A story on Page 1A Sunday misstated the number of ice rinks that were open in the Triangle before the Carolina Hurricanes' arrival in North Carolina. Three rinks were open in 1997 when the Canes began playing in Greensboro.
As a group of teenage hockey players glided across the ice, practicing their puck-handling skills and building endurance, a smaller group - in number and stature - jumped onto the pull-up bars in an adjacent room.
These 11- and 12-year-old hockey players had just spent an hour on the Raleigh IcePlex surface, working through their own on-ice practice.
Immediately after, they piled their pads, skates and helmets in the building's entryway and muscled into a post-practice workout that lasted more than an hour.
Two coaches in warm-up suits walked slowly through the room, providing encouragement and instruction, adjusting legs and arms as the kids cycled through a series of stretches. In the hall, some dads chatted over sodas while others typed on laptops.
On a random Wednesday night, parents and skaters stuffed this rink, with shifts of older kids ready to take over as soon as a group left the ice. It is a scene that has repeated itself for decades in Northern hockey towns such as Chicago, Toronto and Detroit, but owes its appearance in the Triangle to the arrival of the Carolina Hurricanes, a move that has transformed even homegrown Southerners into diehard fans.
"Every school I ever went to is within two miles of my house, including N.C. State," said Russell Berry of Raleigh, whose son, Jamison, 12, sweated it out in the exercise room. "We didn't know how to spell 'hockey' when I was at Broughton."
Love of game spreads
Hockey culture grips the region a little bit more each year. In 2010, a national youth hockey ranking service named a group of Triangle players as the best 9- and 10-year-old team in the country. Meghan Grieves, a 16-year-old who grew up in Cary but attends prep school in Indiana to help refine her hockey skills, recently made a verbal commitment to attend Boston College on a full scholarship.
In the parking lot of the RBC Center before Canes games, low-country boils and pork barbecue share space at tailgate parties with grilled bratwursts, an upper Midwestern delicacy that Triangle transplants carried with them.
There are six ice rinks in the Triangle, an increase from the one that predates the Canes' arrival in Raleigh.
Native fans long ago absorbed the game's nuances. The Canes scoreboard takes less time to explain penalty calls to the fans who grew up on basketball and football. Fans are much more likely to see pro wrestler and North Carolina legend Ric Flair shout "Wooo!" for the crowd.
But for all that fun, this hockey passion is also serious business.
Those 11- and 12-year-olds are training for a nearly two-week hockey tournament in Quebec.
A fan base builds
The Triangle has not always harbored such fire for the puck and stick. Paul Strand, youth and amateur hockey coordinator for the Hurricanes, played for the Raleigh IceCaps during the 1997-98 season, the last of that minor league team's stint in Dorton Arena.
It was also the first year of the Canes' relocation to North Carolina, when the NHL team played its games in the Greensboro Coliseum. While curtains covered thousands of empty seats in Greensboro, the IceCaps drew between 500 and 1,000 fans each game, Strand said, and many of those were not hockey fanatics.
"Their understanding of the exact rules was limited," said Strand, a native Canadian. "It was definitely different than being in Edmonton."
Schaefer O'Neill, president of a Raleigh software company, has been a Canes season ticket holder since the Greensboro days. He remembers plenty of empty seats, along with North Carolina transplants who had not given up their prior hockey allegiances. And they were loud.
"That was frustrating, having as many people rooting for the other side."
But once the Canes moved to their permanent home in West Raleigh, fan commitment began to build.
Canes TV broadcaster John Forslund credits good teams with helping drive interest in pro hockey. Fan fervor jelled in 2002 when the Hurricanes advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals before losing to the Detroit Red Wings. In 2006, when the Canes won it all, it seemed like every other car in Raleigh flew a Canes window flag. The arena was praised on national television as one of the loudest in the league.
"Without that success," Forslund said, "how do you generate enthusiasm?"
From parents to children
Adults caught up in it passed it to their children, and children who fell for the game persuaded their hockey-challenged parents to pony up for sticks and skates and registration fees. Kids love to play, and they love to watch the Canes in person.
As O'Neill put it: "They can yell, 'ref you suck!' and not get in trouble. When kids get involved, it's a wonderful thing."
The Canes have invested in the next generation of hockey stars, helping sponsor the Raleigh Youth Hockey Association.
The local hockey community takes genuine pride in the success of Charlie Pelnik, 15, a sophomore at Cardinal Gibbons High School, who recently accepted a full hockey scholarship to the University of North Dakota. Followers of youth hockey believe Charlie could become only the second player from North Carolina taken in the NHL draft.
Enrollment in the youth hockey association has doubled in size in the last dozen or so years and now includes about 1,200 kids, said Steve Henley, the organization's director.
The group schedules games in each of the Triangle's six ice rinks, which include facilities in Wake Forest, Garner and Hillsborough.
Henley credits the rise in youth interest in part to the slew of former minor league and NHL players who have made the Triangle home. These players volunteer as coaches and help with skating clinics. Aaron Ward, Rod Brind'Amour and Ron Francis are among those who have shared their skills with the younger generation.
Chad Grieves, whose daughter will attend Boston College to play hockey, figures that if the Canes hadn't relocated here from Connecticut, his children probably never would have played serious hockey.
As it turns out, they went to school in Cary with the daughter of Glen Wesley, the retired Canes defenseman.
Wesley, a native Canadian, still lives in the area and works for the Canes. He coaches, too.
Last week, while those little kids went through those drills in the exercise room, Wesley was out on the ice, helping coach his teenage son, Josh.
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