Hockey makes itself at home in hoops hotbed

by | Staff Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. -- People around these parts have been excited about the big game this weekend. Had it circled on the calendar since the beginning of the season.

The showdown between North Carolina and North Carolina State you say?

Well, yeah, folks are talking about that one too. But what has created as much if not more buzz in the heart of basketball country is a meaningless and usually uninspiring exhibition game in a sport that was basically unknown to the region a little more than a decade ago.

Eric Staal of the Hurricanes signs an autograph before the NHL All-Star Skills Competition. (AP)  
Eric Staal of the Hurricanes signs an autograph before the NHL All-Star Skills Competition. (AP)  
Hockey might still take a back seat to hoops in what is known as the Research Triangle. Yet since arriving in 1997 in the face of some severe cynicism, the Carolina Hurricanes have become part of the local sporting landscape's fabric and in many ways a model for franchises in nontraditional markets.

"It's a great game to watch," said Howard Dinar, who along with his 6-year-old son Ethan, was among the estimated 50,000 people expected to attend the NHL All-Star Fan Fair this weekend. "It's fast and its tough and it's just a lot of fun."

Just as fast as the game Raleigh has embraced was the effort that brought the organization down here from its original home in Hartford. Within three months of deciding to relocate, the team had packed things up and left.

"Normally you need about 18 to 24 months to orchestrate a franchise move," Hurricanes president and general manager Jim Rutherford said. "It was certainly a challenge."

That was one of several challenges the organization faced when it realized it had outgrown its outdated arena in the Northeast. And the biggest, ironically, was the lack of a suitable building waiting for them in Raleigh, which made it tougher to put down roots in an area that had no connection to hockey and presumably even less interest in it.

The Hurricanes didn't help matters by playing their first two seasons some 90 miles away in Greensboro while their new facility was being constructed, or by failing to make the playoffs once it was ready. There were other issues as well, notably having less than half of the games televised or getting radio broadcasts preempted by the flagship station that put a priority on Wolfpack basketball games.

But since turning the corner with an appearance in the 2002 Stanley Cup Finals and especially since winning the sport's biggest prize in 2006, the Hurricanes have become a fixture of a local sports scene that was long dominated by three big-time local college basketball programs.

"What you have to realize is that people in this market are very passionate about sports and those college teams, but what the Carolina Hurricanes have to offer is that they are a pro franchise that all these fans can kind of rally around," said Philadelphia Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, who was behind the Hurricanes' bench for the 2006 Cup win. "There's no Duke, [UNC], N.C. State lines drawn in the sand, it's just the support of the Carolina Hurricanes."

That's exactly what made the area appealing to team owner Peter Karmanos, who said he subscribed to the theory that pro sports fans differ from those into college sports. In that, he saw an opportunity in being the only professional game in town

"A big thing for us was not having to worry about competition from the NFL, NBA or baseball," Karmanos said. "Basically, we had the market to ourselves."

A growing market, in fact. The Triangle region is home to about 1.5 million residents, about 42 percent more than what lived there a decade ago, and it is projected to grow another 80 percent in the next two decades. The area is among the most affluent and highly educated in the country, and it attracts newcomers from places where the sport does have a following.

"We knew this was a big transplant market before we got here," Rutherford said. "The league had done the demographics the year before because there was a group looking at expansion, so we knew there were a lot of people moving here from hockey cities and that there was a lot of growth potential."

Efforts by the organization, and particularly the players, to get involved in the community have been instrumental in developing that potential, although momentum-building events like Stanley Cup Finals appearances, the 2004 draft and this season's All-Star Game haven't hurt either, especially in the wake of some off years by the team in between.

Carolina failed to make the playoffs in the two seasons after winning the Stanley Cup and fell short again last year after reaching the conference finals the season before. But the ability to offer a first crack at attending the All-Star Game with season-tickets renewals offset the damage.

The team has averaged a respectable 16,000-plus a game since its title season. In what might be a more telling example of the inroads the sport has made here, local youth program participation has increased five-fold in the past decade despite a dearth of playing facilities. Kids' travel teams have become more competitive, Rutherford said, in large part because many of the players' children are involved, and a local high schooler has been offered a scholarship to North Dakota, one of the premier hockey programs in the United States.

And in the meantime, the Hurricanes continue moving forward, competing again for a playoff spot and maybe more this season while living within their means as one of the lowest-payroll teams in the league.

"The fact of the matter is we're a small-market, lower-revenue franchise and because of that, you have to run it properly otherwise you'd go out of business," Rutherford said. "But we've always known that as long as we had the staying power, it would work."


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