The Stanley Cup was in the building, polished and readied. It was overtime, Game 5, and the Carolina Hurricanes were on the power play, at home, with a 3-1 series lead on the Edmonton Oilers and the Cup within their grasp.
This was the culmination of a long season with a team that was half holdovers from the run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2002 and half newcomers. The Hurricanes had been one of the NHL’s best teams in the regular season and recovered from a first-round stumble, losing the opening two games against the Montreal Canadiens, to take four straight. A simple five-game series win over the New Jersey Devils followed.
Which is not to say all was easy. Rookie goalie Cam Ward supplanted regular-season starter Martin Gerber in the Montreal series, then lost his job back to Gerber during a difficult Eastern Conference finals series with the Buffalo Sabres before reclaiming it. The Hurricanes were losing, at home, going into the third period of Game 7 only to rally to win.
They kept right on going against the Oilers, winning both games in Raleigh and getting a split in Edmonton to return home for Game 5 on June 14, 2006, with a chance to win the Cup. Then Cory Stillman turned the puck over in front of his own net during the overtime power-play and Fernando Pisani scored the winner for the Oilers.
Back across the continent to Edmonton the Hurricanes went, only to fall 4-0 in their worst game of the playoffs. The Cup they were so close to winning never seemed farther away. An entire season’s work, on the brink of success, was now at risk of being washed away.
How the Hurricanes rallied to play one of their best games of the playoffs in a tightly contested Game 7 on June 19, a 3-1 Carolina victory, is one of the great untold stories of that postseason. Until now.
The Game 6 performance was one of the great disappointments of the playoffs. The Hurricanes had been on the verge of winning the Cup in Game 5 and had another chance in Game 6, only to come out completely flat even with the surprise return of Erik Cole from a broken neck.
Kevyn Adams, Hurricanes forward: “Quite honestly, we had not recovered from the feeling of what happened in Game 5. I’ve never felt so sick in my life on the sporting side of things as I did when that puck went in our net in Game 5. We were on the power play, we were literally right there. I wanted to throw up on the bench. I really think our team had not recovered.”
We got ahead of ourselves a little bit and it cost us.
Former Canes captain Rod Brind’Amour
Rod Brind’Amour, Hurricanes captain: “No one said it but I guarantee everyone was thinking it. We got ahead of ourselves a little bit and it cost us. Obviously, the last thing we wanted to do was get on a plane and fly back over there and do it again. Those are the toughest losses. It happened in 2002, I think, with the overtime game (the triple-overtime Game 3 loss to the Detroit Red Wings). It takes the wind out of your sails. That’s what happened to us in Game 6. But I’m glad we got blown out. It was easier than if we’d lost a close game. Once the game gets going, you can kind of tell, ‘Oh boy, we’re in for it tonight.’ You could just feel we weren’t playing a game that was worthy of winning the Stanley Cup.”
Matt Cullen, Hurricanes forward: “You always talk in the playoffs about not letting things linger. We let that one linger.”
John Forslund, Hurricanes television broadcaster: “That was a wild (time), right? The period before Game 6 was all the Erik Cole secrecy. Even those of us perceived as close to the team had no clue. You heard some things, but really they did a pretty good job of disguising the trip he made to get clearance (to return from a broken neck) and whether he was going to play.”
Mike Sundheim, Hurricanes media relations: “It was pretty well kept. Most of us knew it was happening. We knew (Cole) was there, that was kind of an indication. It was kind of fun that we were going to pull this big surprise. Obviously it didn’t help us that night, but it did in Game 7.”
Brind’Amour: “I think that was a jolt to us even though we didn’t play well. The fact (Cole) was coming back to help was kind of inspirational even though it didn’t pan out that way in Game 6. It was a positive thing.”
Sergei Samsonov, Oilers forward: “Every time you get a positive emotion, especially at that point in the season when everything is so hard to accomplish, any time you get that little extra boost, you’re really trying to ride it as long as you can. Going home for us was a positive experience. It was the loudest building I’ve ever played at. You could feed off that energy, get those fans behind you. It was a truly – playing at home was definitely worth it. A lot of times you don’t feel like you’re getting that much of an advantage but that was.”
