Caniacs before it was cool

A commercial in heavy rotation on the Outdoor Life Network -- hockey's unlikely TV home -- is a perfect metaphor for the Caniac Nation.

The boating ad features a bubbly family of four, smiling and waving at everyone they encounter on their way to a lake. They get only looks of fear and scorn in return -- until they get out on their boat. Once they're on the water, every stranger is blood kin.

Caniacs are like that.

We wave at fellow motorists flying the red flags, and they wave back. We glance at each other at stoplights and, almost furtively, mouth the words: "Go Canes."

We're a tribe, a kinship of the once scorned.

And we tribal elders know one another on sight. We're the keepers of the totems.

That guy with the faded "92" decal in his window? He's our brother. We recognize that sticker as a game-day giveaway honoring Jeff O'Neill, circa 2002.

The dude wearing that low-slung Red Hat cap? Warrior. (Giveaway at Game 4, first round of the 2001 playoffs. The overtime win that saved the franchise.)

That woman in the white Leschyshyn sweater? Exalted member of the tribal council. (Curtis Leschyshyn. Defenseman, 1996-2000. Back when the home teams wore white.)

We earned our standing. We endured the snickers about the curtain that hid the empty upper deck when the Canes played in Greensboro. We parried the taunts from fans of the Carolina Cobras, who insisted that their arena football team was more popular -- and that the hockey team should just pack up and leave.

And we were those forlorn guys who trudged away from a key moment in our kids' soccer game that April afternoon in 2000 when Canes announcer Chuck Kaiton whispered through the earpiece that the Sabres-Capitals game had just ended in a 1-1 tie. We knew what that meant. The Canes would miss the playoffs.

We needed a moment alone.

Don't get us wrong. The wagon-jumpers are more than welcome. We want our nation strong and loud. Even the poseurs have a place, for now.

But the ones who have been with us since Ronnie Francis was a Pittsburgh Penguin -- they're our clan. And if you remember to this day exactly where you were and how devastated you felt when you heard the news about Steve Chiasson, pull up a stool. The Big Blues are on us.

(Eric Frederick, Page One editor at The N&O, is a North Carolina native.)