DeCock: NHL may have canceled opening night, but fans take stand

ldecock@newsobserver.comOctober 27, 2012 

— Two hours before what would have been the Carolina Hurricanes’ home opener, the franchise that introduced big-time tailgating to the NHL had only empty parking lots to offer.

It wasn’t the greatest night for tailgating, breezy with an increasing chill under cloudy skies, but it wasn’t the weather keeping people away Friday night. Instead of the New York Rangers coming to town, instead of Staal and Staal vs. Staal, there was nothing.

Still, not even the absence of a hockey game could keep Hurricanes fans from the swift consumption of their appointed rounds outside PNC Arena, and two hardy groups of tailgaters set up in their usual spots, undeterred by hockey owners and players determined to ignore them.

At the entrance to the handicap lot outside the arena’s west entrance, a group that will occasionally number in the triple digits for big games in warm weather was expecting a few dozen die-hards to gather under their flag as it flapped in the wind. They clutched beers and compared Hurricanes tattoos as they set up big foil trays of food from the Backyard Bistro, across the street.

“We tried to pay but they wouldn’t let us, once they found out what we were doing,” said Clare Cook, a former president of the Hurricanes’ booster club, who wore her Chad LaRose T-shirt inside-out, in protest.

(“I’m protesting, but I’m not going that far,” grumbled Bill “Jones” Jones, whose long-sleeved Hurricanes T-shirt was donned correctly.)

Anger. Sadness. Wistfulness. Where there was once anticipation for the season and good cheer ahead of the inevitable departure for seats inside, among the six fans to arrive first, there was a glum acceptance that their feelings didn’t matter, and open debate over what degree their fandom would take when the NHL did return.

“What about the fans?” said Jones’ wife Gabi, who gestured at her husband. “He’s always watching NHL Network, every day when I come home from work.”

“I watch junior hockey on NHL Network,” Vern Doupe said. “It’s better than nothing.”

A few discussed whether to go to watch N.C. State’s club team play later Friday night at Raleigh Center Ice to get their hockey fix, but talk inevitably returned to the Hurricanes, and the season that had not yet started – and might never start.

“This sucks,” Gabi Jones said. “We should be going inside right now.”

Not far away, on a grassy expanse on the east side of the arena, another group of regular tailgaters gathered under a tent. They planned to stay, they said, “until the booze runs out.” They were prepared for an overtime or two on that front.

Another group of tailgaters from the same area had a ceremonial parking-lot beer earlier in the afternoon before retiring to a substitute opening-night party at someone’s house. But this group had its grill set up – steaks, pork chops, bratwurst – and their custom photo bean bags at the ready. Nevertheless, something was missing. Obviously.

Only Chadwick the Chihuahua, 6, in his red Hurricanes canine jersey, didn’t sense anything amiss, but as the seven humans sat in their folding chairs and marveled at the inability of owners and players to make a deal – again! – the sense of loss was palpable.

“It just doesn’t seem to make any sense,” said Paul Williams, expressing the unanimous opinion of these hardest of the hard-core fans.

In a week when the owners refused to meet with the players, on the same day the NHL canceled the entire November schedule, these fans tailgated before a game that will never be played, still in love with a sport that steadfastly refuses to love them back.

DeCock:, Twitter: @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947

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