DeCock

Raleigh's hockey reputation is on the rise

Success in hosting 2011 All-Star game gets word out on growing fan base

Staff WriterJanuary 28, 2012 

— The commercials for this year's NHL All-Star Game in Ottawa show the actual Ottawa skyline, unlike those last year which used a composite of buildings elsewhere to depict a made-up Raleigh skyline.

The TV commercials were the final slap of indignity delivered by the league (and its television partners) in fulfilling its long-delayed promise to bring an All-Star Game to Raleigh. And given how successful that weekend was, one year ago, it's hard to imagine those same mistakes being made again.

The alacrity with which Raleigh hosted one of the sport's biggest events and the way fans here embraced it changed its reputation as a hockey market forever.

It's easy for a team to get excited about winning the Stanley Cup. It's much more difficult to get excited about an All-Star Game, which at its heart is really a convention for insiders.

The way Raleigh embraced the All-Star Game, the way the city's improved convention and hotel facilities provided a seamless experience for the NHL's most important people and business partners, made a deep impression.

"I really was amazed at the amount of people and the people coming to town," said Shane Willis, who has lived here since he played for the Hurricanes from 2000-02 and now oversees youth-hockey development for the franchise.

"What impressed me more was the reaction of the outside people after the game, saying how great Raleigh was, how great the people there were and how great the set-up and the game actually were. Once people play here, they kind of realize that. I think that's why you see so many guys still around. But it was nice to get that outside reaction."

Few outsiders in town that weekend will soon forget the lines for Jeff Skinner's autograph. And they won't remember struggling to hail a taxi or getting lost, because there were fleets of charter buses on the streets to make sure it didn't happen.

Which was exactly what the people here who put so much time into making sure that happened were hoping. The $11.4 million in direct visitor spending was nice, but selling Raleigh was far more important.

"For some outsiders, maybe it was a bit of a surprise or unexpected that a quote-unquote 'nontraditional hockey market' like Raleigh could step up and host an event of that size and scope as successfully as we did," said Scott Dupree, the vice president for sports marketing at the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau and the co-chair of the All-Star local organizing committee.

As important as the All-Star experience was for the city, it was just as important for the team. That All-Star Game was the latest step in a natural progression that began with the 2001 playoffs, accelerated with the trip to the finals in 2002 and exploded for obvious reasons in 2006.

Having some of the league's best players enjoy their time here is a valuable free-agent recruiting tool. Montreal (2009) and Ottawa (2012) may not need to reinforce their standing as hockey markets, but in a place like this, it never hurts to have players elsewhere impressed.

And players were impressed.

"I definitely heard comments from guys who didn't know how popular it was here, how excited people get about their hockey," said former Hurricanes forward Andrew Ladd, now the captain of the Winnipeg Jets. "For an All-Star Game, the excitement was above normal, for sure."

Over the decade it took for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to fulfill his original promise to bring the game here, it was easy to believe it would never happen. Now, a year later, it's almost hard to believe it went so well.

luke.decock@newsobserver.com, twitter.com/LukeDeCock or 919-829-8947

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