Thursday, February 3, 2011

How Raleigh became a hockey market, and how the Carolina Hurricanes set the new bar for NHL ASG weekends

2011 All-Star Game opening ceremony, Raleigh, NC
photo used courtesy of Jamie Kellner on Flickr

The hockey world landed in Raleigh last weekend, and hockey media across the league seemed to be surprised to find out that not only has the North Carolina capital become a hockey town, but a pretty enthusiastic one at that.

To anybody who's a sports fan and known anything about the Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) area, this shouldn't be a surprise at all.

The Hurricanes came to town in time for the 1997-98 season, when the team formerly known as the Hartford Whalers was moved by its owner, Peter Karmanos, to Raleigh. Nearly 15 years after the move, fans of the Whalers remain as fervent as ever, hoping to one day see a new NHL version of the Whale once again play in Hartford. The recent renaming of the Hartford Wolfpack to the Connecticut Whale was meant to appeal to those fans, but it's not quite the same.

Raleigh at the time could hardly be called a "hockey town", although it wasn't as alien a sports arrival as ice hockey was to cities like Tampa Bay, Miami or Phoenix. Raleigh was at the time already home to the IceCaps, a NJ Devils affiliated ECHL team which played in Dorton Arena on the NC state fairgrounds to a regularly-full building. Raleigh's booming population in the mid-1990s was almost 30% composed of people who had migrated from other parts of the country - notably, plenty of people from New England and the midwest: hockey markets.

The discussion in the mid-1990s was also whether or not Raleigh would be capable of supporting a major sports team - MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL. Charlotte was already home to the NBA's Hornets (who eventually moved to New Orleans); the NFL's Carolina Panthers, which had just launched in 1995, was also based in Charlotte. The Panthers had financed their stadium through Permanent Seat Licenses (PSLs), club seats and luxury boxes, leaving no tax burden for North Carolina citizens to shoulder, showing just how hungry Carolina was for major league sports.

The Triangle area is one of the great hotbeds of collegiate sports, being home to some of the top sports schools in the South: UNC Chapel Hill, Duke, NCSU. An hour's drive takes you to Wake Forest (Winston-Salem) - in all, four schools in the highly competitive Atlantic Conference Division I within an hour's drive of each other with 91 NCAA championships split between them. Basketball and football are huge in the Carolinas, and due to the lack of many pro sports teams being within short distances, collegiate sports are THE big thing in the area. In the early 90s, the only pro sports in the area was the A-league (now AAA) Durham Bulls, a baseball team, best known for the role it played in the 1988 film Bull Durham.

I moved to Raleigh in 1993. Coming from New England, I was utterly unprepared for the sports mania I would find in the city. Even people who didn't attend UNC or Duke or Wake Forest or NCSU pick their favorite schools. (My choice was UNC, because I had considered going to J-school at Chapel Hill.) A few months after moving there, a friend asked for a ride to an NCSU football game after work. I obliged, and was amazed at the scene when we pulled into the parking lot: wall-to-wall serious tailgating, across acres and acres of parking lot. I'd never witnessed anything like it; I still can't think of any other tailgating I've been to which could match what I saw, and occasionaly participated in, during nearly four years of living in Carolina.

Judging by the near-manic levels of enthusiasm locals have for their sports, it doesn't surprise me than Hurricane fans came to be known as "Caniacs". Tailgating isn't just a sports tradition here; it's part of a way of life.

With the local built-in football fanbase, the Panthers arrival was met with fervent enthusiasm before the team even had their own stadium to play in. There was more than a bit of disappointment that the Panthers choose to play in Charlottle, three hours away, instead of making a home somewhere in the Triangle area.

