They gathered under a big tent near a large hole in the ground for a major announcement:
The National Hockey League was coming to North Carolina.
In a press conference on May 6, 1997, Peter Karmanos Jr. said he was moving his hockey team, the Hartford Whalers, to Raleigh and renaming it the Carolina Hurricanes.
“This is a market where the people have a good feeling about themselves, have a good feeling about the future,” Karmanos said that day. “I think they want a sports team here as a quality-of-life issue, something they can identify with.”
There was no Raleigh arena, only the hole where it was to be built. Few in Raleigh had heard of Karmanos or knew many or any of the players.
But, by God, the NHL was coming to Raleigh … that is, after two years playing in Greensboro while that new Raleigh arena was being built to house both N.C. State basketball and hockey, from the start seemingly an uneasy alliance.
Twenty years later, the Hurricanes are a part of the sports fabric of the community and state. Karmanos is still the team owner, although saying he might just sell, and still lives in Detroit. The team plays at PNC Arena, ne RBC Center, ne Entertainment and Sports Arena.
Among the many banners in the arena is one that has “2006 Stanley Cup champions.” The Hurricanes won North Carolina’s first and only major-league championship while Charlotte has a couple of teams – the Panthers, the Hornets – still trying.
The 20 years have provided a lot of other firsts. Here’s a look:
Mo and Mo
Paul Maurice was the first coach of the Hurricanes. And the first fired. And the first rehired.
Coming with the team from Hartford, Maurice coached the Canes into the playoffs in 1999 and 2001, then into the Stanley Cup final in 2002. Fired in December 2003, he was brought back in December 2008 to replace the fired Peter Laviolette and helped the Canes reach the 2009 Eastern Conference finals.
Witty and at times acerbic, Maurice once noted that things were so quiet at the Greensboro Coliseum that first year that he could overhear some fans behind the bench, obviously new to the sport, talking things over in the first few minutes of a game.
Maurice quipped: “One guy says, ‘This coach doesn’t know what he’s doing. He sent out the starting lineup, and 45 seconds later he’s got a whole new team out there.’ ”
Maurice’s last game as coach of the Canes was Nov. 27, 2011, a 4-3 loss at Ottawa. Replaced by Kirk Muller, Maurice became the first Canes coach to be fired twice. But he coached more than 900 games, helped educate and win over those newbie fans.
Now open for business
Dean Jordan didn’t sleep a wink, not with the new arena about to open in 1999.
“It’s like moving into a new house and inviting 18,000 over for dinner,” said Jordan, then the team president.
The first game in the arena was Oct. 29, 1999, a delayed opening that resulted in the Canes playing the first nine games of the season on the road. Marye Anne Fox, the N.C. State chancellor at the time, took a first look around the arena on opening night and pronounced “There’s isn’t enough N.C. State in here” but Karmanos was beaming, thinking back to the arena groundbreaking in 1997.
“I remember that first shovel of red dirt,” he said. “The wind was blowing 100 miles per hour, we were all wet, we were red, but I always felt we’d get here.”
The New Jersey Devils won the game 4-2. Pregame traffic was horrendous. But the arena looked terrific.
The Canes’ first home win came Nov. 7, 1999, a 3-2 victory over Washington. Jeff O’Neill had the winning goal. Said the Canes’ Ron Francis: “It’s nice to get that monkey off our back.”
A stormy start
On the night the Hurricanes planned to reveal their new mascot, they had to revive him.
The Canes were playing the Detroit Red Wings in a preseason game in Greensboro in September 1997, and the idea was to hide the skating mascot – later to be “Stormy” – inside a Zamboni and make a grand entrance onto the ice for the surprise.
But, according to the Canes, the man had a seizure. When the front of the Zamboni was opened, he lay motionless. The Zamboni left the ice and Phil Madren was taken to a hospital, where he was treated and released.
“I’m OK,” Madren said the next day. “For an hour there, I didn’t even know my name. My memory is starting to come back. I’m trying to remember what happened.”
Let the games begin
The Hurricanes played their first game on Oct. 1, 1997 at Tampa Bay, losing 4-2, but the first NHL game in North Carolina was Oct. 3, 1997 at the Greensboro Coliseum.
The announced attendance was 18,661, and Maurice called the atmosphere “fantastic,” although the Canes were beaten 4-3 by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Canes forward Nelson Emerson was bloodied in a fight but returned to the game and later said, “It’s a tough sport and things just got a little out of control.”
The first home win came a week later, 3-2 over New Jersey, before a crowd of 6,352. When the horn sounded to end the game, Canes fans celebrated by throwing plastic drink cups onto the ice.
“That was pretty different,” defenseman Glen Wesley said. “I’ve never had stuff thrown at me after a win. Whatever it takes to make them happy.”
