Hurricanes' hockey fans winning over Muller

First-year Canes coach has worked in hockey hotbeds

calexander@newsobserver.comApril 4, 2012 

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The Carolina Hurricanes' head coach Kirk Muller directs Jussi Jokinen (36) during the first period of an NHL game played between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Toronto Maple Leafs at the RBC Center in Raleigh NC on Dec. 29, 2011.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com

  • 7 p.m.

    FSCR, WCMC-99.9

— The Carolina Hurricanes play their last home game of the season tonight, hosting the Montreal Canadiens, and there could be a full house at PNC Arena.

If it is a sellout, it will be the fifth straight at home. Fans have turned out in droves to support a team that won’t be in the Stanley Cup playoffs again this year.

Kirk Muller has experienced quite an education in his first year with the team and first as an NHL head coach. He has had much to learn about the community, the market and Hurricanes fans.

When almost 3,000 fans came Sunday to PNC Arena to see the Hurricanes’ first alumni game on a sunny spring day, Muller could only smile and shake his head. No one was expecting that, and more than $50,000 was raised for the Hurricanes’ Kids ’N Community Foundation.

“I had heard these stories from friends who had played here and people in this area who are involved with the team,” Muller said. “But you get a different perspective when you’re here involved with the club than when you come as a visitor.

“The fans are great. They’re really into the team, they’re excited about the team, they’re supportive. With the alumni game, the turnout was awesome.”

Muller was raised in Kingston, Ontario, roughly midway between Toronto and Montreal, and played both for the Maple Leafs and Canadiens during his NHL career. While in Montreal, he won a Stanley Cup in 1993 and later was the Habs’ team captain.

“It’s a very passionate market,” Muller said. “There are a lot of passionate people in that province and across the country, a big following.”

For the past five years, Muller was an assistant coach for the Habs. Two times per season, the Canadiens – and a horde of Montreal media – came to Raleigh for Hurricanes games. The team bus would pass the tailgaters and pregame parties, and the arena was loud.

Now, Muller’s at the center of that storm, so to speak.

When the Hurricanes won March 18 in Winnipeg, rallying to beat the Jets 4-3, Muller was asked afterward by Canadian reporters about his team playing well while drawing scant attention when playoff contenders were mentioned.

“We’re in a market where nobody talks about us, but our record has been strong,” Muller replied.

The day the Canes played Winnipeg, N.C. State and North Carolina both won NCAA Tournament basketball games to advance to the Round of 16.

The Wolfpack and Tar Heels received extensive coverage from Triangle media. The Hurricanes again played a road game with no local coverage from independent media.

“I’ve never seen that as an issue,” Canes general manager Jim Rutherford said of media coverage. “When you look at what other major-league sports teams deal with, whether in markets with schools or other major-league teams, to me this couldn’t be better.

“We all have our niche here. Everybody is well-respected in what they do – all the major schools and the Hurricanes. I think we have it as good as you can get.”

As for the feedback he has gotten from Muller about the market, Rutherford said, “He loves it. He sees the passion of our fans and where we’re at now and where we can go. Based on what he’s told me, he’s very impressed with our market and our fans.”

On Monday, Muller addressed the need to play well in tonight’s home finale.

“I really hope the last game of the year we bounce back for our fans and give them a good showing, because they deserve it,” he said. “They’re supportive right to the end. You can’t take that for granted.”

Note: The Hurricanes (32-32-16) are coming off a 2-1 road victory Tuesday over the Ottawa Senators. The team arrived in Raleigh Wednesday morning and did not practice.

The Hurricanes on Wednesday reassigned forward Drayson Bowman to the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL. The Checkers are fighting to reach the AHL playoffs, and having Bowman in the lineup should help, Rutherford said.

Forward Andreas Nodl, who has missed the past seven games with an upper-body injury, will return tonight against Montreal, Rutherford said.

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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