RALEIGH — It's Fan Appreciation Week for the Carolina Hurricanes. They're giving away a Jeff Skinner wall cling today. And the Hurricanes desperately need a win over the Buffalo Sabres if they're going to beat out the Sabres for a playoff spot.
Yet that may not be enough to get some season-ticket holders into the building, otherwise devoted and committed Hurricanes fans who refuse to deal with the hassles caused by Sabres fans.
This problem dates back to the 2006 playoffs, when visiting Buffalo fans provoked fights and arrests and smashed the giveaway pint glasses in the RBC Center parking lots. Five years later, there are still plenty of fans who say they have had so many bad experiences with Sabres fans that they'd rather not come at all.
"There's a discomfort for a lot of people about going to Buffalo games," said Ken Ast, a Hurricanes full season-ticket holder originally from upstate New York. "It's not just a few of us."
Ast went to the March 3 win over the Sabres after selling his tickets to Buffalo games three years running. He gave today's tickets to his sons and will watch on TV instead, avoiding what he described as "kind of a general nastiness."
As is always the case, a few inebriated jerks acting like inebriated jerks give the literally thousands of passionate but otherwise normal Sabres fans in the area a bad name.
Oddly enough, many Hurricanes fans who have attended games in Buffalo report overwhelmingly positive experiences. There's just something about games here that seems to bring out the worst in some Sabres fans - and yet not, to the same degree, in fans of other teams who attend in sizable contingents.
There are a few louts in every crowd. The Buffalo crowd just seems to have more than its share.
"I find every Buffalo game unpleasant," said Chuck Wright, a Hurricanes fan who skipped the Hurricanes' earlier home game against the Sabres for that reason. "There are a lot of Buffalo people who live here now for jobs and the lifestyle, and they're big Sabres fans and big Bills fans, and that's fine.
"But some of the behavior is just - I don't want my kids exposed to it, the F-bombs and over-the-top type behavior. It's like they're trying to prove something because they're on enemy turf."
Arena general manager Dave Olsen said that the majority of incidents with visiting fans either occur in the parking lots or start there, so the arena will have extra parking-lot bike patrols to keep an eye on things before the game even starts.
"Cheering loud for Buffalo or chanting or whatever, there's nothing wrong with being fans," Olsen said. "This is America. This is what we do. But if they cross the line, then find someone in a red vest or jacket."
In a perfect world, every seat in the building would be held by a Hurricanes season-ticket holder, limiting the number of "enemy" fans at any given game. That's not going to happen in this economy or this market. On the contrary, the home fans are staying away.
Last year's two home games against Buffalo both drew fewer than 16,000 fans and each was the smallest crowd of the month it was played - despite the considerable number of Buffalo fans attending.
When the Sabres last visited on March 3, for a game of similar importance in the standings, the Hurricanes drew an unimpressive crowd of 15,213. That was again the smallest crowd of the month and the second-lowest attendance of 23 home games in 2011.
Before that March 3 game, I asked via Twitter whether there were Hurricanes fans who really stayed away from games against Buffalo.
The response was overwhelming, with a wide diversity of answers - many fans answering in the affirmative, Sabres fans defending or distancing themselves and, yes, a few Sabres fans acting like jerks.
"We're not [afraid] or anything. It's just one of those things," said 26-game mini-plan holder Laura Hamlyn, who said the opponent was a contributing factor in the decision to give away her tickets to that Buffalo game. (Fatigue was another.) "Sunday's going to be huge, so I'm sure they're going to be loud and proud."
This is the Hurricanes' last chance to make the playoffs. A loss today and they're finished. Their only hope is to pick up two points on the Sabres today, win their final three games and hope for a little help elsewhere.
Wright, who also skipped the game last month, is debating whether to go today, although this time his schedule that would keep him away, not the atmosphere.
"I'd like to go for a couple reasons," Wright said. "One, it's a very important game and we're playing very well. Two, I do think we need to take a stand at some point and take our home field back."
There's too much on the line for the Hurricanes today for their fans to be bullied out of their own building. It's time for the Hurricanes to defend their home turf, on and off the ice. Because otherwise, the Buffalo fans win.