The longest game
It was the game that some thought might never end.
It was the Hurricanes’ first-ever Stanley Cup final game played at their arena – June 8, 2002 – and it was a festive day. The Canes and Red Wings had each won a game in Detroit, and the Canes took a 2-1 lead into the final minutes of regulation in Game 3.
And then Brett Hull scored for the Wings. The game went into overtime. A second overtime. A third overtime.
Finally, at 14:47 of the third OT, the Wings’ Igor Larionov beat Canes goalie Arturs Irbe and the game was over. It was 1:16 a.m. The Wings would win the next two games and the Cup.
“I think Game 3 is a moment I’d like to have back, only because I think if we beat them that series becomes a lot more interesting,” said Canes defenseman Bret Hedican, who played more than 49 minutes in the game. “You never know where it would have ended up.”
All the stars were out
The Hurricanes’ had hosted the 2004 NHL draft and Stanley Cup final games, but hosting the NHL All-Star Weekend for the first time gave Raleigh and the Triangle terrific exposure in January 2011.
The weather was perfect. Downtown was alive. The new NHL Fantasy Draft at the Convention Center was a hit, with fans cheering for Team Staal captain Eric Staal to take Jeff Skinner. Staal took Cam Ward with his first pick but later picked Skinner, much to the crowd’s delight.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who first promised the All-Star game to Raleigh in 2001, came away impressed. So did many others.
“I think it’s great for the players and fans who came in from out of town to see how hockey is down here in the South,” Ward said.” I think they’re going to go home with a different perspective on Raleigh.”
Hang ’em high
There was no doubt which number would be the first to be retired.
Ron Francis had been the team captain. He had led the Canes to the 2002 Stanley Cup final. He was “Ronnie Franchise” and a splendid NHL career that earned him entrance into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
More so, by returning to a franchise that first drafted him, signing as a free agent, he gave the Carolina Hurricanes credibility.
On Jan. 28, 2006. the Canes raised No. 10 high above the arena. There would be others to follow – Glen Wesley’s No. 2, Rod Brind’Amour’s No. 17 – but Francis was the first to receive the honor.
Jeff Skinner’s rookie season, 2010-11, was a blur of goals and games and constant attention. Then 18, he had high-schoolers begging him to take them to proms and people of all ages lined up for blocks to get his autograph during the 2011 NHL All-Star Weekend in Raleigh.
After scoring 31 goals, Skinner gave the franchise its first Calder Trophy winner, being named NHL rookie of the year. He stayed level-headed through it all, flashing that Skinner smile.
“It was crazy, it was a little overwhelming,” Skinner said of the year. It also was special.
‘He’s won the Stanley Cup …’
In franchise history, the date will live forever: June 19, 2006. On that night, the Canes beat the Edmonton Oilers 3-1 in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final and captain Rod Brind’Amour all but snatched the trophy out of the hands of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
After winning three of the first four games in the final, the Canes dropped two in a row, setting up the Game 7 showdown in Raleigh. Aaron Ward scored the all-important first goal for Carolina and another defenseman, Frantisek Kaberle, etched his name into the team’s hockey lore with a power-play goal that would be the Cup-clincher.
Leading 2-1 in the ultra-tense final minutes, rookie goalie Cam Ward stopped the Oilers’ Fernando Pisani from scoring. After the Oilers pulled their goalie, the Canes’ Eric Staal made a nice pass out of scrum to Justin Williams, who had open ice.
High above the arena, the Canes’ radio voice, Chuck Kaiton, was calling the game, with John Forslund at his side.
“Staal gets it up the middle to Williams,” Kaiton said, his voice rising. “He’s walking in on an open net, and he’s won the Stanley Cup. Justin Williams has won the Stanley Cup for the Carolina Hurricanes.”
A Stanley Cup won, right where there used to a big hole in the ground, not far from where they set up that big tent in 1997.
Canes by the numbers
3 Overtimes played by the Hurricanes and Detroit Red Wings in Game 3 of the 2002 Stanley Cup finals
1:16 Time (a.m.) Game 3 ended on June 8-9, 2002
10 Retired number of Ron Francis
17 Retired number of Rod Brind’Amour
2 Retired number of Glen Wesley
920 Number of games coached in franchise history by Paul Maurice
2 Times Maurice was hired and fired
45 Goals scored in 2005-06 by Eric Staal
100 Points tallied in 2005-06 by Staal
31 Regular season goals scored in 2005-06 for Brind’Amour
12 Playoff goals (in 25 games) scored by Brind’Amour in 2006
2.14 Goals-against average in 23 playoff games in 2006 for goalie Cam Ward
15 Playoff wins in 2006 for Ward
8 Current streak of seasons missing the playoffs