When I finally became a Hurricanes fan about 6 years ago, I never would have thought that this team would be where it is today. I never would have thought that they would become part of the community. I never would have thought that hockey would even become a sport played by the locals at any level. And I certainly never would have thought that they would ever win a Stanley cup. But the fact is that all of those things did happen in North Carolina and this is how it happened as I see it.
Like a lot of people that live in the Raleigh area, I moved here about 20 years ago from Western New York. I had never been to any major sporting event when I lived in NY, but I was a Sabres and Bills fan all through my younger years. Even the thought of pulling for any other team while either of them were in contention was blasphemous. I didn't really become a real hockey fan though, until I went to a minor league hockey game.
It would be about 1991 or 92 if I remember correctly and I was going to my first Raleigh Ice Caps game in Dorton Arena (which is now home to Dog shows and random cultural events). I don't remember many goals being scored, but I do remember several people being taken off on stretchers after some dirty hits and many fights. That is when I really started to follow the Buffalo Sabres. It was also the beginning of the Hasek era.
Fast forward to the late 90's when the Carolina Hurricanes moved to Ralei....err Greensboro. I was excited about this because I would get to go to a Sabres game for the first time in my life. I did end up going to the Greensboro coliseum with the big tarps covering the upper bowl. There were so many Sabres fans at that game that Lindy Ruff could be seen smiling on the jumbotron during a "Let's Go Buffalo" chant. Hurricanes fans were basically nonexistent.
Fast foward again to the 2000-01 season. Mario Lemeiux was making a comeback and the Canes moved into their new arena. By this time I had watched a few Hurricanes games at the new ESA even when the Sabres weren't in town. I couldn't get enough. I felt more like an curious outsider that just wanted to see a good game. Then I went to 2 games that would change my allegiance forever.
The Canes were in their first playoff series against New Jersey since moving to Raleigh. They were down 3 games to none. Tickets were available for game 4 so I thought, hey why not...so I went. They ended up winning in overtime in a way that told the fans "hey we aren't giving up just yet"..I believe this was the first game I remember the Rick Flair woo actually being kinda cool. The Canes would end up winning game 5 to give the fans at least 1 more game to come to. Nobody really expected Carolina to win game 6, but there was still hope left at home. I went to that game pumped, but after the game was over, they had lost the series. They gave it everything they had. There was an immediate standing ovation that lasted about 5 mins thanking the team for their effort that seaon. It was a very emotional experience. THAT was the point I finally realized that I was a Caniac.
I'm sure there are many Caniacs out there that became fans in a similar sort of way. But this was only the beginning of hockey in North Carolina, something many people have yet to understand or even care to understand. I have a lot of respect for Tampa, and Atlanta fans for this reason.. I think it is important for people outside of NC and the south to see that hockey can be accepted outside of the northern territories.
More progression to follow...in Part II