Roy Cooper would love to tell you “Oh!” about how busy the beginning of his tenure has been, but the Carolina Hurricanes are under siege “Oh Lord ...” and can’t seem to get it out of their own zone “Arrrrgh!” and the newly elected governor of North Carolina can’t finish a sentence without an interjection “Not good ...” as he writhes in his seat in agony.
If you’re going to try to have a conversation with Cooper, the middle of a hockey game is not the time to do it. Even the television timeouts are occupied with discussions about defensive pairings, Victor Rask’s improbable scoring slump and Cam Ward’s workload.
When the Toronto Maple Leafs eventually score, Cooper puts his hands on top of the glass wall at the front of his PNC Arena suite and hangs his head between his arms because, deep down, he knew the entire time they would, just like every other fan in the building.
And that is, beyond a doubt, what North Carolina’s new governor is: A huge fan, and not only of his alma mater, UNC, but the Hurricanes. For years, he was part of a group of lawyers that shared season tickets in section 125, behind the net where the Hurricanes shoot twice. He was in the building for Game 3 and Game 7 and all the touchstones of Hurricanes fandom. Cooper calls watching the Hurricanes lift the Stanley Cup the best sporting event of his life, and that includes watching the Tar Heels at several Final Fours (although never a victorious one) and a whole bunch of Duke-Carolina games.
The sets of people who are electable in a statewide race in North Carolina and love the Hurricanes this deeply barely intersect, but it demonstrates how deeply the Hurricanes have put down roots, even as the persistence of their current struggles carve out an unfortunate spot in NHL history.
That makes this a terribly significant development for hockey in North Carolina, not merely to have a sitting governor who is a die-hard fan, but one who was born and raised here, a true native, and from Nash County to boot.
There are, in general, three kinds of Hurricanes fans: Those who grew up in the north and abandoned previous allegiances when the Hurricanes arrived; those who grew up here but are young enough not to remember a time when the Triangle didn’t have a hockey team, whether that was the IceCaps or the Hurricanes; and those North Carolina natives who were generally unfamiliar with hockey but gravitated toward the game once they were exposed to it.
Cooper is one of the latter, the converts who often become the truest believers, and that extends to his entire family. His three daughters are not big sports fans, but they loved coming to Hurricanes games and bringing signs to try to get on the scoreboard (with some success). His wife, Kristin, unwilling to even entertain the possibility of watching the Edmonton Oilers lift the Stanley Cup, refused to attend Game 7 with him.
“I didn’t even go when they were in Greensboro, but went to my first game in here in Raleigh, and I was hooked from the first game,” Cooper said, during a break in play. “When I really started doing a lot more games was the run-up to 2002. I did go to a lot of games that year, and that was a fun time. I was so impressed with the speed and the ferociousness of the game, I’m still amazed that these guys play 82 games like a basketball season when it’s more like a football game.”
Cooper’s predecessor, Pat McCrory, often used the basketball seats UNC sets aside for the governor, but as a Catawba grad, his interest was more as a spectator than as a fan. While serving as both mayor of Charlotte and as governor, McCrory had a strong and understandable allegiance to the Carolina Panthers and was frequently seen at their games, not only amid their recent success but in darker times as well.
Cooper is a fan at heart, and when he makes sports-radio appearances, he sounds less like a politician trying to reach a different audience and more like a longtime listener, first-time caller who finally fought his way through the switchboard to get on the air. As governor, he has found his way to the big basketball games – he sat a few rows in front of McCrory at last week’s North Carolina-N.C. State game and was in Cameron for the first UNC-Duke game – but work has too frequently intruded, especially with the hurried transition after the contested election.
Last Sunday’s game against the Maple Leafs was only the second Cooper has been able to see in person since taking office, and his basketball schedule has been limited to fewer games than he was able to attend as attorney general. When he does have a chance to get to a Hurricanes game, the team sets him up with a second-level suite and he writes team president Don Waddell a personal check in an unexpectedly quaint transaction.
Given all that, it’s ironic sports has become a big part of his job. Even before taking office, Cooper worked with the NBA and NCAA on the December attempt to repeal House Bill 2 that failed when the Republican caucus declined to bring the negotiated bill to the floor. Now, as he tries to placate sports organizations and recruit businesses, he tells them that his election was a repudiation of HB2 by the people of North Carolina, but that won’t stop the NCAA from pulling six years of events from the state, which is happening imminently – and the 2019 and 2020 ACC basketball tournaments, scheduled for Charlotte and Greensboro respectively, aren’t far behind.
“It’s hard to believe that they will let this happen,” Cooper said. “I’m working it as hard as I can work it and doing everything that I can. It’s important that whatever solution we have eliminates discrimination and works, i.e. it has to bring back everybody. It can’t be a mini-House Bill 2 or whatever.”
A hockey game is a chance to get away from all that – talking about trades and prospects, about the lamented end of the black alternate jerseys as the NHL switches uniform suppliers, about the possibility of someday traveling with the team on the road. Cooper has attended road games in Philadelphia and Washington and Chicago on his own. If he ever had a shot to take a trip with the team, it figures to be while he’s serving as governor. He’s learning what that means.
“The last game I was at, one of, I guess, the perks of being governor, Don (Waddell) took me to talk to (general manager) Ron Francis, and of course he was always a hero of mine, but with him was Ray Whitney, who may have been an even bigger hero,” Cooper said. “I just loved Whitney. I was surprised at how small he was. I knew he was, but hadn’t imagined that.”
Cooper is telling another story when the Maple Leafs score again. From his suite at the other end of the ice, it’s hard to tell just how tremendous Auston Matthews’ goal – he dragged a Carolina player to the net and scored while falling to the ice – actually was.
“Oh man, how did that go in?” Cooper said. “How. Did. That. Go. In. Was that five hole?”
Cooper sighed. “Oh, boy,” he said, deflated, and the state’s Caniac in Chief went home that night as disappointed as his constituents.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock