Sticking together

Scott Nixon is a newly minted Caniac, stamped by the stormy intensity of a frozen sport he barely cared about in November, struck by the cardiac comebacks of his team's regular season victories and playoff run to the Stanley Cup finals.

Game after high-voltage game at the RBC Center has transformed Nixon, who was born in Virginia and raised in Charlotte and Cary, into a full-blown Canes fanatic who has to get just as close as he can to the icy action.

By the time postseason play started, he was eager to tap his bank account for the $1,600 that secured two seats up near the rafters of Section 301-- a perch for Nixon and his wife, Jen, for the duration of the playoffs. The Wake Forest resident also plans to buy season tickets for the Canes' next campaign.

Nixon is still a Yankees fan who believes the Red Sox are evil in its purest form. But the frenzied rush of ice hockey has shattered his interest in any other sport -- basketball, too many foul shots; football, too slow.

"From the start of a hockey game until the end, it's go, go, go, go, go," said Nixon, 31, a development manager for a computer and directory assistance company. "It's not sit back and watch -- it's get on the edge of your seat and jump up when a goal gets scored. ... It's certainly addicting."

Hockey's habit-forming chaos and the Canes' on-ice excellence have attracted a rapidly expanding band of disparate diehards, an odd-couple alliance united by love for the only major professional sports franchise in the Triangle.

Under a storm pennant of red and black, Northern newcomers who grew up watching hockey stomp and cheer with the sons and daughters of the South, who had to learn to love this fast-paced, hard-hitting but culturally foreign game.

But the team's galvanizing quest for the Stanley Cup has made strange bedfellows not only of Yankee transplants and Dixie-fried zealots. It also has bridged some of the deepest social divides in the Triangle sporting universe. Think of Blue Devils, Tar Heels and the Wolfpack faithful as Canes-crazed allies instead of bitter rivals.

It makes you wonder: Does the Caniac alliance, now in full roar, have an impact beyond the confines of the RBC Center? Have the Canes and their electrifying playoff run brought a heightened sense of community and civic pride to the Triangle that transcends sports?

Yes, said Kay Michael Troost, associate professor of sociology at N.C. State University. Sports fill a vacuum left by the receding influence of church, political party, civic club and fraternal organization. Cheering the home team also allows people to break out of the deep rut of isolation they have cut between work and home and to create a sense of place and belonging lost in moves from town to town in pursuit of the next new job.

"Modern life has made us regrettably lonely, so it's wonderful to connect on any basis," said Troost, who played hockey as a lad growing up in Minnesota and later played semi-pro baseball. "We announce our allegiance, and we are delighted when someone else has the same allegiance. It provides an opportunity for people to connect to us who are outside our little world."

But it's another question whether that feeling will outlast the echo of the final horn that ends the last game.

"I'm reluctant to say it's lasting, and I'm reluctant to say it's ephemeral," Troost said. "It occupies an important place in people's attention for a short period of time."

Maureen Smith, an associate professor of kinesiology at the California State University-Sacramento, is less ambivalent.

"In some ways, it seems to unify the community, but only around the game," said Smith, who specializes in the history and sociology of sports. "It doesn't motivate people to go out and vote or spend more time with their neighbors or anything more meaningful."

Carving a new niche

John Tote, Caniac, would disagree with Smith and can testify to a team's meaning to a community. While growing up outside Milwaukee, he witnessed both the sense of collective loss and the feeling of saving civic grace that can spring from sports.

When baseball's Braves left for Atlanta in the mid-1960s, the pride of his Rust Belt town took a bruising hit that didn't begin to heal until the Brewers and basketball Bucks started playing, said Tote, who is executive director of the Mental Health Association in North Carolina. He also remembers the regional fanaticism generated by pro football's Green Bay Packers and the championship teams of Hall of Fame legend Vince Lombardi.

As Connecticut transplants to the Triangle, the Canes -- formerly the Hartford Whalers -- are rapidly shedding their carpetbagger image.

But they still lack the longevity and title-winning tradition of the Braves, the Packers and their opponents in the Cup finals, the Edmonton Oilers, a franchise that won five championships in the 1980s. The Triangle's college powerhouses also have time and titles on their side -- the Tar Heels, the Blue Devils and the Wolfpack have all won at least one national basketball championship.

Without the twin lures of tenure and a full trophy case, the Canes are carving a new niche in the Triangle's sports hierarchy with playoff victories and the come-from-behind scrappiness of an underdog contender. That this is still a work in progress is evidenced by the easy availability of tickets when the Canes played at home against the Buffalo Sabres during the Eastern Conference finals and by their relatively anemic television ratings.

This shocks Triangle transplants from other hockey towns.

They appreciate the top-shelf play of the Canes and the difficult feat of appearing in two Stanley Cup finals in five years. But they can't understand why there aren't more Canes loyalists howling for hockey.

"It's not that deep, it's not in the blood like other sports here, like basketball," said Debra Kosko, a clinical researcher who moved to northeast Raleigh two years ago from Buffalo, where she grew up watching Sabres games.

Caniacs such as Tote and Nixon worry that Cane-O-Mania may be a fragile bloom instead of a lasting life force. They talk about the bandwagon effect of another Stanley Cup run and wonder how many fans will stick with the team if it starts losing -- as the Canes did after their 2002 appearance in the Cup finals.

"No one wants to pay $30 to see a losing team," said Nixon, who remembers the early success enjoyed by the Charlotte Hornets that they frittered away with too many losses.

Tote remembers the long retreat of last year's lockout -- no games, no thrills and no joy for Caniacs.

"Folks were starting to emotionally distance themselves from the Canes, wondering if they were going to come back," he said.

Wooed by 'Woooooooooo'

There are also some existing barriers of Southern history, patriotism and cultural heritage that Cane-O-Mania cannot cross -- not yet, at least.

When oversized Canes jerseys were stitched across the State Capitol statues of Andrew Jackson, George Washington and two former North Carolina governors during the series against Buffalo, more than a few people expressed righteous indignation.

That this publicity stunt happened just a few days before Memorial Day and appeared to have the blessings of state officials and the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce doubled the angry reaction.

It also revealed that outside the borders of Caniac Nation, the rift between the Triangle's Southern-born residents and Northern transplants still exists. Some Southerners saw the jersey stunt as proof that the Triangle is now dominated by Northerners who care little about history and tradition.

But Tote envisions a day when Cane-O-Mania closes even this persistent cultural divide. He sees a time when Caniac Nation will be as powerful as the faithful followers of the Blue Devils, the Tar Heels or the Wolfpack.

Someday, people will set their social clocks to the hockey season, much like a hoops fanatic circles the dates of the ACC basketball tournament or a baseball junkie counts down the winter days until the start of spring training.

They'll long for that first faceoff and the first time Rick Flair flashes across the scoreboard screen and yells the war chant for Caniac Nation: "Woooooooooo!"

"As the Canes are here longer and longer, I think you're going to see that rallying cry year after year, building momentum even in the nonhockey months," Tote said.

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