Hockey's Hurricane force

Underdog hockey team's entrance into finals converts a NASCAR region into 'Caniacs.'

David Radford is the epitome of a Southern sports fan: He loves North Carolina State basketball and "disses "rival-team Duke. When he thinks championships, he thinks of ticker-tape parades up Raleigh's Hillsborough Street.

But when this warehouse manager with a Southern twang shows up at his mom's house for dinner carrying a hockey stick with some Latvian guy's signature on it, she knows there's something strange going on.

Instead of blowing out to sea as expected, the five-year-old Carolina Hurricanes are headed straight for the Stanley Cup finals.

"I grew up with football and basketball and all that," says Mr. Radford, waiting in line for his favorite goalie to sign another stick. "But that all pales in comparison to playing hockey in June."

Depending on the outcome of tonight's Game 7 in the West finals matchup, the Hurricanes will face either Patrick Roy and the Colorado Avalanche or Dominick "The Dominator" Hasek and the other seven future hall-of-famers on the Detroit Red Wings. But those are established, championship-winning teams. This "small market" franchise made up of "never heard ofs" playing in the hinterlands of hockey have done something no other North Carolina pro-sports team has ever done: They've reached a national championship. Even as they've stunned the NHL elite, they've converted a sea of Southerners to the intricacies of poke checks and powerplays.

It'd be a Cinderella story, if this banged-up club weren't such a bunch of ugly ducklings.

"Until now, North Carolina has had no sporting face to speak of, only stereotypes and everything else," says Joe Giglio, a sportswriter at the Raleigh News & Observer. "Now, people are looking at the Carolina Hurricanes and realizing that we're not just a bunch of redneck hillbillies, drinking moonshine and eating corn bread."

Some critics have called the team's success a "nightmare" for the NHL, the theory being that nobody's going to watch a Stanley Cup played by a bunch of nobodies. But that dismisses the passion for the underdog, especially one that has promptly dispatched all the heavy-hitters in the Eastern Conference, the province of teams like the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers. Still, some analysts are dismissive of Carolina's prospects of winning Lord Stanley's trophy.

"We're still at ineligible mongrel status," says Canes Coach Paul Maurice.

And maybe so. But when destiny is at stake, even a bunch of nobodies can do the impossible. "There's no doubt that our team is special," says Captain Ron Francis. "We certainly believe in our own abilities, and our collective abilities as a team, and that's exactly why we're standing where we are."

Other hockey teams have set up shop in the South as the biggest migratory wave of families in modern history has relocated from northern towns into a South transformed by biotech firms and latte boutiques. In 1999, the Dallas Stars even won the Stanley Cup. But those were big franchises driven by large transplant populations. In Raleigh, the Canes success is a $20 a seat phenomenon involving Southern-style tailgating, and lots of hootin' and hollerin'. The Canes' home rink is now one of the loudest buildings in hockey.

"Back where I'm from, hockey is a natural thing, a part of life," says clutch sniper Niclas Wallin, who hails from Sweden's northern woods. "Here, a lot of people are having to learn the game, and it's not always easy. But it's a tough game, and it seems that almost all Americans love tough games."

And while the Canes' skaters are not yet well-known, they soon may be. There's Jeff O'Neill, called "O," a dangerous sniper with a purple playoff shiner. There's Sami Kapanen, a flying Finn with a twisted wristshot, and board-crunchers like Rod Brind'Amour, Bates Battaglia and Erik Cole, who constitute the team's potent "BBC" line. Goalie Arturs "Archie" Irbe hails from Riga, Latvia, and literally seems to stand on his head at times.

Until this year, few players were ever recognized in local bagel shops and malls. But with such characters playing character hockey, the team has won over fans in a city known more for the Research Triangle Park and for real hurricanes. "I think once you see the power, finesse and speed of the game, it's hard not to get hooked," says key defenseman Bret Hedican.

It's not only Southern men digging what's literally the coolest game in town. In fact, 40 percent of the fans are women. They say that the players' low-key style, their skill and speed, not to mention a couple of good-looking faces appeals to the Southern sentiments.

"I used to be a big basketball fan, but now I can hardly watch – it's so slow," says Anne Redd, an Oxford, N.C., native who's now a converted "Caniac."

The phenomenon has reached even into this region's rock-solid spirituality. A local priest recently incorporated the team into the sermon, and disbanded the congregation early so they could get home to watch the hockey game.

"People like that the team is hard-working and has time for the fans, and that they, unlike a lot of pro basketball players, are friendly folks," says Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker. "Every television set in town is on when they play."

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