RALEIGH It has been almost 10 years since the NHL first promised to bring an All-Star Game to the Triangle. So much has happened since then, in terms of the Carolina Hurricanes and everything else, it's difficult now to recall the tenuous hold hockey had on the region back then.
The home team, Eric Staal's team featuring Hurricanes teammates Cam Ward and Jeff Skinner, lost Sunday's All-Star Game.
But, really, the home team won. In a rout.
The hockey world came to the Triangle this weekend and discovered a kindred spirit. If anyone didn't realize the depth of the passion for hockey that has developed in this area over the past decade, this weekend made that point with authority.
"The base of hockey fans is so strong, and they're so passionate," Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara said. "I know how loud they can be from playing in the playoffs here. It was pretty loud, and they're pretty supportive of the team. Hosting the All-Star Game, they took it up another level."
Even people who didn't make the trip heard about it on TV, when Versus analyst Eddie Olczyk described the host team and city as "first class, just like an Original Six franchise," as great a compliment as the world of hockey has to offer.
From the signage blanketing downtown Raleigh and the rest of the Triangle, to the fans who packed the NHL Fan Fair, to the tailgaters enjoying the beautiful weather in the parking lots around the RBC Center on Sunday, the Hurricanes, the area and their fans met every challenge.
"The fans, once again, were tremendous," Ward said. "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. I think they're going to go home with a different perspective on Raleigh."
It was interesting to hear Staal and Ward talk, over and over again, about how proud they were of the way Raleigh had embraced the event. Here you had two Canadians in their mid-20s, living here only by a quirk of the draft, speaking as if they'd grown up and gone to school here, unsure as anyone whether hockey would be able to put down permanent roots - and taking a tremendous amount of satisfaction in the fact that it had.
Scott Dupree, the vice president for sports marketing of the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau and the co-chair of the local organizing committee, said he was "blown away" by the response he has gotten from NHL officials and other visitors this weekend.
"We dealt with the 'Mayberry' issue in 2002 and got through that," Dupree said. "Since then, over the past 10 years, with the draft, the finals, the All-Star Game, I'm completely comfortable with Raleigh's reputation as being a great sports destination city."
If nothing else, it erased any doubts the rest of the NHL may have harbored about whether hockey can work here. Clearly it can. There are still issues - Peter Karmanos needs to stabilize the ownership situation, and Jim Rutherford and Paul Maurice need to put a winning team on the ice on an every-year basis - but this weekend demonstrated that the successes of 2002 and 2006 built a foundation that can endure.
Long after the giant posters and graphics come down, the visitors leave town, and downtown Raleigh returns to normal, the Triangle will never forget the weekend it was at the center of the hockey world.
It was worth the wait.
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