Back in my early 20’s, before North Carolina ever had dreams of hosting a hockey franchise, a co-worker tried to convince me that hockey was the best sport on the planet. His sales pitch: hockey has the physicality of football, the speed and continuous, free-flowing action of basketball, and the “every goal is life or death” drama of soccer. He wasn’t wrong, then or now. But this isn’t “the planet”. This is North Carolina. And we do sports differently here.
When the franchise moved from Hartford to Raleigh by way of Greensboro, it was a tough sell to get North Carolinians to latch on. “You’ll know when you go” was the tagline for ticket sales, which roughly translates to “look, we know you don’t know a thing about hockey but just trust us when we say it’s fun.” Again, they weren’t wrong. But again, this is North Carolina. We aren’t necessarily operating in a deficit for exciting sports between November and March.
We started getting a taste of it in 2001, the first playoff season in Raleigh after the 1999 playoffs in Greensboro sort of came and went unnoticed. New Jersey jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first round matchup, but a Game 4 overtime goal by (who else?) Rod Brind’Amour gave North Carolinians their first crack at celebrating a truly meaningful goal. It was a moment. The kind of moments you chase, as the phrase goes that now head coach Rod Brind’Amour likes to borrow from another area coach down the road in Durham. The moments that stick out among the thousands of other moments you experience as time goes by, and this was our first.
The Canes won in New Jersey and brought one more game back to the home fans in Carolina. We didn’t win that game, if you don’t remember. We weren’t even close. But, nevertheless, something amazing happened that day when the entire crowd stood and cheered as loud as they could for the final 5 minutes. It started out as a swell of appreciative applause for the effort. The kind of applause that typically fades into an impatient murmur waiting for the game to mercifully end. But instead, it grew louder. No one was sitting. And by the time the final horn sounded ending the season with a 5-1 blowout loss, the cheers were deafening.
Maybe it’s a stretch to feel this way, but for me, the franchise was defined over those 5 minutes. North Carolinians don’t love sports just for the appreciation of athleticism or skill. We don’t just love sports for the rush of winning and the hurt of losing. We’re not in awe of superstars. We’re not in it for validation. We don’t need to feel superior. Yeah, we like all of those things to varying degrees, but that’s not why we’re there. We’re addicted to moments. We crave them to the point of needing them to survive. And being the Southerners (raised or transplanted) we are, these moments serve as the bond that transforms our community into an extended family where third and fourth cousins are welcomed and loved just as much as brothers and sisters. I don’t think that five minutes of applause was a simple thank you to the players on the ice for refusing to lay down. That five minutes gave us the sound of a family being born. And I think that sound forged the coach who leads us today.
Not to yada-yada over a championship, a finals appearance, and another appearance in a conference finals, but none of that is relevant right now. Neither is the decade where our hockey family was nearly starved to death of those moments that sustain us. This isn’t a “return to glory” story, and it’s not a redemption story. We’re all here now. There will be a time in the near future to look back and blend this moment into the larger story of our family’s history, but thanks to a Carolina Hurricanes double-overtime win in Game 7 against the defending champions, that time is not now. There are more moments out there waiting for us.
It would be easy to say something cheesy like “we love this team because we see ourselves in them”, but the truth about where this franchise is right now is that we love this team because they see themselves in us. This team gets North Carolinians. They understand what drives us as fans like no other Hurricanes team ever has before, which isn’t surprising because the team is run by Hurricanes fans.
Yeah, it might be frightening as hell to see the way Tom Dundon conducts business elsewhere, but we have to trust because that’s what we do, and he’s shown nothing but servant leadership with us since taking over the team. After being told for years what we, as fans, need to do for the Hurricanes, Dundon came in asking “what can we do for you?”, and he’s delivered on almost nearly every request so far.
Rod Brind’Amour is perhaps the biggest Hurricanes fan of all. When the head coaching job became vacant after Bill Peters left for Calgary, Brind’Amour was not shy about telling people he wanted the job. It was never “I want to be an NHL head coach”, but always “I want to coach the Carolina Hurricanes.” His father-in-law is an NC State basketball legend. He spends his free time sitting in the bleachers with other youth hockey parents watching his kid practice. He might be from Canada. He might be a Philly sports icon. But Rod Brind’Amour is a North Carolinian. He’s one of us.
Our leader, Justin Williams, is one of us too. He’ll never say it, but there’s enough “between the lines” out there to see that he came back to Carolina to finish out his career in the community best suited for his young family, but was disgusted by what he saw when he returned. Williams’ comments from the locker room last year mirrored every angry tweet from Canes fans for as long as Twitter has been around, and his actions ever since has shown a true understanding of not just what it takes to be a successful hockey team, but an understanding of what it takes to be North Carolina’s hockey team.
The most obvious embodiment of that understanding is the infamous “storm surge”. Outsiders view it as everything from a disrespectful slap in the face to a forced marketing ploy straight out of the Flint Tropics playbook. Inside the Hurricanes’ community, it’s not just a reminder that sports are fun and enjoyment is the key to success, but it’s also the behind-the-scenes act of sharing ideas and planning out the elaborate celebrations that brings the team together as a family.
The sense of togetherness and collective ownership that comes from simply saying “yeah let’s do that” when someone throws out the crazy idea of “hey what if we brought out a basketball goal” … it’s an incredibly powerful thing. And to see those ideas snowball … “I’m going to set a ball screen”, “I’m going to slap the floor on defense”, “I’m going to wave my towel like I’m on the bench”, “I’m going to do the Vince Carter ‘it’s over’ celebration” … it’s exactly how our family traditions have grown as fans. “What if we went early and tailgated?” “I’m going to yell like Ric Flair.”
This group understands the joy of moments and the power of acceptance within a community, and you can see it on the faces of the new guys who all constantly look like they never thought it could be like this as professional hockey players. There are the young guys who came through the draft and through Charlotte who are perfectly at home in the only reality they are aware of. There’s the look of pride on the faces of Brind’Amour and Williams who are seeing again the Carolina they both fell in love with all those years ago.
It’s not just hockey either. It’s Jordan Martinook shooting selfie videos from a sports bar because he just had to be around Hurricanes fans after Game 6. It’s Dougie Hamilton and Warren Foegele sitting together through an ACC basketball game with perma-grins on their faces from the experience. It’s Brock McGinn surprising a youth hockey team at practice to talk to kids about what it takes to make the NHL, but sticking around to ask the kids for Fortnite advice.
These guys just get us. They get what makes North Carolinians tick. Martinook said before last night that he wanted nothing more than to play more hockey back home in Raleigh. My text messages were blowing up last night immediately after the game, not so much about the win, but just excited to make plans to watch more games together next week. Yes, there’s a Cup at the end of this road that everyone dreams of winning, but you’ll never convince me that the reason we beat the Capitals wasn’t largely in part because nobody wants this special season to end just yet.
Brock McGinn saw the road ending last night, and he dove across the crease in the knick of time to make sure it didn’t. Maybe it’s a play that gets made in the first period of a regular season game, but it sure had the look of a play that only gets made in the closing seconds of a Game 7. It wasn’t just a moment, it was a moment that made many moments ahead of us possible.
When asked about it after the game, he said “Any one of us would have done the same thing.” Brind’Amour’s explanation of McGinn’s desperation to make a play to give us all a chance to see more hockey this year was a little more brief and to the point. “He’s a Hurricane.”
You’re Goddamn right he is. They all are.
WE all are.
It doesn’t matter if you were in Greensboro way back in history for the Bruins series, or if you decided to check out this hockey thing for the first time last night on TV. It doesn’t matter if you were born here, or moved here. You’re here now.
And while “You’ll know if you go” used to be a marketing slogan for North Carolinians about this strange, wonderful game played on ice, it’s now a message delivered back home by northerners, mid-westerners, Canadians, Fins, a Czech, a Swede, a Swiss, and a Russian teenager about the bond they have with their new family here in North Carolina.
In 1999 and 2001, it was about introducing us to the sport of hockey. In 2002, 2006, and 2009, it was about introducing ourselves to the hockey community to show that we belonged.
It’s 2019 now, and frankly we don’t care if we belong or not. We have our own community, our own family now. We’re North Carolinians cheering for a team of North Carolinians. It’s even in our goal song. “This one’s for us.”
It’s going to be so much fun to look back on the moments from this season together when this is all over. But it’s not over. More moments await.
See you next Wednesday at PNC.