Glen Wesley, Hurricanes defenseman: “We got it handed to us pretty well up in Edmonton. When you end up losing a game like that, you have a sour taste in your mouth. You have a lot of memories. We were pretty much flat-out embarrassed. We knew we didn’t play anywhere near the way we were capable.”
Aaron Ward, Hurricanes defenseman: “It was the first realization that things were slipping away from you. We had chartered a plane out to Edmonton. Our whole family was there. We had people coming out there – you were bringing your family. We said, ‘We lost in OT, that was a tough one to swallow, but we’re going to win this one.’ The absolute drubbing we took it almost shocked us into reality.”
Brind’Amour hadn’t spoken much during the playoffs: After Game 2 against Montreal, at the second intermission of Game 7 against the Sabres. When the players were all inside the visiting locker room in Edmonton, and the doors were closed, Brind’Amour stood up.
Adams: “The post-game speech by Roddy was probably the greatest piece of leadership I’ve ever seen, just the way it was done and the timing.”
Peter Laviolette, Hurricanes coach: “I heard about it. I was not there to hear what he said.”
Brind’Amour: “Laviolette would always come in after the game and say something, then we’d wrap up and move on. I remember at that point, I felt like it was my time. My strategy was always not to speak too much. Everyone has different styles of doing things. But certain times you can’t hold back, when there’s no tomorrow. I remember standing up and as I got up I saw Peter start coming in and then I saw him turn around and head back to the coaches’ office. That made it right, that it was my time to stay something.”
Adams: “We go into the locker room and nobody is saying a word. There’s only a few minutes between when you come in there and the press is allowed in. Roddy said something along the lines of, ‘This is the best thing that’s ever happened to us. We get to go home and win Game 7. When in your life did you ever think about winning a Stanley Cup on the road in Game 6?’ It took us from a place of feeling like woe is me.”
Ward: “I’m not a detail guy. I remember the theme. Rod Brind’Amour was the ultimate warrior and captain that team needed. He didn’t talk often but when he did it was the right time and with a purpose. His message found its mark every single time.”
Brind’Amour: “It was an easy game to put behind us. We were all bad. If you told us at the start we were going home for Game 7 we would have taken it. We’d much rather win at home with our families. There were a lot of them who didn’t make it to Game 6. It wasn’t meant to be.”
I can tell you if Roddy (Brind’Amour) stood up and said something, it would have more impact than anything anyone else could say, including myself.
Former Canes coach Peter Laviolette
Cullen: “It wasn’t like a normal guy just venting after we got our butts kicked. It was more like, ‘We’ve got to understand what we’re doing here.’ That entire playoffs, but especially that period there after Game 6 and going into Game 7, I was always amazed at the things he was saying, the perspective he was bringing. It was easy to be pissed off. He brought perspective and wisdom.”
Peter Laviolette: “I can tell you if Roddy stood up and said something, it would have more impact than anything anyone else could say, including myself, because of the person he is. He carries himself as a leader. He didn’t speak every day, so if he did speak it really held point in the room. It brought guys to attention. Maybe that was the start of putting that game in rear-view mirror.”
The Hurricanes had debated before the series whether to stay overnight in Edmonton or come home immediately after Game 6. They decided to stay over, which in the immediate aftermath seemed like a bad decision. A second charter flight full of parents, wives and kids had flown in that morning and went home immediately after the game, arriving in Raleigh early the next morning. The team went back to its hotel, the famous Fairmont Macdonald, and flew home the next morning.
Jim Rutherford, Hurricanes general manager: “We brought all the wives out and some of the employees and things like that. Of course when you do that, everybody’s expecting to win. We just didn’t have a very good game. We kind of got blown out. From that point of view, it was a real downer, but from the players’ point of view, with the character we had on that team, we all felt the same: We’ve got another game, let’s get ready for it.”
