Williams, Canes back in playoffs
Rod Brind’Amour was elated to have won the game, relieved to have that part of it over.
The Montreal Canadiens? Their game in Washington? For a few moments Thursday, the Carolina Hurricanes coach didn’t know that outcome, happy only that his team had beaten the New Jersey Devils 3-1.
The din around Brind’Amour, the rising volume of sound in PNC Arena, the fans standing and roaring, was a tip-off. And then came the official word: the Canadiens had lost to the Caps. The Canes had clinched a playoff spot.
There would be postseason hockey again in April in Raleigh. The Stanley Cup playoffs again would be in everyone’s plans. Brind’Amour’s smile said it all.
“What a feeling,” Brind’Amour said. “A pretty special moment. It’s been a drought. It’s been a long journey this year. The goal was to get relevant. That’s the first thing. I felt like we had kind of fallen off the map.
“And then obviously we’re not done. This isn’t what we wanted (as) the final thing. We want to be the best team. But there’s a step that has to be taken and it’s a huge step, to make the playoffs.”
There’s still a final regular-season game to be played -- at Philadelphia on Saturday. On Sunday, the NHL playoff schedule will be announced.
That’s when Canes fans can start making plans for those playoff tailgates that have been missing since 2009. This year they can wear their “Bunch of Jerks” T-Shirts, maybe invite Don Cherry to come to Raleigh and drop by.
“When you go nine years, nobody wants to watch that, I get it,” Brind’Amour said. “All the changes we’ve made have been positive and it’s electric around here. The town, they deserve to have a team like this they can be proud of.”
This is what Tom Dundon envisioned in January 2018 when he became the Canes’ majority owner. A big winner in the business world and a self-made billionaire, he considered it losing to not be in the playoffs, regardless of the record.
“Obviously winning is more fun, right?” a smiling Dundon said Thursday. “Thirteen or 14 months ago it’s hope. Now it’s actual reality.”
Hiring Brind’Amour to be the head coach this season, after Bill Peters left for the Calgary Flames, was something of a leap of faith. While an assistant coach for the Canes for seven years, while greatly respected, Brind’Amour had never been a head coach in the NHL.
For Dundon, that was the most satisfying part Thursday, he said.
“I think it was Rod, the amount of effort and compassion he has, how hard he works, plus how he cares about everybody,” Dundon said. “You want people like that to get what you think they deserve.”
Dundon said promoting Brind’Amour was the “easiest thing we decided.” Tougher decisions had to be made on various players -- trading away Jeff Skinner, so popular with the fans, and also dealing Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin.
“The things we did were for a reason,” Dundon said. “They don’t always work but we had a reason.”
Dundon isn’t the typical NHL owner. Considered a maverick by some hockey types, he has gone about reshaping the team his way, even it meant parting ways with people such as Ron Francis, the former general manager and Hockey Hall of Famer whose jersey hangs in the PNC Arena rafters.
It has been quite a week for the man from Dallas. The chairman of the fledgling Alliance of American Football, Dundon pulled out his money and closed up shop on the league, creating ill will from a lot of those associated with the league.
Now he has a NHL playoff team. And again, did it his way.
“Vindication is not a word I would use,” Dundon said. “When everybody works so hard and prepares, you want them to get rewarded, so you end up caring about the people and what their outcome is. That’s the best part about it.”
And so for the first time since 2009, after missing the playoffs for nine straight seasons, the Canes no longer are on the outside looking in. They’re in.
Does anybody remember 2009, the last time? Justin Williams does. A member of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup champions, he was traded in March 2009 as part of a three-way deal that brought Erik Cole back to Carolina and landed Williams with the Los Angeles Kings.
After two Stanley Cups with the Kings, after two years with the Washington Capitals, Williams finally returned to the Hurricanes in July 2018, determined to put the Canes back in the playoffs again. “Relevant” was a word he, too, often used. This year, he wore the “C” as captain.
“Obviously it’s been a long time coming to this area,” Williams said Thursday. “Guys have done everything that’s been asked of them. That’s what a team is, pulling together.”
Williams also has another thought.
“I’m obviously very happy right now,” he said. “At the same time this isn’t the end goal.”
Not with this team, not this year.