In the 25th year of playing in the NHL in Raleigh, North Carolina, the Carolina Hurricanes season came to a disappointing end. But the season itself was not an overall disappointment, especially considering the growth and optimism of hockey in North Carolina that the Hurricanes have accounted for this year. Let’s take a look at what this season meant and showed for North Carolina hockey.
The Growth of Hockey in North Carolina Continues with Carolina Hurricanes Successful Season
The Carolina Hurricanes started this season with high expectations. The team is right there on the cusp of another Stanley Cup Championship, and many had them pegged as cup favourites. The regular season was largely a success as they won the Metropolitan Division for the third year in a row and finished second in the NHL only after the record-breaking Boston Bruins. While certain aspects of the Hurricanes game may have needed improvement, the team performed at a high level.
Unfortunately, injuries to key forwards Andrei Svechnikov and Max Pacioretty hampered the front office’s plans to address goal-scoring concerns for the team and MAY have affected Carolina’s playoff exit. While the season ended in a disappointing loss to the Florida Panthers, and we will take a look at some possible adjustments for Carolina, there are many things from this season that should give Hurricanes fans a lot of optimism. And perhaps bigger than that, this season showed the impact that the Hurricanes have had on hockey in North Carolina.
A Blast from the Past
In 1997, the iconic Hartford Whalers moved south to become the Carolina Hurricanes. After playing a few years in Greensboro, the Hurricanes moved to Raleigh to play at the newly constructed Raleigh Entertainment and Sports Center (now PNC Arena). The Hurricanes made somewhat unexpectedly made the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002, ultimately losing to the Detroit Red Wings. With NHL hockey being new to the state, this Stanley Cup appearance really put the team more into mainstream local news coverage. Raleigh was home to the 2004 NHL Draft that gave us Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. And then in 2006, the team went all the way to win the Stanley Cup over the Edmonton Oilers. With the arena packed out, the decision to put the NHL in North Carolina was looking like a success.
A Very Long Post Cup Hangover
The Hurricanes would then miss the playoffs for a few years until returning in 2009. After the eventual cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins swept them in the Eastern Conference Finals, expectations were high next season. However, the Hurricanes would then enter into what seemed like the dark ages for the franchise. For ten years, the Hurricanes would consistently miss the playoffs time and time again. Not only did they miss the playoffs, many years were by just a few points and losing must win games at the end of the season. This put them in a sort of hockey purgatory. Not good enough to win and not bad enough to get top players in the draft.
Even over that span, the Hurricanes’ successful draft picks were few and far between. There were some brief blips of excitement including Jeff Skinner‘s electric, Calder Trophy winning rookie season combined with hosting the 2011 NHL All Star Game which was largely a success. But overall during that time, it seemed like a broken record that left the team going nowhere fast. You could actually get tickets close to the glass for under fifty dollars at times and they were basically giving tickets away to college students for almost nothing.
The Hurricanes on Thin Ice
Attendance suffered over that span. From 2012 until the 2016-17 season, attendance constantly fell until reaching a low of an average attendance of under 12,000 per game. Mixed with the fact that owner Peter Karmanos was going through some legal troubles, the team consistently lost money, and that Karmanos seemed somewhat disinterested in putting anything into the team, relocation rumors started to swirl. Ron Francis was named the general manager after longtime general manager Jim Rutherford stepped down in 2014. Some of the team’s current makeup is left over from the Francis era as he really invested in a slow, methodical rebuild. This included drafting Sebastian Aho and re-signing Jaccob Slavin at a great price. But unfortunately for a non-traditional market, the slow and steady approach was tough on attendance. After having reasons for excitement for the team previously, everything seemed a little stale for hockey in North Carolina.
The Tom Dundon Era
Then, in 2018, Tom Dundon bought a majority interest in the team with Karmanos staying on as a minority owner. Dundon was a younger owner who came in right away wanting to see the team succeed. While people have polarizing views on an actively involved owner, Dundon certainly does not care and has no problem being involved in the team’s management. He quickly named Don Waddell as the new general manager. The Hurricanes also struck some luck that year and won the second overall draft pick in the 2018 Draft. They used that pick to take forward Andrei Svechnikov.