Jeff Daniels, Hurricanes assistant coach: “We got back to the hotel and met in Lavy’s room and just kind of started throwing out some ideas, reflecting back on the game. We just decided, let’s focus on Game 7. Game 6 is not going to change.”
Forslund: “That night was kind of surreal. There was a lot of reveling in the town. We stayed at the Macdonald downtown and nobody could really sleep. Horns were blasting. The fans knew the team was there because it continued on throughout the night and there’s not a lot of nightclubs right there. They were going out of their way to get to the team hotel.”
Samsonov: “It was like that after every win, though. I still remember that. I think after the second round, the city of Edmonton ran out of beer. They had to call up some sort of Canadian national reserve. It was like that all the time. Game 6 was no different.”
Brind’Amour: “I didn’t sleep one minute. It was so loud on the streets. I was so frustrated. Then we got to the airport and they made us wait while the Oilers went through security. Then they flew direct and we had to stop. There were a lot of things frustrating about that time period.”
Pete Friesen, Hurricanes trainer: “We got to the airport, and while we’re waiting, Edmonton came walking past us, got on their plane and left. They actually beat us home.”
We had ideas of grandeur coming home with Lord Stanley on the plane having a party. Instead we were figuring out how we got our (butts) kicked 4-0 in their building.
Former Canes defenseman Aaron Ward
Brian Tatum, Hurricanes team services manager: “That’s probably been blown out of proportion over the years, the way guys talk about it. When you get there, you have to wait for customs and immigration. Edmonton was obviously scheduled to leave at same time we were. Basically what happened was, Edmonton went ahead of us. We’re sitting there waiting while they opened up a customs line for them and we waited while they went through it. It was a visual thing – you get beat the night before and they let the home team go through before us even though we were there first.”
Ward: “We had ideas of grandeur coming home with Lord Stanley on the plane having a party. Instead we were figuring out how we got our (butts) kicked 4-0 in their building.”
Wesley: “Roddy and I always sat together on the plane. For him and I, during that whatever it was, five-hour flight back from Edmonton, we looked at each other and more or less said, ‘We’re not going to let each other down. What a great opportunity that we do have, being able to go back home.’ That’s one of the things we wanted to make sure we instilled with everybody in the locker room.”
Forslund: “The collecting of thoughts happened on the plane, the rebirth, the next day. I’ll never forget those two guys. I couldn’t tell you what anyone else was doing. The only lasting memory I have is Wesley and Brind’Amour. They were like the two guys in the Muppet Show all year. They’d get grumpy, complain about whatever, the food or leaving too late for somewhere. That was their role.”
Brind’Amour: “We’d sat together for many years. We never really talked a lot about winning or the Stanley Cup or any of that stuff but we were both feeling exactly the same things and we knew it. We were in the same boat. We were veteran players who hadn’t won it. There were so many similarities in our careers leading up to that. That whole way home, we just wanted to get to the game, get it on, and get it over with.”
Back in Raleigh the next day, the morning of Game 7, after sleeping in their own beds, the Hurricanes gathered at what was then called RBC Center for a morning meeting. A few players took the ice for an optional morning skate at 10:30 a.m.
Laviolette: “Time was important. If for some reason we’d had to play next day, it would have been a disadvantage to us. We had lost some games during the year that weren’t good games, where we didn’t play well. We had good leadership in the room led by Roddy and Stillman, Glen Wesley, Bret Hedican, even Eric Staal was playing like a leader on our team even though he was young. We’d been through those losses. We’d figured it out, how to bounce back.”
Adams: “The one critical part that I took away from Game 5 is that there is something about waking up in the morning with a chance to win the Stanley Cup that night. Game 5 was the first time we had had that. Even when you look back at Detroit four years earlier, we never had that. There was something very real about that, especially for a group of players like we were that didn’t have a ton of Stanley Cups. It’s not like we had 10 guys who had won before. Now you flip it around, that was the first time the Oilers woke up with a chance to win the Stanley Cup. We had been through it twice. That was definitely an advantage for us.”
Samsonov: “Those thoughts kind of creep into your mind. Guys start making certain arrangements. Some guys had some families flying to Carolina. I had at the time my agent and brother going to the game. You’ve got mixed emotions – you’re trying to block out all the noise and concentrate on the game. If you win, it’s the greatest time ever. If you lose, you go home empty-handed.”
Brind’Amour: “I joked about this the other day with my son. I got up in the morning to say good-bye to the kids. They were still in bed when I left for the morning skate. I remember my one son saying, ‘You gotta win.’ He didn’t say anything else. That stuck in my head. Everybody felt that way.”
Adams: “I went to bed really, really early the night before Game 7. That led me to wake up really early morning of Game 7. I got up at 5 a.m. and I was pretty relaxed. I turned on the TV, SportsCenter like I would do every other day, not really thinking much. It was Barry Melrose standing at RBC (Center) saying Edmonton’s going to win this. I shut it off. I went and found a DVD that (video coach Chris Huffine) had burned for me of what I thought was my best game of the season. I watched that game just to get some good feelings.”
Laviolette had done a masterful job that season taking a group of disparate players, coming from everywhere after the season lost to the lockout, and molding them into a team. He instilled a fast, aggressive style that wore opponents down and played to the team’s strengths. He also knew how to push the right buttons, as evidenced by the team’s frequent ability to come back from two goals down.
Friesen: “Before the morning skate, Laviolette spoke to the team. I wasn’t in the room. I was in the weight room (next door) but I could hear the whole thing. I wish I’d taped it.”
Laviolette: “It revolved more around our journey as a group, the way we had built our team, the way we had built our family – players and family and staff. There was a lot of belief in our group and it stemmed from everybody. Certainly the players had to go out on the ice and do what they do but we had a great support staff: trainers and equipment managers and staff and assistant coaches and general manager and assistant general manager and everyone.”
Ward: “Lavy had his thumb on the pulse of our team. That’s not a lie because we won something. It’s not. He has the ability to figure you out and find that one thing you need to hear.”
I’ll certainly always remember the fans, the building, how loud it was, the way they stood up the entire night. That’s something that doesn’t always happen in sports.
Cullen: “He had such a presence about him. Somehow he was so in tune with our group and what we needed. There were so many meetings where I’d leave thinking, ‘I didn’t expect that. It was exactly what our team needed.’ You have years where your coach is sometimes in or out of tune with what your team needs. Lavy had a firm grip on exactly what that team needed. So many times I’d walk out with goosebumps.”
Adams: “I’m cutting a stick down in the morning and Matt Cullen turns to me and says, ‘Is it normal to have a resting heart rate of 195 before the morning skate?’ At least I wasn’t the only one feeling like that.”
The Stanley Cup finals, like most playoff games, started at 8 p.m. That left a more than usual amount of time to kill the afternoon before the biggest game of the season – and for many, their careers.
Wesley: “I took my normal afternoon nap. That was probably, I would say, for all seven games in that series, probably the easiest I slept.”
Laviolette: “It was baseball season, it might have been (son) Peter, I hadn’t seen any of his games. The regular season consumes you and the playoffs completely consume you. I went home after the pregame skate and I had a lot of time that afternoon. I hadn’t seen my kids play a sport all spring. I hadn’t seen a baseball game. So he said, ‘You want to go out in the yard and play catch?’ We had a Game 7 on the line but the work had been done, the meetings were done, I was just waiting to go back to the rink. So we went out and played catch for a half-hour. It took my mind off everything.”
Sundheim: “I wasn’t able to eat much, didn’t have any kind of appetite all day. In some ways, those kinds of days are easier for the players than the staff because the players can feel like its in their control. They can go out and do something about it. The rest of us wait and watch, with no control over what’s going to happen.”
