Thursday, February 17, 2011

In honor of Rod Brind'Amour Night - 30 days in Spring of 2001 (or how I became a Carolina Hurricanes fan)

Editors Note: I apologize for going off-topic here, I intend to do a personal "world through my eyes" type blog but haven't yet.  So I'm posting it here!

With Rod Brind'Amour's jersey retirement tomorrow night - I found this note I wrote during the 2009 Playoffs on how in 30 days in the Spring of 2001 I became a Hurricanes fan.  Rod Brind'Amour may have scored some of the most important goals in team history and one of those goals in an important late regular season game the night before my 24th birthday started it all.

March 23, 2001 – April 22, 2001.

30 days. That’s all it took.

It began with a drive up from Charlotte for a Friday Night game against the Pens – the reason I bought the seven game stretch drive plan in the first place – and ended on a Sunday afternoon playoff game against New Jersey.

Those 30 days were when and how I switched my allegiances from the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Carolina Hurricanes.

It wasn’t easy. I grew up watching the Pens in the 80s and 90s. I was the kid in 8th grade spending time making signs for the school making different signs for the Pens first Stanley Cup. I stayed up late listening to games with Mike Lange welcoming you to the “Night Owl Club” that’s back when teams would travel out west twice a year.

It continued into high school. How many times – once we all could drive – would Dave, Augie, Michelle, Joe and I go to Damon’s or whatever that place was in Greensburg to watch a Pens playoff game. Which usually was watching the Caps choke much to our enjoyment. (CAPS = Can’t Advance in a Playoff Series).

Then on to college. The early days of Student Rush. Yes, there was a time with Student Rush where you could walk up five minutes before face-off…show your id…and get in. Now, you have to get there five hours early or longer! But how many times did myself and college friends go down to the Arena from RMC to watch a Pens game for $20 and sit in Level B behind the goal.

Confession time...my first experience with the Canes was a December 31, 1997 game in Pittsburgh. We kept taunting "Go Back to Hartford!"

In 1999, when the Pens were that close to folding. I’ll never forget watching Game Six against the Devils and watching Jagr and Straka win it in overtime. I was so nervous that they would lose the game and no longer exist. The win meant one more game. To this day, it's my favorite Pens series of all time. Then going to Game 6 vs. Toronto with Brian, Rick and Joyce seeing the team lose, and wondering out loud if this could be the last Pens game ever played.

I moved to North Carolina in January 2000. And in February of that year, I would go to my first Canes home game. I was in Raleigh for ‘corporate training’ and there were some free tickets and went and watched them lose to Montreal. Hey, it was free. I moved to Fayetteville that spring, and knew the team was in a playoff run – but they didn’t make it – missing out on the last day.

I watched the Pens from Fayetteville in the 2000 playoffs...beat the Caps...(so what else is new)...and then stayed up the entire five overtime loss in Game Four to the Flyers only to see the life sucked out of them and lose in six games.

Mario Lemieux announced he was returning to the game in December 2000 and I along with every other Pittsburgh Penguins fan near and far was ecstatic. They hadn’t played in Raleigh yet…and I had to come up for a game to see him play. And I guess because of that is how I would become a Canes fan.

The Canes that January were playing well…they had won something like six or seven in a row. They were playing the Kings on a Saturday or was it a Sunday…so I drove up from Fayetteville…and sat eight rows behind the goal for $45. Damn, I couldn’t believe how inexpensive that was! During the game, they were advertising a seven game stretch mini-plan. Starting at like $79 or something like that. The two upcoming Pens games were on it. Knowing that the games would be sold out, and that it was cheap hockey, I purchased a plan. For February and March (and if the Canes made the playoffs) I would be in Section 333 Row H Seat 7. I was going to see Lemieux play and maybe get some playoff games.

So I went to some games cheered for the Canes…but was eagerly looking forward to a March 23rd when the Pens were in town. In the middle of this, I moved to Gastonia.  Fortunatley, I only missed one week night game vs. Buffalo. So on that Friday afternoon, I left work early and made the three hour trek to Raleigh. It was a fun night – the place was packed a lot of excitement – and the Canes won. I had a Pens jersey on but was also glad the Canes won as they needed the win. I wasn’t wavering in my allegiances yet, but I certainly was starting to consider myself a fan of the team.

The following week when they played the Caps on March 30th (the day prior to my 24th birthday) would be a lot different. The Canes – who were desperately trying to make the playoffs – were humiliated the night before in Washington 8-0 or 8-1. The atmosphere was totally the opposite. Deflated, most thought they had no chance making the playoffs, and to add to that three busloads of Washington fans made the trek down I-95 for the game. Most of them were allegedly fans (bandwagoners) of Chris Simon. They were in the building loud, drunk, obnoxious and chanting “Simon’s Soldiers”. I can still hear that chant to this day.

It was a chippy game and went into overtime. The Canes desperately needed the win. The Canes were on the power play, and Brind’Amour’s deflection would win the game 3-2. The building cheered in elation as the team finally won a game they had to win. And the best part, those three busloads of Simon Soldiers that came down from Washington…they got into a wreck leaving the arena on Wade Avenue.

The Canes would go on a road trip, play well, and would ultimately clinch a spot a few days later. The night they clinched it, at home, the team showed the Bruins/Devils game on the jumbotron after the game with many fans staying to see the team…finally make the playoffs.

The Canes would face New Jersey that year…and I went home for Easter…I didn’t go to Game 3 or 4 since I was in PA..and I didn’t expect there even to be a sixth game.  But Brind'Amour had other things in mind, the team had lost Ron Francis and promising winger Shane Willis for the series on two vicious open ice hits by Scott Stevens.  (In fact, Willis' career would never be the same.)  Game 4 on a night that the team needed goals, let alone win, Rod Brind'Amour scored maybe what was/is the most important goal of the franchise.   In Overtime and in front of only 14,500 fans, Brind'Amour's overtime deflection of a Sammy Kapanen shot won the game 3-2.  The team rallied for a win in New Jersey forcing a Game Six back in Raleigh.  So on a gorgeous Sunday Afternoon, I left Gastonia and headed to Raleigh for this game.  By now, I had bought a Canes jersey (no player), a flag for the car and had one of the window cling numbers (Jeff O’Neill’s) that they were giving away that season on my car. (You can still see one every now and then in Raleigh. Almost a badge of honor.)

The drive up was different...there were people going to the game. You'd see folks with Canes Car Flags on I-85 and 40. And you'd honk your horn, nod, smile, and give a thumbs up. Already, this day was going to be something different. I got there early enough to walk around - didn't really know anyone to tailgate then - but did talk to a number of fans as we entered into the arena.   There was a buzz to the ESA that wasn't there before, Brind'Amour's goal and the team forcing a game six made this Sunday afternoon a sellout!


So a series that was supposed to be and started out as a cakewalk for the Devils…had suddenly become more competitive. The building was full…and LOUD...and even more intense energy than the Friday night Pittsburgh and Washington games a few weeks before. But the Canes after losing Shane Willis (who was a 20 + goal scorer that year) and Ron Francis to Scott Stevens…..well they just plain ran out of gas. With about five or six minutes to go in the game, they were down 5-1. Then something happened. I don’t know where it started, how it started, but it happened. And just thinking about it still gives me chills...and puts me back there for this game. For the last five minutes or so of this game, everyone stood…everyone cheered…everyone applauded…and it continued...into the post game handshake...and until the final Hurricane waved goodbye and off to the dressing room. It was something I had never seen, witnessed or participated in person or in watching a game.

It was at that moment, that you knew the game of hockey could make it down here, in spite of all the jokes from traditional hockey fans and locals too. (And there were a ton from locals then) Yes, there were moments before…but this one was different...this one was special.  I knew…and everyone to a man knew that hockey was going to stick here. And everyone around me that day…were thinking the same thing. "I think we have a team we can pull for folks," I heard one fan say leaving the arena. in and outside of the arena…no one was sad…people were walking out…knowing from what they just witnessed…that they as fans had a team. I can’t put into words to people who aren’t Canes fans…or weren’t there that Sunday Afternoon….what that feeling was like. But as a fan of the game or of any team, it is something you always want to experience. And most of us never get to.

It was THAT game…that experience that made me a fan of this team. If I wasn’t at game six that year…would it have still happened…I am sure it would have.  But it was that afternoon, that did it all. Seeing how the sport has grown and flourished in this area has been fun to watch. And I could go on and on about various moments since April 22, 2001. The 2002 Cup Run…watching the team win the Stanley Cup (from Albany in 2006), the second half of the 2009 season and the playoff that year, an unforgettable all-star weekend in 2011, the great folks and friends I have made, and meeting my best friend - my fiance Maggie tailgating in 2009.  But for me…those 30 days in 2001 are an always will be my favorite Hurricanes moments…and how I really truly became a fan of this team.

1 comment:

Dave Gribble said...

Personally, I'll always remember him as one of the Broad Street Bullies and Francis, of course, as a Pen.