I moved back to Connecticut not too long before it was announced that the Hartford Whalers would be moving to Carolina. As a fan of the Whalers for some 17 years, it felt crushing. Sure, the Whalers were perennial underdogs, rarely making the playoffs and never being home to a player of epic star power like Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux. But the Hartford fan base was dedicated in a way that fans of clubs like the Chicago Cubs or the Toronto Maple Leafs can understand: even if they keep losing all the time, they were our losers. The team owner had promised to keep the team in Hartford through at least 1998, but moved the team early. It felt bizarre to see the team go; the fans were crushed, and the players shared their sorrow. Some Whalers fans shifted their fandom to the Hurricanes; others chose new teams to support, feeling betrayed by the owner moving their team across the country.

The Hurricanes had no arena in their home city when they first moved there. The IceCaps' Dorton Arena only sat 5,100 and was in no way going to handle NHL hockey. So while their new arena was built, the Canes played their first two new-home seasons at the Greensboro Coliseum, 90 minutes from Raleigh. During its tenure as the Hurricanes' arena, GC was the highest-capacity NHL arena, seating 21,000. (The Hurricanes moved into their new home, the 18,176-seat Entertainment & Sports Arena (now the RBC Center), for the 1999-2000 season - playing the first game of any sport on the arena's opening night, October 29, 1999.)

And we've already discussed what die-hard loyalists the locals are to their team: when the Hurricanes displaced the short-lived AHL team the Carolina Monarchs, the Greensboro fans were reluctant to support a losing team. And, like the Blackhawks suffering under Bill Wirtz, the Hurricanes didn't get much air time - TV or radio; in fact, what few broadcasts they had were often pre-empted by collegiate sports. The team averaged just 9,086 per game in their first season in Carolina, and 8,188 for their second.

When fan favorite Ron Francis returned to the club in the 1998-99 season, he helped lead the Hurricanes to their first championship of the new Southeast Division - taking the division lead away from the Chicago Blackhawks and never giving it up again for the rest of the season. Their playoff run was stopped by the Boston Bruins in the conference quarterfinals, but a standard was set: the Hurricanes would make it to the playoffs three times between 1999 and 2002 - including making it to the Final round in 2002, where they lost to the Detroit Red Wings 1-4. Those seasons marked Raleigh as a hockey market: one where good players would come to play and have a hope to be winners. Game attendance leapt to over 12,400; they've averaged 15,535 for the past 8 years.

The season after the lockout, the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006 - the first in franchise history, including the team's history as the Whalers, in a thrilling 4-3 series win over the Edmonton Oilers. For Hartford fans, it was a somewhat bittersweet moment: it had taken moving and rebranding the team to make them into a winning team.

But with the Cup's arrival in Raleigh, it made something clear: it was possible to have a successful, popular team in a southern market.

When Raleigh was first selected to host the 2011 All-Star Game, it was met through the league with a bit of grumbling. How would Raleigh, an "untraditional" hockey market, be as hosts? The 2011 All-Star Game would mark the first time since the 1986 that Hartford or Raleigh would host the ASG. Could Carolina pull it off successfully?

Naysayers had underestimated the pride of Carolina fans - and the club. The Hurricanes are just one of four Eastern Conference teams that made it to the EC Finals three times between 2000-2010, the other teams being New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. Carolina has - with relatively little fanfare - been a consistently solid team in a receptive market.

Yes, it certainly helps that the Hurricanes are the biggest game in town as far as pro sports go. The arena, being located adjacent to NCSU's campus and used by NCSU teams, is also a place that local sports fans are accustomed to visiting. Among the "untraditional" markets - LA, San Jose, Anaheim, Phoenix, Nashville, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Florida, Dallas, Carolina - the Hurricanes are middle of the pack as far as average attendance this year goes: a solid 15,695 average home attendance (83.8% capacity). If their building sold out every game, they'd be competing with the Penguins (18,228/100.8%) and Kings (18,061/97.6%) for attendance.