Ward: “I pulled over on the way to the rink. I got out of the car in my pink tie thinking I was going to have to hold it back before I puked on the side of the road. I was getting on 440 at US 1 and I thought I was going to be sick. I didn’t feel comfortable until I saw my teammates. This will sound cheesy, but I felt like, ‘They were going through this too. They understood.’ It was more comforting being at the rink than away from it.”
Brind’Amour: “On the way in I ran into (Edmonton coach) Craig MacTavish as we were walking in, funny enough. I played with Craig in Philadelphia. We knew each other pretty well. I asked him how his kids were, we wished each other luck. The rest is history.”
Cullen: “I came to the rink so excited and so energized that I had to jump in the cold tub to cool down a little bit. I’ve never done that before a game at any time in my career. I was so ready to play right then, but I had another three hours before the game started.”
Fernando Pisani, Oilers forward: “We went back with a lot of confidence for Game 7. We had put ourselves in good position to win the Stanley Cup. We were very confident in our ability and we knew anything could happen at that point. We had a quiet, focused room before the game. We knew what was at stake. We were ready.”
Kyle Hanlin, Hurricanes media relations: “Going into Game 7, that pregame (media availability) felt like the rest of the year. I knew before Game 5 we weren’t going to win. It was the wrong feeling in the room. Everybody was puckered up. That carried into Game 6. But going into Game 7, the tension wasn’t there. It was remarkable. I couldn’t believe it. Everyone was treating it like a Tuesday night against Ottawa in November.”
Forslund: “I talked to Justin Williams. Willy was so relaxed. It caught my eye, almost like this guy is too relaxed. I said to him, “Jeez, you’re loose.’ He said, ‘No. 1, this should be fun. No. 2, what’s the worst thing that can happen? We lose.’ He kind of laughed. I remember the room being that way, loose the right way.”
Brind’Amour: “I remember when we came out on the ice for that warmup and just how electric everything was. It was going to be a special night.”
The RBC Center crowd stood that night from start to finish, with Aaron Ward and Frantisek Kaberle scoring to give the Hurricanes a 2-0 lead before Cam Ward made a late, sprawling save on Pisani to keep it 2-1 and Justin Williams added an empty-netter to clinch the Cup.
Rutherford: “I don’t even remember a lot about that game. I guess I remember a little more now because I’ve watched it a few times since then. The stress level got to such a high point where you’re trying to block everything out, just trying to get through the day.”
I’ll certainly always remember the fans, the building, how loud it was, the way they stood up the entire night. That’s something that doesn’t always happen in sports.
Ward: “I had this conversation with (injured) Doug Weight between the second and third periods. He was succumbing to the lore of hockey: don’t (mess) with the hockey gods. I said, ‘Get your gear on, we’ll win this. Get it on now.’ He said afterward, ‘I was sick and anxious, but the weird thing is, when you came back after the second period I believed you.”
Laviolette: “We went from really one of the toughest games we played all year to what I think may have been our best game of the entire season. It had to be, because Edmonton played a really good game that night. It was a pretty hard-fought game but our guys were phenomenal. I’ll never forget how hard we skated, how quickly we took time and space on the puck, how physical we were. I’ll certainly always remember the fans, the building, how loud it was, the way they stood up the entire night. That’s something that doesn’t always happen in sports. It probably rarely happens, to be honest with you. That passion for the team fueled the performance on the ice.”
Wesley: “(Wife) Barb and I were talking last night watching the Penguins. She said to me, ‘It’s got to be lousy winning the Cup on the road.’ I guess it doesn’t matter. When you win the ultimate prize in any sport, I don’t care where you get to win it, but doing it in front of your home fans makes it that much more special – the memories, people celebrating with you, being able to see it on home ice. And I don’t think (owner) Peter Karmanos minded the extra revenue.”
Ward: “We had the greatest collection of good players that made a great team in the NHL ever. We didn’t have a guy – if you took one of our players and set them down in New York for an autograph session, you wouldn’t make your money back. Collectively, we were great. I don’t care what anybody says. It was the most fun. It was a Hollywood movie happening in Raleigh, a bunch of guys who weren’t supposed to win.”
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock