The Carolina Hurricanes’ surprising playoff run, which continues Wednesday at PNC Arena with Game 3 against The New York Islanders, has captivated Triangle hockey fans, who haven’t gotten to go to a Canes game this late in the season since 2009.
It’s also got some casual onlookers paying attention to North Carolina’s NHL team for the first time in awhile. If you’re new to the Hurricanes bandwagon, or thinking about jumping on board for the playoffs, here’s a primer to help you catch up.
The two dozen players that make up the Hurricanes roster grew up in cold places where it’s theoretically still possible to play hockey on ponds or homemade backyard rinks in the winter. Fully half are from Canada, where hockey is the national pastime, and the rest hail from the northern U.S. or one of five European countries (there are three Finns, including the team’s leading scorer, 21-year-old Sebastian Aho). Fans pretty quickly learned how to pronounce all of their names but don’t necessarily know how to spell them without looking. Just ask one to spell Teravainen, Niederreiter or Mrazek. The team captain and leader is 37-year-old Justin Williams, who played with the team when it won the Stanley Cup in 2006 and returned last season after winning two more cups with the Los Angeles Kings.
The Hurricanes have attracted a growing number of fans in the Tar Heel state since arriving from Hartford, Conn., in 1997. (They were previously known as the Hartford Whalers.) But the Triangle being a melting pot of transplants, many fans have split allegiances, rooting for the Canes as well as the teams they grew up with. Canes fans are used to seeing lots of supporters of opposing teams in the crowd at PNC Arena and don’t get too bent out of shape about it. The arena, which the Canes share with N.C. State University, was built on university land out on the edge of town, reachable by car and a handful of party buses. When the weather’s nice, as it always is during the playoffs, fans arrive early with grills and coolers to tailgate. (Try that in Brooklyn!)
Bunch of Jerks
In a town where people are generally nice to each other, it may seem odd that the hockey team refers to itself as a “bunch of jerks.” The characterization came from Don Cherry, a former NHL coach and longtime Hockey Night in Canada commentator known as much for his gaudy clothes as his observations on hockey. In a disjointed tirade in February, Cherry chastised the Canes for the Storm Surge, the post-game celebrations planned and executed by the players after each home victory. Referring to the sometimes small crowds at PNC, Cherry said, “You never do anything like that. They’re still not drawing. They’re a bunch of jerks, as far as I’m concerned.” The Canes responded by making “Bunch of Jerks” T-shirts that sold briskly at premium prices during the next game.
The New York Islanders, the Canes opponent in the second round of the playoffs, are generally credited with starting the playoff beard tradition during their streak of four Stanley Cup victories in 1980 through 1983. Whether out of superstition or as a badge of honor, it’s become a tradition for players and their fans to put away their razors during the playoffs. The longer your team plays, the longer your beard. That is if you can grow one; Aho, who said at the outset that he didn’t think he could “grow much,” has managed a wispy mustache halfway through the second round. Look back at the team photos of the Hurricanes after they won the cup in 2006 and you’ll see most of the players with healthy beards — except team captain Rod Brind’Amour. Now coach Brind’Amour, he isn’t growing one this year either. If 16 teams stop shaving at the beginning of the playoffs and only one wins the cup, he reasons, it must not work very well. If you think you’ve got a good playoff beard, the Canes are hosting a contest/fundraiser called Beard Together.
You’ve heard the old Rodney Dangerfield joke: “I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out.” The joke is more than a bit out of date. It’s true that from the 1970s well into the 1990s, fighting was a routine part of NHL hockey games. During the peak years of the 1980s, the league averaged more than a fight per game; this season, there was less than one fight for every five games, according to the website HockeyFights.com. (Yes, there is such a thing.) Hockey is still a violent sport, with players armed with sticks jostling and knocking into each other to try to regain control of the puck, and the emotions run even higher during the playoffs. But fights like the one between Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechin and the Canes’ 19-year-old rookie Andrei Svechnikov during the first round of the playoffs are relatively rare this time of year. Unfortunately, the over-matched Svechnikov suffered a blow to the head that has kept him out of the playoffs.
Yes, the Hurricanes have a big pig for a mascot. Former team owner Peter Karmanos is credited with chosing an “ice hog” mascot for his team. The then-unnamed hog made his inauspicious debut before a game against the Detroit Red Wings in the Greensboro Coliseum in 1997. (He planned to emerge from inside a Zamboni ice cleaning machine, but became overcome with carbon dioxide fumes and passed out, leaving only his twitching, furry legs briefly visible to the crowd). Jim Rutherford, the team’s general manager at the time, said the hog was a way to honor the state’s pork industry and one of its moguls, state Sen. Wendell Murphy, who was instrumental in getting the arena built. Stormy got a name through an internet survey later that fall and has become the popular, ever smiling face of the franchise and a strikingly good dancer. Last season, the Canes introduced a female companion, Caroline, who is ostensibly a childhood friend of Stormy’s.
The other pig
If you go to one of this week’s games at PNC Arena, you may see Hamilton, the 90-pound pig who some have adopted as a good luck charm this playoff season. Hamilton, or Hami to his friends, did some tailgating before the home games of the Capitals series and was in Washington when the Canes shocked the hockey world in double overtime. He’s had his picture taken with Stormy and been featured in The Washington Post and on ESPN and NBC. His Instagram account had more than 2,430 followers Monday.
How long could this go on?
The Canes knocked off the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals in seven games last week to remain one of eight teams still vying for the cup. If they can win four games against the Islanders, they’d play either the Boston Bruins or Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference finals. The winner of that series would then go on to play the Western Conference champs in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup finals. By then, the playoff beards will be in their prime. When the Canes won the Stanley Cup in 2006, the final game was on June 19, nearly three months into the Major League Baseball season.