Luke DeCock

If you haven’t seen the Triangle go nuts about the NHL playoffs, it’s way more nuts than you think

Carolina Hurricanes’ Jordan Staal (11), center, skates with the puck by the logo for the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs during their practice on Tuesday, April 9, 2019 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. The Hurricanes with start their first round at Washington.
Carolina Hurricanes’ Jordan Staal (11), center, skates with the puck by the logo for the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs during their practice on Tuesday, April 9, 2019 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. The Hurricanes with start their first round at Washington. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Do you remember?

It’s OK if you don’t.

Ten years is a long time, maybe not geologically, but it’s the distance from fifth grade to drinking age, more than high school and college combined: a lifetime.

It has been so long, the trappings of the playoffs are entirely foreign to an entire generation of Carolina Hurricanes fans, and maybe even some who were around in 2002 or 2006 or 2009, the memories a little hazier than they were in 2011, when the Hurricanes whiffed on their final-game chance to get in, little knowing how much longer they would have to wait.

All of it. The noise. The tailgating. The emotional swings, sometimes in mere seconds. The unabated joy of a Niclas Wallin overtime goal. The little spats and disputes that boil up like thunderstorms on a summer evening – remember when Scott Walker’s punch of Aaron Ward was treated like a Balkan border incursion? – and are (mostly) forgotten by the time the handshake line starts. The soap-opera villains, with Tom Wilson and Brooks Orpik clearing their throats, ready to take their place alongside Scott Stevens and Ryan Smyth and all the others. The geographically impossible rivalries that somehow coalesce, not an issue this time with the Washington Capitals.

The playoffs are their own distinct ecosystem, each round an epoch, every incident a cataclysm. This market has been deprived of that energy for so long, all of that has become a distant memory, an oral tradition passed down from an older generation – and, quite frankly, a little hard to believe if you weren’t actually here.

A child born on May 27, 2009, is now finishing up fourth grade having never seen a playoff game played here in its lifetime. An entire generation doesn’t even know what it has been missing.

It’s time, finally, to find out.

“When this building gets rocking,” said Jordan Staal, a fan (of his brother) in 2006 and an opponent (of his brother) in 2009, “it’s a lot of fun.”

Because the playoffs here aren’t like the playoffs anywhere else, just like hockey here isn’t like hockey anywhere else, for better or for worse. Basketball season is over, with only three days to spare, and the attention of the Triangle will, as it always has in these moments, focus exclusively on the Hurricanes, long-standing and deep philosophical divides over collegiate allegiances put aside in a rare moment of unity.

All that’s missing is the annual meeting with the New Jersey Devils.

If you haven’t seen the Triangle go nuts about the playoffs, it’s way more nuts than you think.

The Hurricanes have too often receded into the background in this market this time of year, providing only locker clean-out days and front-office upheaval (or indecision, under the previous regime) and draft-lottery drama. Even this regular season, while it was clear there was a different aura about this team, starting with coach and captain, it took casual fans a while to buy in, Storm Surge or not.

When you’ve been let down so badly so many times, it’s hard to love again. And maybe something broke in that time, where the old excitement won’t return. Maybe if the Hurricanes lose Thursday and Saturday in Washington, there won’t be as much anticipation for Game 3. Maybe. Back in 2001, when the Hurricanes were still scrambling to gain any kind of footing in this market, Game 3 was a tough sell when the Hurricanes returned from New Jersey down 2-0.

When they came back from New Jersey down 3-2 for Game 6, the market changed forever.

You can draw a straight line from Rod Brind’Amour’s overtime goal at the end of Game 4 of that series to the standing ovation the team got at the end of Game 6 to Brind’Amour lifting the Stanley Cup five years after that to Monday night. It’s all on the same arc of history.

There really is nothing like playoff hockey in this market, when the die-hards and the bandwagoners combine to reach critical mass, when an abiding tradition of college fandom crosses over into the pro realm.

“A lot of people don’t know what it’s about,” Hurricanes captain Justin Williams said. “People are telling them how fun it is and how great it is, and it is – but it’s something you have to experience for yourself.”

If you haven’t seen it, it’s a little hard to believe that could happen, especially given the apathy that has enveloped this team in its second decade here. It has just been waiting for this. If there’s one thing the Triangle does as well as any market in the NHL, it’s playoff hockey.

If you remember, you know what’s coming. If you don’t, you have no idea.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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