How the Hurricanes evolved from 'novelty' to an indelible part of the NC sports landscape

By Chip Alexander

Jordan Staal first moved to North Carolina in the summer of 2012, like many in the Triangle a transplant to the area and one with a vested interest in hockey.

Staal was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes by the Pittsburgh Penguins. The big center from Thunder Bay, Ontario, joined an older brother, Eric, with the Canes and soon signed a 10-year contract extension. If hockey was going to continue to grow and flourish in the Triangle, in the state, he was committed to being a big part of it.

The Hurricanes were seen as something of a novelty act in 1997 when the NHL franchise moved to North Carolina from Hartford, Connecticut. Hockey in ACC country, NASCAR country? But as they approach their 25th season in North Carolina, the Canes have become an indelible part of the state's sports landscape. They've given the state its only major-league championship, and become an economic driver in the Triangle and put hockey sticks into the hands of many of the state's kids, boys and girls, in youth programs.

Staal was recently asked about the impact of the team on the area. Standing in the Wake Competition Center in Morrisville, with youth players streaming into the building lugging heavy bags of hockey gear, the Canes captain smiled and said, "Look at where we're standing right now, look at this place."

"This is a stepping stone for a lot of kids in this building alone, never mind how much it's grown in and around this city and community," Staal told the N&O. "Hockey has grown a ton here. That starts with the kids and the kids programs and the Canes have done a great job in helping grow that part of the game.

"Obviously selling tickets and having fans in the building has grown, too. It's been fun to watch and be a part of it, and I'm very proud of that. I'm very excited about the future, about the future of hockey in Raleigh and what it can still become. It's only going to get better."

One constant for the Canes has been Rod Brind'Amour. Traded to the Canes in January 2000, the center helped the Canes reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2002, and then was the captain of the 2006 Stanley Cup champions, raising the Cup high at PNC Arena. As the Canes' head coach, Brind'Amour has taken his teams to the playoffs each of the past three seasons.

Brind'Amour's youngest son, Brooks, is a 9-year-old hockey player determined to be able to duplicate the lacrosse-move goals scored by Canes forward Andrei Svechnikov. Others do the same. They want to be a part of the sport now and many will remain hockey fans, Carolina Hurricanes fans, as they get older and have their own families.

"It's changed drastically," Brind'Amour said. "The excitement is everywhere ... which is great to see."

Becoming a Canes fan

Dave Pulver moved to North Carolina in 1997, just as the Hurricanes were giving the state its first taste of major league hockey.

Pulver is a native Michigander, from Lansing. He was a loyal Detroit Red Wings fan — forward Steve Yzerman was his guy, his favorite. He said he once went to a Michigan State hockey game to see a young player for the Spartans many were saying was headed to NHL stardom: Rod Brind'Amour.

Pulver, 54, adopted the Hurricanes as his team, proudly wearing a vest adorned with 70 or so Hurricanes pins for games at PNC Arena. He and his wife, Bonnie, drive in from the Greenville area for games, supporting the team coached by Brind'Amour.

"It's really strange that we would end up in the same place," Pulver said. "He's running it and we're rooting for it.

"I've really enjoyed watching the Canes' popularity grow through the years. The marketing folks have done tremendous outreach into the community over the years and I see it paying dividends. It's fun to watch and more people are getting interested in hockey."

Pulver likes the changes new owner Tom Dundon has made and Dundon's commitment to being competitive in the NHL, spending to the salary cap to bring in talent. He likes the way Brind'Amour has coached, setting a high standard for his players.

Pulver said his son was "highly ticked" when the Canes traded away forward Jeff Skinner in 2018. Pulver understood, saying Skinner didn't meet Brind'Amour's work-ethic standard defensively. He had to go.

And the Brind'Amour way has been a winning way.

"I think that has caused a lot more people to notice the Canes and pay attention," Pulver said. "I see the buzz in the community, even here in Greenville. It's just fun to see new people discover hockey and what a fast and fantastic sport it is and fun to watch. It's a tough market with the college sports and the Canes have to fight for every bit of attention they get."

There at the beginning

Jim Rutherford was there at the beginning. Then president and general manager of the Hartford Whalers, he relocated to Raleigh in '97 with the task of making the Carolina Hurricanes and NHL hockey work and succeed for then-owner Peter Karmanos Jr.

The first two seasons were spent playing home games in the Greensboro Coliseum, at times before a handful of fans. The arena in Raleigh, then called the Entertainment and Sports Arena, was completed and opened in the fall of 1999, and the laborious task of filling the new place and growing hockey interest began — one Canes marketing pitch was, "You'll Know When You Go."

But it all fell into place for the Canes: the 2002 Stanley Cup Final, hosting the 2004 NHL Draft, winning the 2006 Cup, more playoff success in 2009 and then being picked to host the 2011 NHL All-Star Game. Each was a step toward added credibility, for the franchise, for the market, for the team's place in the community.

"It was hard at the start," Rutherford said this week in an N&O interview. "We moved in such short order, we didn't have long to plan, and we played outside our own home for two years. So there were some growing pains.

"But Pete Karmanos and I always believed in the market, that if we would stick with it, it would work. As we get to the 25-year mark, you can see how good the market is. And when you win a championship, you really establish the franchise in the market."

Rutherford traded for Brind'Amour in 2000, sending former captain Keith Primeau, a contract holdout, to the Philadelphia Flyers. He later coaxed Brind'Amour into coaching, first as a Canes assistant.

"He had what I consider a Hall of Fame career as a player," said Rutherford, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. "He stayed with the organization and now is in position to have a huge impact again."

The Hurricanes share PNC Arena with N.C. State men's basketball and oversee the arena's operations. Before the pandemic canceled all events in the arena, it was generating more than $250 million a year in estimated economic impact for Wake County, according to an economic study prepared for the Centennial Authority, an appointed body and the arena landlord.

The Hurricanes now have a new lease extension for PNC Arena. Dundon's goal, like that of Karmanos and Rutherford before him, is to win a Stanley Cup championship while continuing to build the Hurricanes' brand in the state and within the NHL.

The Canes have plans to host an NHL Stadium Series outdoor game at Carter-Finley Stadium in the 2021-22 season after the pandemic forced a postponement. That's projected to have a economic impact of $15 million to $20 million.

"The Hurricanes are a part of our area fabric," said Steve Stroud, a long-time authority member and Raleigh developer.

Rutherford, who won two Cups as GM of the Penguins after resigning from the Hurricanes in 2014, has moved back to Raleigh with his family — once a transplant to the area, Rutherford has returned. His son, James, is 13 and a hockey goalie on a youth team.

"The number of people who have moved to (the Triangle) from hockey markets was pretty high when we first got here and we knew it was going to grow and it has really grown now," Rutherford said. "This Hurricanes team is a contender and should be a contender for a number of years. And there's no making fun of the market or the team anymore."

Growing with the Canes

Jeff Ammons is a Raleigh native who grew up following ACC basketball and college sports. He's an N.C. State graduate. His wife went to UNC. He has a brother who went to Wake Forest.

"We do have one team we can all cheer for," Ammons. laughing, said in a recent N&O interview. "When the Hurricanes first came here I bought one ticket and my brother bought one ticket and we sat side by side. That has grown into 12 tickets now.

"We've come to appreciate what a great game it is and how hard the players work, and now our kids have grown up in it. I've got a figure skater. I've got a hockey player."

Ammons also has another hockey rink: He's the developer of Wake Competition Center, a complex near RDU Airport that includes gymnastics and volleyball facilities, soccer fields, and the 115,000-square-foot hockey building that became the Hurricanes' official practice facility in 2020.

That was once Raleigh Center Ice, which Ammons also owns. Ammons and the Hurricanes upgraded in a joint financial venture that provided the team with 12,000 square feet of space — locker room, weight room, players lounge, all the amenities — while giving youth players a venue with two additional sheets of ice.

"I have nieces and nephews who buy season tickets to the Canes games, which is kind of crazy to me," Ammons said. "To me it still kind of feels new but to them it's their whole life. Their whole lives they've been cheering for the Hurricanes.

"When the Canes first moved here I was a little skeptical. Raleigh is so spread out and college driven. I couldn't see professional basketball or baseball coming in and didn't think that of hockey, immediately. At first I was worried would they find a base?"

The Hurricanes found a base. They built on it, laid a solid foundation.

"To me it seems like it has been an amazing fit," Ammons said. "I think in terms of hockey and hockey interest growing, it's going to be exponential the next 20 to 25 years."

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