Canes won acceptance in first run to Stanley Cup finals

calexander@newsobserver.comMay 27, 2012 

— The Carolina Hurricanes did not win the Stanley Cup in 2002. That would come later.

But what the Canes did win a decade ago perhaps was just as precious and hard-earned: acceptance.

The passing of time can’t diminish all that Hurricanes team did that year. For the first time, the Stanley Cup finals were in Raleigh. The Detroit Red Wings were the opponents, and the NHL media had to take a deeper, longer look at the Hurricanes, the area, filing stories after bites of Carolina barbeque.

"It was an incredible time, an incredible run," said Ron Francis, the Canes’ captain in 2002.

Playoff games were won and new heroes born. There was the "Miracle at Molson" and "The Secret Assassin," gritty comebacks and overtime wins and a three-overtime thriller for the ages against the Wings, all creating memories but also creating a legacy.

"Has it been 10 years already? Unbelievable," said Martin Gelinas, a forward on the ’02 Canes. "That playoff run, so unexpected, really established the team in that market."

The NHL franchise, owned by Peter Karmanos Jr., relocated from Hartford, Conn., in 1997, transforming from the Hartford Whalers to the Carolina Hurricanes. For two years, while the arena was being built in Raleigh, they played in Greensboro, usually before a lot of empty seats while losing a lot of money.

The Canes first played in Raleigh in the fall of 1999 and reached the playoffs in 2001, facing the New Jersey Devils in the opening round and losing in six games. Still, it was a struggle as the Hurricanes sought to sell more season tickets and create a solid fan base, sharing an arena that was N.C. State’s new basketball home.

But the drive to the Stanley Cup finals the next year changed everything.

Those once considered outsiders now belonged. Sports fans who had long glared at each other as rivals found a common bond.

"That’s when you started seeing all the Hurricanes flags on cars and everyone rallying around the team," said Paul Maurice, the Canes coach in ’02. "It was really the coming-out party for us. It was a wakeup call for the rest of the league as to what we had going in Carolina."

The Hurricanes were the Southeast Division winners that season. Francis, then 39, was a future hockey hall of famer and the Canes had talented veterans such as Rod Brind’Amour and Glen Wesley.

But they also were fueled with the youthful energy of forwards Erik Cole, Bates Battaglia, Jaroslav Svoboda and the late Josef Vasicek. They had the competitive zeal of Arturs Irbe in net. They had the toughness of Sean Hill and the speed of Sami Kapanen.

"We had Ronnie and a lot of character guys behind him, just a lot of good people," Brind’Amour said.

The Canes were considered the quintessential underdogs once in the playoffs. Few in the NHL expected them to beat the New Jersey Devils in the opening round, but they did. Few believed they could get past the Montreal Canadiens – and the hottest goaltender in the league that year, Jose Theodore – in the second round, but they did.

Standing in the way in the Eastern Conference finals were the Toronto Maple Leafs, like Montreal one of the NHL’s “Original Six” franchises and one seeking its first Stanley Cup since 1967. . But the Leafs fell in six games, with Gelinas delivering the winning goal in overtime in Game 6.

"Some of the teams we were beating, we weren’t as good as or as talented as," Francis said. "But with heart and desire and hard work, we were able to overcome those things."

Fan fever

All that was appreciated by those who followed them. For the first time, Canes fans gathered en masse at RDU to welcome the team home after playoff road games. The pregame tailgates outside the Entertainment and Sports Arena – the original, if unimaginative name for the building that opened in 1999 – became bigger, more festive.

"The entire community came together to root for one team like never before," said Raleigh’s Jim Cain, then the Hurricanes’ team president. "We were used to having rivalries split us, growing up as ACC fans. That brought us together and created the base for the team moving forward."

The Devils series in 2001 gave the locals a first taste of postseason hockey in their home arena. But the 2002 playoffs stretched into June, extending the party, turning up the volume. Tickets were being scalped and merchandise at “The Eye,” the team store at the arena, was hard to keep stocked.

“The first few years in Raleigh, we had people come out to see what our game was was all about,” Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said. “But it was the first time everybody came together at one time and really felt pride in the Hurricanes.”

Bronze statues of presidents on the State Capitol lawn were adorned with Canes jerseys. The N.C. Museum of Art showed off a huge “Go Canes!” banner and the mayors of Raleigh, Durham and Cary joined together for a “One Team, One Dream” promotion.

At St. Michael’s Catholic School in Cary, students were allowed to wear Hurricanes gear instead of their usual navy, khaki and white uniforms. Canes decals seemed to pop up everywhere.

"I remember it being almost over the top," Brind’Amour said. "It was crazy, the fever."

And transformative.

"I think that was the year the identity of what we now know as ’Caniacs’ was formed," said John Forslund, then and now the Hurricanes’ television play-by-play announcer. "That dynamic took place in the 2002 playoffs.