The transition from the Whalers into the Hurricanes was not a smooth one, but the Hurricanes benefitted from a strong club history. While they completely rebranded the team in North Carolina, including the colors, they continue to honor their history by including Whaler colors in their farm team uniforms, most notably, the Florida Everblades. A number of Whalers played for Carolina, including Kevin Dineen, who captained the team its first two years; then Ron Francis returned to the club to take on the "C". Rod Brind'Amour - who, like Dineen and Francis, spent time playing for the Flyers and other clubs - was the main face of the team for the past 10 seasons. Like Francis and Dineen before him, he also wore the "C" for Carolina and captained the team to its Stanley Cup win. The team is honoring Brind'Amour on February 18th when they retire his jersey number (17) before the CAR-PHL game. Francis and Brind'Amour remain involved with the team's coaching staff and front office respectively. It was wonderful to see these two gems of the Whalers/Hurricane club history honored as part of the opening ceremonies:

Carolina has also benefitted by the quirk of their market. Raleigh's population has more than doubled in the past 15 years - many of those people coming from other parts of the country where hockey is popular. Their team is a true reflection of that, with players from four Canadian provinces, Minnesota, New York, Washington state, Illinois, Finland, Russia, and the Czech Republic.

Not surprising, then, that the team's Captain is a transplant, too. Eric Staal, 26, is from Thunder Bay, Ontario - the oldest of the four Staal brothers in the NHL/in the NHL system. Brother Jordan plays for the Penguins; Marc plays for the Rangers; and Jared is currently with the Hurricanes' affiliate ECHL team, the Florida Everblades. Staal was selected 2nd overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft by the Hurricanes, and re-signed for a 3-year contract in 2006. To cement his long-term loyalty to the team that drafted him, Staal re-signed with the Hurricanes nearly a full year earlier than his contract was due to expire - and a 7-year deal, which means he'll be with the Canes through 2015. Staal's career has thus far been noteworthy: four All-Star appearances, including being named to the Captaincy of one of this year's teams; a Stanley cup; Olympic Gold; and World Ice Hockey Gold, making him a member of the Triple Gold Club. Four years ago, he took home All-Star Game MVP honors.

But to watch Staal during this year's All-Star festivities, he was such a great ambassador for Carolina hockey that you'd think he was NC born-n-raised. He clearly loves his team and his adopted hometown, and will probably be a Hurricane for his career.

And what isn't there to love about Raleigh? The wetaher is fantastic, it's a lovely city, the locals - transplants or new arrivals - are courteous and friendly, and it has a booming restaurant scene. Raleigh has been prominent on a lot of "Top 10" lists during the past 10 years, being named as a great place to live and do business by sources such as Forbes, MSNBC and Money magazine. I only left Raleigh due to work - given the opportunity to move back to the area, I doubt I'd hesitate - the city is so welcoming and laid-back, a perfect blend of North and South, that no matter where in the country you came from, you feel like you've always lived there.

Local pride for the market was on full display during All-Star Weekend. The passionate Carolina fan base - the Caniacs - turned out in maximum tailgating force, showing off the best their city had to offer. It was a three-day party, and it combined perfectly with the new format that the NHL designed for the All-Star game.

There are plenty of people who're willing to complain about the new All-Star format, but honestly, I'm not one of them. The new draft re-invigorated not only fan interest, but more importantly, player interest in the game. Half the players going were playing in their first All-Star Game. The NHL's biggest star, Sidney Crosby, was sidelined with a concussion, so despite being the league leader in votes, did not attend the game, which meant that the league had to spread their attention away from the stereotypical "Sid vs Ovie" angle -- and that was good for the league as a whole, giving a lot of players who might have otherwise been overshadowed the chance to shine.

Staal not only was a good ambassador both for Raleigh and the NHL, but it finally gave him some well-deserved spotlight. And it was fitting that the ASG itself opened with a montage of kids "picking sticks" for a pickup hockey game; the Draft ended up being very similar in feel. Staal admitted to wanting to take care of "his boys" first and foremost: teammates, family, and guys like Patrick Sharp, also a Thunder Bay native, and one of the players the Staals played with in youth leagues and now practice with during summer breaks. While "Team Staal" - red jerseys - was stacked to cater to the home crowd, the teams were still pretty evenly balanced. Nearly every team that had sent 2 or more players to the ASG saw teammates split up - especially, to everybody's delight, Daniel and Henrik Sedin.

The All-Star Game is a high-speed, no-hitting scorefest that is less about pure NHL-style hockey and far more about showing off the prowess of the top stars of the league. The D-men best suited for the ASG game are two-way players like Duncan Keith and Zdeno Chara; they can get in on the scoring and really aren't going to do their full defense style - nobody is going to play in a manner in the ASG which will risk themselves getting hurt and taking themselves out of any part of the run to the playoffs. Despite that, somebody seems to have forgotten to inform Patrick Sharp of that, as he helped Team Staal barrel out quickly to a 3-0 lead. The teams swapped goals frequently, but it was Team Lidstrom that came away with a 1-goal win and a cumulative score total (21) that was higher than the age of some of the players who took part in the game.

The undeniable highlight of the weekend is the Super Skills night. The speed races are always popular, and the hardest shot usually attracts the most attention. This year was no exception. To the delight of fans across the league, there was the first-ever goalie race. Tim Thomas took on Cam Ward, and if he hadn't had a bit of a wipeout behind one net, chances are good he could've won this one:

Also among the highlights: Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara setting a new record (and breaking his own) on the Hardest Shot competition:

It's undeniable that the All-Star Game is a vehicle for the NHL to parade the crème de la crème of league talent before a crowd that is half sponsors, half hometown fans (generally mostly season ticket holders). Everybody gets to schmooze and party; the players don't have to take the game all that seriously (and won't, because they don't want to chance hurting themselves); and, if the league has gotten the right mix of players to attend, we get to see some of what we perhaps crave most out of our players: personality.

Alex Ovechkin is well-aware the spotlight is on him; he didn't fail to deliver. After a downright comedic turn in the hardest shot competition - broken stick, shots not registering - Ovechkin spotted Patrick Kane filming his final shot with a Flip cam from the ice. So he skated over and delivered this gem:

It would be nice to see more Super Skills events. They're some of the most entertaining events in the weekend. Maybe next year add a 4-man speed race on top of the single matchups. Definitely add more opportunities for goalies to have a bit of fun. (Marc-Andre Fleury doing jumping jacks in goal on the breakaway competition was a hoot, reminding viewers of the personality he'd revealed in 24/7). Perhaps add another sniper-shot accuracy event with moving targets. Make whistles louder, apparently.

It'd also be enjoyable to see the rookie game return - getting to see a few of them compete in the Super Skills was hardly enough of a taste of the future superstars of the league.

Some fans disagreed with the red carpet walk for the game being televised, and while there were definitely some "holy cow" moments (Jeremy Roenick asking Byfuglien to rap? Wrong ex-Blackhawk, there, JR), it was mostly fun, as the hockey players got to strut their stuff. Those guys spend their season swaddled in multiple layers of gear, nothing wrong with the red carpet event. It allowed fan girls a bit of an opportunity to swoon; the players got to show off some personality and sense of style (Hugo Boss seemed to be the most popular with players). Fans at the red carpet event got the chance to meet some of their favorite players, however fleetingly.

The whole point of the All-Star Game is to have fun, be it players, fans or sponsors. The players get to mix it up on the ice with other players they'd rarely if ever find as their teammates otherwise. Rivals put it all aside and share lines. (I'm sure there were fans of both the Flyers and Blackhawks watching in surprise as Patrick Sharp was broadly smiling as he talked about how much chemistry and fun he had sharing a line with Claude Giroux.) Coaches get to coach (as much as they're going to in a game full of the league's top stars) players they normally play against, and maybe some of the players get that enjoyment of playing for a few days under a coach they wouldn't mind playing for during a regular season.

Was the event perfect? Well, aside from the glaring error of Blackhawk Patrick Sharp apparently being traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets (and then later being unable to pronounce his last name when announced as MVP), any problems weren't readily visible to the casual NHL viewer. Kudos to the Hurricanes and NHL media/event teams for running the event well.

