Carolina Hurricanes 'do our job,' winning games to win back fans

Updated: June 9, 2006, 1:54 AM ET
Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. - A year ago, the Carolina Hurricanes were winding up a season that wasn't.

The National Hockey League and its players' union were still fighting to reach a labor deal. A lockout had left arenas across North America dark for a year, and fans were worried they'd stay that way for another. It would take another month and a half of negotiations before both sides agreed to return to the ice.

But would the fans come back to watch? That was the question, especially in places like Raleigh, where the NHL didn't have much tradition or history to fall back on. Winning games, everyone acknowledged, was the only sure way to win back the fans.

"If we do our job, I'm sure we'll get that place back full again," coach Peter Laviolette said days before the Hurricanes opened their season Oct. 5 in Tampa Bay.

They couldn't have done it much better.

In the season's first month, Carolina won all seven of its home games and streaked to a 10-2-1 record. The Hurricanes went on to lose only eight regular-season games at home, selling out the RBC Center 11 times. A Southeast Division title led to the playoffs, a win in the Eastern Conference finals against Buffalo, and Monday night's Game 1 in the Stanley Cup finals against the Edmonton Oilers.

"There's only a few markets in the NHL - Canada, maybe Philadelphia and New York - where they can be bad and still sell out. Everywhere else, it's about winning," captain Rod Brind'Amour said last week. "That's our main objective, to get the people back, and we were able to do that."

The Hurricanes' attendance this season rose 21 percent compared with the 2003-04 season, when the team failed to make the playoffs for the second straight season after a surprising run to the Cup finals in 2002, when Carolina lost to Detroit. General manager Jim Rutherford said Carolina wasn't the only team to enjoy sold-out arenas, and attendance league-wide increased by 3.9 percent.

And that's a sign that - to turn the saying around - while winning may have meant everything, it wasn't the only thing.

"The league did a very good job in adjusting the rules and the way the game was going to be played, which made it very much more fan friendly," Rutherford said. "Even if it wasn't the home team winning, it was still an exciting game."

Rule changes allowed referees to crack down on hooking, holding and other forms of obstruction. Ties vanished, replaced by game-deciding shootouts. Goalie equipment shrank, along with the area in which they could handle the puck. Scoring in the regular season rose by 20 percent.

"The winning was good, but a lot of times it was the way we won games," Laviolette said. "There were shootouts, there were comebacks - lots of comebacks and exciting games and entertaining games. It was not a ho-hum game or a ho-hum building."

Meanwhile, the salary cap the league won during the negotiations with the players' union led to widespread roster shuffling, with big-market stars finding their way to small-market cities. That two small-market teams are competing for hockey's championship is also a victory for the league, still eager to recapture its audience after the long, nasty labor fight.

"With the new economic system and revenue sharing and everything, our business is starting to look more like a business that you can make some sense of," Rutherford said.

Carolina benefited not just from the revised salary rules, but Rutherford's pre-lockout planning aimed at taking advantage of the changes. Rutherford - last month named The Sporting News' NHL executive of the year - stocked the roster with young players at the end of the 2003-2004 season, while signing others to short contracts that let him move players quickly once a collective bargaining agreement was reached.

"I think pre-lockout, we prepared better for it better than any organization out there," Brind'Amour said. "We were able to pick up players, great players, as opposed to trying to figure out how to get rid of guys. That goes to the management and the coaches, getting in the right guys for the new rule changes."

Of course, even in a region where ice is most often found in sweet tea, fan loyalty couldn't be discounted.

Michael Crews had never seen a hockey game before the Hartford Whalers relocated to North Carolina in 1997. He traveled to the team's early games in Greensboro and has been a "Caniac" ever since, even though "I can't even roller skate."

This year, the Raleigh hair stylist went to about 15 games during the season and hasn't missed a playoff home game. The idea that he might not come back after the lockout - or that the Hurricanes might not survive it - never entered his mind.

"You can't expect them to win every time, but you do expect them to be competitive," he said. "They've exceeded my expectations for this year. They've had a great season."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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