Happy or peeved, Canes fans say they will be back

Minor-league game becomes pre-season opener, airing of grievances

akenney@newsobserver.comJanuary 6, 2013 

— The hordes of Canes jerseys in the PNC Arena parking lot Sunday afternoon made it look as if the National Hockey League season had already resumed. But the crowd of nearly 10,000 people was attending a special minor-league game – and many had feared it was the closest they’d get to NHL action this season.

“We thought there wasn’t going to be any hockey,” said Danielle Kinal, a six-year Carolina Hurricanes fan, as she headed toward the NHL team’s home arena to watch the Charlotte Checkers play.

That pessimistic assumption changed Sunday morning, though, as news of a potential end to the NHL lockout transformed the Checkers game from a reminder of hockey-that-wasn’t to an ebullient pre-season celebration.

Local hockey die-hards had filled their winter months with junior-league games, travel, spouse time and even football while negotiations between the NHL Players Association and the league wiped out half the 2012-13 schedule. As 8-year old Logan Walawender put it, “They were fighting for money. I was pretty mad.”

But on Sunday, with a deal nearly inked, it was all about skates, sticks and ice.

“To hockey!” six season-ticket fans cheered as they raised plastic glasses of champagne at the edge of the PNC parking lot. For the Northern natives, the Canes’ hockey arena is a natural social setting.

“We missed getting together,” said Erin Jordan, 47, of Fuquay-Varina.

Even the Hurricanes players and team staff went through a bit of that withdrawal during the ever-longer off-season.

“We really can’t interact with (the players). ... It’s one of those odd times where technically they aren’t working for us,” said Doug Warf, vice president of marketing for the Hurricanes. Even if they saw each other at a local bar, staff and players would have to trade cold shoulders or “just hope nobody from the league or the PA’s watching,” Warf said, laughing. But even if the promise of multimillion dollar contracts has the players and officials making nice now, some fans aren’t so sure yet.

The aforementioned champagne toasters refuse to wear their Canes gear until the season really starts. Other fans have styled their own new gear: “I Impeach Bettman” read one hand-written shirt, referring to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

‘I’m just angry’

One young father, Daniel Martin, had hoped to take his young son to his first NHL game this season. The 32-year-old Apex resident was happy to attend a minor-league game instead, contributing to an estimated 5-percent popularity bump for the Checkers this season.

But Martin won’t be at PNC when the puck next hits the ice for the Canes.

“I’m not coming back this season. I’m just angry,” Martin said, holding his son in the concourse.

The lockout also froze the flow of hockey dollars. Peter Hartin, who was working the Stevens Sausage Stop stand at PNC Arena, estimates he missed about $2,000 in wages from canceled hockey games. “Yeah, it hurts,” he said.

And while the Canes continued to donate to nonprofits through the off-season, local groups will have far fewer chances to raise money at the arena this season.

“There just won’t be as many scholarships this year,” said Isla Hinckley, a mother of two Millbrook High School marching band members. Typically, parents volunteer at the arena’s concession stands to pay down their kids’ thousands of dollars in band costs.

“Hockey’s our big one,” Hinckley said. In its absence, band parents have scrambled to make up the money with carwashes and fundraisers, she said.

‘A significant amount’

Local restaurants, meanwhile, lost out on the surge of customers who usually come to watch the NHL.

“I’m not going to get into figures, but it’s a significant account,” said David Droschak, marketing manager for Backyard Bistro, just across the street from PNC Arena. “We feel it, and we feel it in the gut, ’cause we’re all hockey people here.”

Droschak, who’s also a hockey journalist, has heard dozens of customers threaten to boycott the league. Regardless of whether they do, he said, the Hurricanes are likely to lose some of the momentum they’ve built since their championship season in 2006.

“In a market like North Carolina, and some of the other Southern markets ... any time there’s an interruption like this, it does nothing but hurt the product, and I think there will be a recovery time,” Droschak said.

But for all the complaints about management and the league echoing at PNC, one large, bearded man seemed to capture the mood best: “Hockey! Woooo! I like hockey.”

Even those promising a boycott seem to know it won’t last long. Jamie Thompson was fuming during the lockout. But now, he said, “I don’t care. Just play the game.”

And while Daniel Martin’s son might not see his first Canes game this year, the family will be back next season.

“As much as they lock us out,” Martin said, “we always come back.”

Of course, there was still some doubt Sunday that the hockey nightmare really had ended.

“It’s all just lawyer stuff now,” Trippe Fried, a Durham native, assured his dad, Mike.

“Oh, what could go wrong?” came the response.

Kenney: 919-460-2608 or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary

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