It seems like such a low bar when you say it out loud, or type it in this case. Our sports world here in the Triangle is divided into two factions … the “haves” and the “don’t you dare ever admit you’re one of the have nots.” You’d never hear Mack Brown talking about trying to get to four wins, or Kevin Keatts setting goals for an NIT Final Four. Even David Cutcliffe took over the Duke football program talking about competing for championships. We love our championship-level teams here on Tobacco Road. And if you’re not good enough to win one, you better be damn good at pretending like you are.
It’s amazing that Rod Brind’Amour went entirely unchecked a year ago when “relevance” was the battle cry. Maybe it was because you won’t find anyone anywhere who would ever question Brind’Amour’s competitive spirit. More realistically, it’s because the Canes indeed lacked the relevance needed to make fans angry about a statement like that.
For me, that’s what makes Brind’Amour a special leader. He’s not going to tell you what you want to hear. He’s too honest for that. Just a few short months ago, the Canes were playing in the Eastern Conference Finals in front of sellout crowds. Fans packed Carolina Ale House and the streets below to yell and cheer and scream at giant televisions when the team was on the road. It would be easy to look at that word, “relevance”, and cross it off of the to-do list. We made it. We are a hockey town again.
Brind’Amour’s too smart and too genuine to fall for that.
This isn’t a video game where you reach a certain level and the game restarts from that spot whenever your character dies. The Canes won’t take the ice on Thursday night and be the same team that was one of the best in hockey for the 2nd half of last season. They won’t automatically jump to the top of the standings, trying to fight off one or two other teams for a spot in the post-season. The seats may be filled, but the magic in the air won’t come close to the 2019 Playoffs. Brind’Amour and company, fans included, have to start all over from the beginning at level 1 with nothing in the bank. But the achievement has been unlocked. And the experience should make it easier.
There are 82 games ahead of us. Over 6 months of hockey await. For a fanbase that (mostly) fell in love with this team over a span of 15 games a season ago, that’s an eternity. There will be lulls in interest. There will be conflicts with ACC basketball and bowl games. There will be dips in attendance that will infuriate the hardcore fans and delight the Canadian media desperate to see hockey in North Carolina fail.
There’s a new captain. Two new alternate captains. Two new forwards. Two new defensemen. A new goalie. And the opening night roster won’t come close to looking like the roster that the Canes will hopefully take into the post-season. A year ago the two big pieces of news in advance of the opener were Scott Darling being put on injured reserve and Victor Rask being put on the injured non-roster list. An eternity later, Petr Mrazek was a playoff superstar and Nino Niederreiter was pacing the Canes towards a Wild Card berth.
Much has changed since last season, and much will change during the course of this one. While “relevance” is still the center of the dart board in Brind’Amour’s office this year, it’s no longer a concept we have to imagine. We’ve seen it. We’ve felt it. It’s familiar to us. And that makes it more attainable again this season. And the season after. And the one after that. That’s where true relevance happens … it’s when relevance becomes an unacceptable goal.
For now, it’s good enough for us – the fans. What’s clear is that it’s not good enough for Brind’Amour. “Grit” and “Grind” were the team names last year at training camp. Two base-level characteristics needed to begin to chip away at the impossible. This year, “Pride” and “Passion” were the team names. Pride points to the willingness to protect something that’s already exists. Passion is more about what it takes to keep moving forward.
There will be a tremendous temptation for fans, and players, to re-experience what happened last season. But that’s not changing. It’s forever there. It can’t go away and it can’t happen again. It’s what’s next that makes this season exciting.
Relevance is still the buzzword for now, but it won’t be the bar for much longer. Again, we love our championship teams, both real and perceived. And Rod Brind’Amour sure as hell isn’t good at pretending.