"The team became ‘their’ team, whether they were transplants to the area who had pulled for other NHL teams or someone born here with football and basketball allegiances. They put all that aside."

Nerice Lochansky was born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and was 13 when the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994. By 2002, her family had moved to the Raleigh area and she was attending the University of South Carolina.

Lochansky and her father, Harry, a retired postal worker, took in some Canes playoff games. Interviewed by The News & Observer in 2002, she said, "I just wanted to be a part of it. This is the way the playoffs should be: a full arena, a lot of noise and everyone hoarse when it’s over."

Ten years later, the memories are just as fresh.

"There was an overwhelming buzz around town," said Lochansky, who now lives in Richmond, Va., and works in the Virginia Commonwealth University Residential Life and Housing department. "It was in-your-face – from the news and media outlets to debates over victories and defeats in line at the grocery store.

"I definitely agree that the level of rallying around the team and the sport of hockey was ratcheted up to an entirely different level for the area. ... There was something special about that season and the playoffs that I think really changed how the team was viewed in the city and probably in the league, too. ... Seriously, if you weren’t a Canes fan before, there was absolutely no way you could have been in that arena and not gotten swept up in the energy surrounding the team."

Special games

Debates? Many still argue over which of the playoff games that year was the most compelling.

Maurice points to Game 5 against the Devils in the Meadowlands. With the series tied 2-2 and the score tied 2-2, backup goalie Kevin Weekes – given the start ahead of Irbe – made a sparkling glove save on a John Madden shot in overtime.

"Madden was alone in the slot," Maurice said. "We were down and out. I was already stepping down from behind the bench. It was an incredible save."

And the Canes then won 3-2 on a goal by Vasicek.

"To me, that was the turning point," Maurice said. "That’s when I believed then we could do something special.”

Something special? The Canes trailed the Canadiens 2-1 in the Eastern Conference semifinals and found themselves in a 3-0 hole in the third period of Game 4 at what then was the Molson Centre in Montreal.

But Hill and Battaglia scored. Cole then tied the score 3-3 with 41 seconds left in regulation, stunning everyone. When defenseman Niclas Wallin ripped a slapshot past Theodore in overtime, the "miracle" was complete and Wallin, who had scored one goal in the regular season, was "The Secret Assassin."

"We were the Cinderella team every round," said Wesley, who anchored the Canes’ blue line. "That’s what made it so special – it was us against the world."

The Maple Leafs were next. Again, the Hurricanes prevailed as Gelinas slapped in the series-deciding goal in Game 6 in Toronto.

“The building went silent,.” Gelinas said. “It felt pretty good, actually.”

The Red Wings

It was Canes vs Wings in the Cup finals. Detroit, with no NHL salary cap to constrain it, had a veritable All-World team in 2002 – Brett Hull and Sergei Federov, Dominek Hasek and Steve Yzerman and others and renowned coach Scotty Bowman behind the bench.

"I think the starting lineup they put on the ice made more than our entire team’s payroll," Francis said.

And then Francis knocked in an overtime goal in Game 1, in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, in "Hockeytown USA," for a 3-2 victory.

The Wings rebounded to win Game 2 and the series shifted to Raleigh – to "Mayberry," as one Detroit columnist put it. It was the first Stanley Cup finals game for the franchise and the Caniacs were waiting and ready ar the arena.

One homemade sign read: “Welcome to Aunt Bee’s House.”

Francis said he recalls watching TV in the arena and seeing a live report from the parking lots.

"It was like 90-some degrees outside," he said. "A gentleman came in who had a landscaping truck. He pulled an inflatable pool out of his truck and then filled it with the water he had in the back of the truck. There was a bunch of them sitting in the pool, having some beers and waiting for the game to start.”

That’s something you don’t see in, say, Ottawa. Or Detroit.

"That whole run, it just took everything to a whole different level here – the fan experience, the whole excitement,” Francis said.

Games 3 was a classic – there’s no other way to put it. Hull tied the score 2-2 on a tip-in with barely a minute left in regulation and the game then stretched into overtime, then a second OT, then a third.

Finally, the Wings’ Igor Larionov found a way to beat Irbe and it ended 3-2, Detroit.

"That one broke our backs," Maurice said.

The Wings went on to claim the Cup in five games. The Hurricanes would wait another four years before their Cup celebration.

But 2002 was special. As Battaglia said, “It put us over the hump.”

For the Canes, for the franchise’s place in the community, for youth hockey, that playoff run was a pivotal moment.

"I think we earned some respect from most Carolinians," Wesley said. "That was important for us. You just can’t come in here and expect people are going to support you. You have to earn that respect, that credibility.

"I think it was really established from that point on."

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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