In what may have been the most crucial move to get Carolina back into the win column, Waddell named Hurricanes former Stanley Cup Winning captain Rod Brind’Amour as coach. In his first season behind the bench, the Hurricanes broke their playoff drought and went on a Cinderella run to the Eastern Conference Finals. They then went on to make the playoffs every year since then and have risen as one of the top teams in the league. While most of the time teams’ playoff success is cyclical and the Hurricanes window is certainly now, this season showed something more.
Team Success Grows Expectations
As mentioned above, the Hurricanes are no longer a team carrying around the possibility of relocation tag like an ankle weight. In fact, they have become a team that many consistently consider a cup favorite. They have shown regular season success with multiple Metropolitan Division wins and a leaguewide second place finish in the 2022-23 season. They have also developed an identity that falls closely in line with Brind’Amour as a player. Carolina plays a hard, forechecking game with tight, suffocating defence and never let up.
Even though they have hade regular season success, have made it past the first round every year with Brind’Amour behind the bench, and receive a lot of praise, they are still yet to go all the way. With that comes some frustration from fans. While there are many reasons to take each year as a success, the fact that fans get frustrated shows that the expectations for this team are at an all time high. When they went a decade without making the playoffs, expectations were so low that fans basically could watch games stress free. A win just felt like a decent surprise. Currently this is a markedly different team and different era for Hurricanes hockey.
The Hurricanes Increasing Fandom
For traditional markets such as Toronto, fan support (and many times expectations) is not as contingent on team play. The team can finish at the bottom of the NHL for years and still sell out games and run through merchandise. However, for a market like North Carolina, the Hurricanes need to have success on the ice and more creative marketing to garner support. In the Dundon era the organization has worked to drive up fan support and it has largely been successful. Their methods are not always loved by everyone around the league (i.e. Don Cherry) but a very simple reality is that the team is successfully filling seats and driving engagement. And for a game that is constantly looking for a little more personality, sometimes bucking the trends can help.
In the Raleigh-Durham triangle area, it’s no secret that college basketball is the top sport. You have NC State, Duke and UNC Chapel Hill all within 30 minutes of each other and the rivalries run deep. The Hurricanes being the only pro sports team in the area pulls together the passion from each of those schools for one common team. But the team needs to give these fans something to cheer for. As discussed above, the Hurricanes attendance hit a major low during their ten year playoff hiatus. The vibe was not excitement for the next game. Hurricanes hockey was more of something to do if you could get a free or cheap ticket.
Fan Support Responds to Winning
Fast forward to the 2022-23 season and the Hurricanes average attendance was second in the league behind the Montreal Canadiens. That average attendance number was an astonishing 19,526, up 13.5% from 2021-22. Now this number is skewed because it includes the sellout outdoor Stadium Series game at Carter-Finley Stadium but even 25 games into the season, Carolina’s average attendance was at 18,505, which is roughly 99% of capacity at PNC Arena. Between spending to the cap limit to build a team and showing success on the ice, Carolina has built a solid hometown system of support in this last half of a decade. This season showed the continued progression at a rapid pace. It’s no secret that hockey in North Carolina is alive and well.
The Hurricanes Driving Engagement Both On and Off the Ice
While team success is the driver for fan support, it cannot be ignored that the uptick in attendance started correlating in 2017-18 when Dundon took over and allowed the marketing team more creative control. There was a 13% uptick in average attendance between finishing 30th out of 30 teams in 2016-17 to 28th out of 31 in 2017-18. The marketing team started creating wittier social media posts and engagement in an age centered around Twitter, Instagram and the likes for almost everything. During the COVID bubble playoffs in 2020, the Hurricanes social media team famously went on a run of hilarious tweets when the team’s game was delayed due to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets going to five overtimes. Those tweets alone saw the Hurricanes twitter gain an enormous amount of engagement.