Carolina brought the party this year. It showed everybody - not just hockey fans - that they are able to host a top-notch, high-profile sporting event with class and style. The local fans did themselves proud, turning out to celebrate the game and the players. Media members across the board gushed about the warm welcome, local hospitality, great food, good service, and a great weekend. It was a giant win for Raleigh, not only from a tourism standpoint, but from a hockey standpoint as well. If the Stanley Cup win wasn't good enough to do it, then this year's All-Star Game cemented Raleigh's place as a hockey town.

Raleigh, as host city, has now set the bar high for All-Star Games. Next year, Ottawa has the tough task of following this one up and making it even better. (How many people will be tailgating in the parking lot of Scotiabank Place in the depths of January? Not a lot, I'd wager.)

Additionally, Raleigh has proven everything that Gary Bettman could've hoped for in an expansion team. Despite the unpopularity of moving the team at the time, and a rough start to their existance in Carolina, the club has thrived in an "unconventional" market. They unintentionally set a blueprint that new markets will hope to employ: successful early years; recognizable players on the roster from the start; solid brand identity; engaged and loyal fan base; and - dare new teams dream - a Stanley Cup within the first 10 years of the franchise. Most of all, the club's culture, coaches, and fan dedication all combine to the kind of market that any player would be proud to call home.

Congratulations, Carolina. Thanks for a weekend that was fun even to watch on TV. Looking forward to making a long-overdue trip down to Raleigh to soak in some Southern hospitality next season!


  1. Thanks for the "insiders' scoop" on the Raleigh area and sports scene! It's an area of the country I'm largely unfamiliar with, and its sports franchises don't get much of my attention. Sadly, I didn't get to see any of the All-Star Weekend activities live (have been watching DVR'd rebroadcasts), but it looks like it was great fun for both players and fans. My biggest hope is that the new, fun format draws in new fans and makes casual or lapsed fans take a second look!

  2. Great article. Nice job.

  3. I just came across your blog while looking through your photos and wanted to thank you so much for this nice post about Raleigh and our Canes! (And I got to see an Eric Staal video that somehow I missed. YAY!) We do love our sports here and we love our Canes. I am a Southern girl born and raised and have become a hockey junkie. Sometimes we hear folks say that we aren't a "real" hockey town and it burns my butt! Just because we like to tailgate (and will gladly offer you some bbq or a cold beer) doesn't mean we don't love the game or know anything about it. Those of us that love our team are fiercely loyal. We think of them as "our boys" or at least I do. Not sure if it is because of the college atmosphere or because our players are fairly accessible and very active in the community. We were thrilled to host the ASG. For those of us that love the game it was a really big deal. (And it ate into my wallet buying way too much ASG gear!) It made me really proud to hear the feedback that came out of the weekend. Some people like to complain that it's just for show. Well that's fine with me. It was entertainment and it was fun (even for those of us that just got to watch on tv). And it got people excited about the NHL. It seems like if you want to grow your fan base that isn't such a bad thing. I have heard complaints too about how it's not "Old Time Hockey" and have heard people from other areas laugh at how it's more of a family atmosphere. Again not sure how being able to grow your fan base by bringing kids is a bad thing. And when it gets time for the playoffs the atmosphere in the RBC is electric!

    Anyway thank you for letting the world know that there are people around here that can use the word "forecheck" in a sentence. And that we are proud to be Caniacs and host the other teams. Being unconventional isn't always a bad thing. This hockey broad thanks you. :-)

  4. I really enjoyed your article, I was searching to see how much hockey has grown in Carolina. I remember hearing comments from fans when they first moved to Carolina, saying that it was a basketball market and hockey wouldn't work. I'm Glad to see its having success, despite not packing the arena every night. The Stanley Cup defiantly helps your attendence and with the Stalls there, and an explosive player in skinner, in hopefully keeps building, if not, right down the road from me Quebec City is making a push to get its old team back. Carolina is very good team. Cam Ward if he returns to the top of his game is unbeatable and if hes hot heading into the playoffs. Anything is possible. I was curious to know if Carolina is producing any NHL players. Thanks again for the article, it was the closest thing I was looking for and really informative and fun.


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