It was still scoreless Friday night when Don Waddell called an impromptu first-intermission press conference to object to yet another relocation rumor. The Carolina Hurricanes president normally doesn't respond, but this one rankled.
These rumors came out of the Montreal media, just as they did last April before the Canadiens played the Hurricanes, and you could see Waddell's competitive juices sizzling as the old coach and general manager railed against what he saw as a contrived excuse to distract the Hurricanes players.
If that was the plan, it didn't work. The Hurricanes scored three goals in six minutes of the third period to post a 3-2 win and run their winning streak to three games, not that it made Waddell any less frustrated with this perceived injustice.
“The only reason we're talking about this today is because we're playing the Montreal Canadiens again and it started out of Montreal a few days ago,” Waddell said. “Because somebody has a radio show and because they put whatever they want on there … it grows like a wildfire.”
Sadly, this is the smoke that hangs over the franchise, thanks to the uncertain absentee ownership of Peter Karmanos. However grounded or baseless the rumors may be – and this particular rumor seemed exceptionally cynical – they're not going away as long as Karmanos owns the team, as long as attendance languishes in four digits, as long as Quebec City's arena sits empty, even as Gary Bettman and the NHL publicly stand behind the franchise.
The real concern doesn't have anything to do with Quebec, but unanswered questions about Karmanos' personal finances and long-term ownership strategy at age 73. So the Hurricanes can say that the settlement of Karmanos' sons lawsuit against him has no bearing on the franchise, and that's technically correct, but the lawsuit did specifically allege Karmanos was borrowing millions from the sons' trust fund to support the operation of the franchise, which is more than mildly disconcerting if true.
Beyond that, there's the undisputed fact that he's never made any real connection with this community. That shouldn't be confused with Karmanos' faith in this market, which is unshakeable, or his contributions to it, which are significant, but there's not the kind of bond between these fans and this owner that can keep a franchise going during tough times like these.
And these tough times will persist as long as the Hurricanes remain functionally irrelevant in the NHL on a competitive basis. They're still a long way out of playoff contention, they lack a superstar player – having not been bad enough to land Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel or Auston Matthews – and every passing year the Hurricanes aren't a contender in the Metropolitan Division chips away at everything that was built, from scratch, from 1999 to 2009.
“We've got some work to do here,” Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said. “We've got to get competitive on a consistent basis and we've got to get it throughout the lineup.”
If Karmanos is truly no longer actively soliciting buyers, as Waddell reiterated Friday, it raises the question of whether dramatic change is possible, the kind a new owner would bring with a new vision and new investment and new ideas.
Waddell says the franchise is on the right track on and off the ice, and there's certainly evidence of that despite the empty seats, but the pace of progress so far has been too slow and incremental to reverse the damage done by this playoff drought. The Hurricanes need an injection of something – talent, capital, ideas – that Karmanos has so far been unable to provide.
Making the playoffs, of course, would go a long way toward fixing things. No one really cared about the owner when the Hurricanes were in the postseason on a semi-regular basis, and when the Hurricanes got going in the third period Friday it sounded like there were far more than the announced 12,101 in the building.
“The atmosphere was great,” said Cam Ward, who made his own impromptu homage to the past late in the third by coming a good way out of his crease to stop Andrei Markov with a sprawling pad stack in true Arturs Irbe fashion.
“Obviously, we need to win hockey games and bring fans into the building, but tonight I thought the fans really gave us a boost. It was a good feeling in there, and to be able to walk away with a win makes it feel even better.”
That's how it's supposed to be. That's how it once was. That's how it should be again.
The Hurricanes have a long way to go to get back in that discussion, but they're riding a three-game winning streak now. It’s a start.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock