RALEIGH -- I know it's only been two days, but I'm in love again.
She appeared out of nowhere on the JumboTron inside the ES Arena on Sunday, just before the Carolina Hurricanes faced off against the Montreal Canadiens. Sure, maybe this is a rebounder. A silly fling. A harmless crush. But if losing the Charlotte Hornets is indeed like breaking up with your high school girlfriend, then this felt an awful lot like love at first sight.
There she (he? it?) was, up in lights, just before Game 5 of the NHL's Eastern Conference semifinals inside Carolina's only cacophonous coliseum. My new lady, the Hurricanes' mascot, Stormy, a giant robot hog, was shown in a video montage, crisscrossing the Carolinas and taking over the state.
Which, in essence, is exactly what the 'Canes have done down here during the last few seasons after abandoning Hartford by way of Greensboro. (This is how it's done in pro sports: Utah steals the Jazz from New Orleans, Carolina steals the 'Canes from Hartford, New Orleans steals the Hornets from Carolina.)
Sunday's record crowd of 18,853 was as loud, rowdy and knowledgeable as any in the NHL. And yes, I've been to Joe Louis Arena -- I grew up there and I'm here to tell you, Hockeytown has nothing on Hokeytown. Before the game here you can grab a suntan, a pulled pork sangy and a giant brew. Or jump into the street hockey scrums all over the parking lot and make like 'Canes sensation Erik Cole or goaltender Arturs Irbe who, after the 5-1 bullying of the Habs, said, "We've got something special going on here."
I saw grannies wearing 'Canes captain Ron Francis jerseys and black styrofoam pucks on their heads. I saw two dancing doofuses in fluorescent tuxedos. I saw fans allowed to ride shotgun on the Zambonis. I saw people flung across the ice on a giant slingshot into six-foot bowling pins. I saw folks who understood and applauded the 'Canes relentless grinding style and their dirty work along the boards that led to most of their goals on Sunday. I saw fans who appreciated the selflessness of Irbe and fellow netminder Kevin Weekes.
I even saw fans gluing on playoff beards before the game to look more like the players. "Is that actual, like, superglue you're using?" I asked.
"Weee-uuuu! Cayayayayaaaaaanes!" was the only reply.
Some people just know how to treat Mom right on her special day. But I'm only gonna say this one more time: alcohol and space-age polymers never mix.
"As usual this place was rockin'," says emerging superstar Bates Battaglia, who leads the team with 10 points in the playoffs. "You just can't help but love a place like this. It was so loud. Did you hear it out there? Man, it was unbelievable."
And just down the road in Charlotte, where hoops fans were saying goodbye to the Hornets after another loss to the Nets, the juxtaposition between the two scenes was, well, un-bee-lievable. Sunday, I think, was a (frozen) watershed moment for the state of North Carolina, which transformed from a hoops to a hockey state right before my eyes.
Yes, the Hornets may be gone, but their legacy is still palpable. It's obvious here that all the lessons that were ignored by George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge (the state's two other dancing doofuses) have been absorbed by the folks that run the 'Canes. While the rest of the pro sports wasteland can blindly blame the Hornets' problems on fan apathy, the 'Canes were close enough to the situation to realize it was about much more than that.
And so, you get the feeling the 'Canes have succeeded by following one simple guideline: figure out what the Hornets would have done in a similar situation and do the exact opposite.
Having watched the Hornets fail in a hoops-crazy state, owners across the country must be rethinking how they treat their fans. Now I know the Hornets never sniffed a title of any kind, but as far as a legacy goes, this kinda fan revolution isn't too shabby. Just look at the residual effect the Hornets situation has had on the Hurricanes. The 'Canes made mistakes. Tickets were too expensive. They didn't understand the importance of tailgating.
But while the Hornets hid, the 'Canes responded. They -- gasp! -- apologized. They corrected the problems. They created a "Contract with the Fans." And while they struggled to gain acceptance, not a single team member whined. Not one. Instead, guys like Ron Francis, the perennial Lady Byng finalist, stayed humble and approachable and started putting down roots. And in time, the 'Canes became everything the Hornets never were: respectable, fun, community-minded, and first and foremost, committed to winning.
"We didn't just show up and expect fans to love us, especially in this region," says 'Canes forward Tommy Westlund. "We knew in sports today fans want something in return. It goes hand in hand now. You gotta give something to your fans to win them over. You gotta do something for them first -- like win."
Westlund and Battaglia sealed up the 'Canes biggest win so far with late goals on Sunday. And after each score there was Stormy, back up on the JumboTron doing the cabbage patch with the Stanley Cup.
Oh come on. I know what you're thinking -- and you're wrong. This isn't a fling to get my mind off the Hornets. This time it's for real.
This time it's gonna last forever.
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