpik, could lift this team.

Which begins us to Game 7.


I think they did alright.

So as I sit here, alternating between playing Brass Bonanza and Rock You Like a Hurricane on my iTunes, I can't help but think of all the Hurricanes players of the past and present:

Arturs Irbe, the diminutive Latvian goalie who became the team's first true folk hero in that 2002 season.

Cam Ward, the rookie goaltender who took over this season with the team's playoff hopes against the wall and ended up winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Kevyn Adams, the Miami grad who I was so excited to have traded to the team, and then who I had to wait two years before I got to see him score a goal at home.

Steve Chaisson, the former defenceman who died in an automobile accident the night after the final playoff defeat to Boston in 1999.

Martin Gerber, who broke Irbe's franchise record for wins in a season, but ended up spending most of the playoffs on the bench.

Bates Battaglia, a fan favortie, but someone who I always thought to be overrated and a bit of a pretty boy. He played for the Maple Leafs' farm team last season and now owns a bar in downtown Raleigh.

Eric Cole, who broke his neck and still came back to play. That's hardcore. Plus, when he was injured, he had already set personal bests for goals and points in a season. I'm glad he got to play in the Stanley Cup, if only for two of the games.

Ray Whitney, who the team signed in the off-season when a deal for Paul Kariya fell through. After allowing myself to think about all the goals that Kariya would score in a Canes sweater, signing Whitney was a bit of a letdown. But I wouldn't trade him for ten Paul Kariyas now.

Sandis Ozolinsh, the first marquee player brought in by the team after the move to Raleigh. An All-Star with the Colorado Avalanche, the offensive-minded defenceman didn't really fit in well with the Hurricanes system under former coach Paul Maurice, and had a nasty habit of putting the puck in his own net seemingly more often than he did the opponent's.

Frantisek Kaberle, the defenceman signed from Atlanta in the postseason for the year that never was, 2004-05. Best known for being related to younger brother Tomas Kaberle of the Maple Leafs, Frank (as he is known around these parts) ended up scoring what turned out to be the Stanley Cup-winning goal tonight.

Peter Laviolette, the head coach who was unjustily fired by the Islanders, then set about adapting to the rules of the "new" NHL and building a team that could compete immediately. Long Island's loss is the Research Triangle's gain.

Glen Wesley, who used to hold the record for most career playoff games without winning the Stanley Cup. Until tonight.

Ron Francis, the best player in franchise history, bar none. The former captain of both the Whalers and the Canes. A sure-fire Hall of Famer, he retired before this season, and the team retired his No. 10 jersey in January. His nickname, Ronnie Franchise, says it all. You can be damn sure he was there tonight.

Eric Stall, who may someday surpass Francis's records if he keeps this up. The best part of that dreadful 2002-03 season is that we were able to draft him with the No. 2 overall pick.

And finally, the captain, Rod Brind'Amour. Acquired in a trade for the want-away Keith Primeau, Brindy quickly established himself as a fan favorite. His leadership and work ethic made him a stalwart. Nobody works harder in the NHL than Rod Brind'Amour. Guaranteed. To see him lift that Cup, the culmination of all the hard work he's done in his 35 years, well, the look on his face tells me that he thinks it's all been worth it.

Carolina Hurricanes, Stanley Cup Champions. It still doesn't seem like it's really true.
Virginiava_vacious on June 22nd, 2006 01:25 am (UTC)
It's all because of you the series went to seven games! I couldn't even watch- didn't want to jinx anything!
Not Frank Lampardjonathan8 on June 22nd, 2006 07:56 pm (UTC)
Heh! I'd be more likely to put the blame on Fernando Pisani. Or possibly Bret Hedican?