As a new generation of hockey players puts on skates and takes to the ice for the first time this fall, the youngest of them will have lived their entire lives without the Carolina Hurricanes playing a postseason game.
That’s how long it has been since the Hurricanes were in the playoffs: May 26, 2009. The playoff runs in 2002, 2006 and 2009 did more than anything to build the fan base that is now putting its kids on skates because it seems like the natural thing to do. But with each passing year, that experience becomes more distant, more abstract, less catalyzing.
That’s why, as training camp opens Thursday, there has never been more pressure on the Hurricanes to make the playoffs than there is this year.
Not when the team arrived here.
Not when it moved into what is now called PNC Arena.
Not after that ovation at the end of the New Jersey Devils series in 2001.
Not after making it to the Stanley Cup finals in 2002.
Not after that dead-last finish in 2003.
Not coming out of the lockout in 2005.
Not after winning the Stanley Cup in 2006.
Not after the playoff run in 2009.
Not after another lockout ended last January.
No, none of that compares to now, not even the year when Kevin Dineen called the first game of the season a “must-win,” not even the year coming out of the season-long lockout that had the potential to cripple the franchise without success to energize surly fans.
Remember when the Hurricanes moved here, only 16 years ago, and there was considerable hand-wringing over whether a franchise in North Carolina could survive, let alone compete? They were far more successful making the playoffs during their first seven seasons here than they have been in the seven seasons since winning the Stanley Cup, and that was before entering a difficult new division this season.
Somehow, the situation managed to get worse on the ice even as it got better away from it.
As a hockey market, the Triangle has flourished. It successfully hosted the NHL Draft and All-Star Game. Hockey participation continues to grow. More players from the Triangle are playing college and junior hockey. It’s only a matter of time until the Triangle produces its first NHL draft pick.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on Eric Staal and Cam Ward, the only players left from 2006. Staal will be 29 in October. Ward is 29 now. While their careers have years to run, they’re cresting the middle now. Their utility to the franchise is finite, and replacing them won’t be easy, just as the Hurricanes have yet to adequately replace so many of the key pieces from 2006 and 2009.
Every year Peter Karmanos and Jim Rutherford fail to surround them with enough pieces to be successful, the clock keeps ticking. They’re under additional pressure now to replace Joni Pitkanen after it was announced Wednesday the defenseman would miss the season – after being injured in April on a completely meaningless icing play.
This is bigger than Pitkanen, though. It’s about the compact between franchise and community. The Triangle has done its part. It has embraced and internalized hockey, maybe not right away, but certainly with the passage of time.
It’s time for the Hurricanes to hold up their end of the bargain. They have to do whatever it takes, spend whatever it takes to make the playoffs this year. They owe it to their fans. They owe it to the Triangle.