Raleigh -- Years of political gamesmanship over building the Entertainment and Sports Arena gave way to real sports Friday night as the Carolina Hurricanes christened the building with dry ice, laser lights and a hard-hitting hockey game, albeit a 4-2 loss to New Jersey.
"We've got one night of grins and smiles," said Perry Safran, a member of the Centennial Authority, which has been at the center of the storm over building the arena.
A big-league traffic tie-up around the arena meant an early scattering of empty seats despite an announced sellout. But boisterous fans sporting red Hurricanes sweaters and T-shirts made up for any late arrivals and no-shows with lots of noise for Raleigh's first major-league team.
But it wasn't just Triangle residents who turned out. John Healey Sr. and his son drove all the way from Branford, Conn., to watch the Canes' Triangle debut. Both men followed the franchise when it played in Hartford and the team was called the Whalers.
"We're faithful," said John Jr., wearing a green and blue Whalers sweater.
After leaving home at 7:30 a.m. Thursday, they spent the night in a Virginia hotel and arrived in the Triangle at 8:30 a.m. Friday. But finding the Triangle was easier than getting to the stadium. "The only thing I wish they'd done," said the elder Healey, "is put street signs out. I must have gone up and down - what is it, Hillsborough Street? - 10 times."
For those who sought omens, there were plenty of potential signs to choose from.
Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer and authority chairman Steve Stroud, interviewed separately, both mentioned the abundance of fans outside waving "Need tickets" signs. "I think that speaks well for the future of the Hurricanes and the arena," said Stroud, who had stopped on his way in to thank tailgating fans for coming.
A better omen for the team, though, may have been high in the northern end of the coliseum on Row P, the highest seat in the house.
Their seats were perhaps the worst possible, but Andy and Rachelle McLamb and their sons Christopher, 11, and Ian, 5, were beaming.
They may have been looking down onto the ice from a dizzying height, but they were also looking on the bright side. "Oh no, these are the best seats in the house," Andy McLamb said. "There's no one behind you kicking you."
"We're just happy to be here," said his wife. "Just to be able to bring the kids; now they'll always be able to say they were here."
The lifelong Erwin residents had driven 45 minutes to attend the game. "Erwin may not be hockey country now, but we're gonna make it hockey country," Rachelle McLamb said.
Ticket demand was clearly higher than supply for the sold-out game, with several clusters of would-be buyers standing at the entrances of parking lots and beside walkways.
Chip Little, an N.C. State student, was standing beside an entrance to the parking area in a Hurricanes sweater, yelling at passing cars that he needed tickets. Flanking him were two men holding signs saying they wanted to buy, too.
A car pulled over, and the passenger sold Little a ticket for $40.
"Man, you got the deal of the night," said one of his companions, who said he had just paid $150 each for two tickets and had seen two others change hands for twice that amount.
Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos said the evening made him think back to the arena's groundbreaking in 1997.
"I remember that first shovel of red dirt," Karmanos said. "The wind was blowing 100 miles per hour, we were all wet, we were red, but I always felt we'd get here. "
Karmanos, who flew into the Triangle Friday afternoon, walked up to the arena about 5:15 p.m., looking for a way into the building. He couldn't contain his excitement. "I was too nervous to eat lunch today," he said.
Some of the fans arrived before Karmanos. Missing a few front teeth like a real hockey player, 7-year-old Andrew Carter tried launching slap shots at a booth set up with a painted goaltender and a radar gun. His dad, Alan, clapped as Andrew clocked in at 37 mph.
Asked what kind of a Canes fan he is, Andrew flashed a nearly toothless grin:
(Staff writer Chip Alexander contributed to this story.)