The Hurricanes also started the infamous storm surge which was largely based on something Brind’Amour saw when watching a game in Switzerland. When it took heat from Don Cherry and the team was called a “bunch of jerks”, the marketing team saw this as a golden opportunity. It became a rallying point for Hurricanes fans and engagement grew. While understandably many in the hockey world scoff at this sort of approach to garner interest, it has actually worked for Carolina. Whether you like it or hate, you can’t deny the impact it has had on the growth and identity of this team. And this year was no different.
This 25th Season Shows Consistency in Identity
When the team was thought to likely struggle in the playoffs due to concerns over scoring and significant injuries to top forwards, the team rallied to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. The marketing and social media teams took over again to make some serious noise. After the Hurricanes second round victory over the New Jersey Devils, the Hurricanes collective creative team put together a Cameo video of famous New Jersey individuals congratulating the Hurricanes on their victory. That video garnered over 2 million views and absolutely broke the internet.
To keep the ball rolling, they designed movie style pre-game posters that would impress any graphics design professional. One thing this team has continued to show this year is that they are not afraid to go over and beyond. They know their identity and they are not afraid to push it. This goes from upper management to the fourth line and from the equipment manager to the vice president of marketing. During the dark ages for Carolina there seemed to be no identity. Now it is pretty clear. Every team, organization and business have plans to be successful. The Hurricanes have again pushed forward with theirs this season.
The Stadium Series Explodes
With everything that was built over time to bring the Hurricanes into the light, if there was one event that truly showed the growth of hockey in North Carolina this year it was the 2023 Stadium Series game between Carolina and the Washington Capitals. Not only did this game and its associated events show the support of the Hurricanes, but hockey in North Carolina as a whole. Originally earmarked for the 2020-21 season, the NHL rescheduled the Stadium Series game in Raleigh due to COVID. But it was even a longer time coming as Dundon instantly spoke on bringing an outdoor game to Raleigh upon purchasing the team. What was once thought as a pipe dream and almost a joke, came to reality for hockey fans in North Carolina on February 18, 2023.
By the numbers, this Stadium Series game broke the record for the fastest sellout of any Stadium Series game. It took three hours for the original 18,660 NHL allocated tickets to sell out. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes sold over 30,000 tickets themselves to the game. This was also a record for percentage of stadium capacity sold by the home team in any outdoor game. The economic impact of this game on the city of Raleigh was enormous. The longtime executive director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance even stated that in twenty years of handling events in the area, he had never seen an event garner so much attention and excitement. The growing success of the team, the competitive product on the ice and the creative marketing all seemed to perfectly come to a head in year 25 with the Stadium Series game.
The Stadium Series Experience
For someone who had the privilege of attending this game, the excitement and energy was thoroughly felt. The event was top notch with appearances by notable Hurricanes alumni including Erik Cole, Cam Ward, Justin Williams and more. Fans packed out the fan fest in downtown Raleigh even though it was a Friday afternoon with rainy weather. The game was full of excitement from the second you pulled into the parking lot. People were tailgating, which is nothing new for Hurricanes hockey, but there was an additional buzz in the air.
The proximity of PNC Arena and Carter Finley Stadium is so close they actually share a parking lot. The organizers and the teams embraced the “college gameday” atmosphere as the Hurricanes players walked from PNC Arena to Carter Finley following the NC State marching band. The Hurricanes players opted for old school golf attire while the Capitals stuck with letterman jackets for their entrance. There was a nice chill in the air and but the awe and splendor of it all was a major showing for hockey in North Carolina. Carolina won the game four to one which was nice for the home fans, but the event itself showed so much more. Even if it ultimately was just another two points for the Hurricanes in the season.
Reaching Wider than the NHL
While the Stadium Series game itself was a huge success, surrounding events showed even deeper the success of hockey in North Carolina. Specifically, the day after the Stadium Series game on February 19, 2023, the NC State and UNC Chapel Hill ACHA ice hockey teams took part in their own outdoor game at Carter Finley Stadium nicknamed “Frozen Finley.” While it was a free event, it was anything but an empty stadium. A shocking 24,000 spectators turned out for a club ice hockey game…..in North Carolina.
As an ACHA alumni, this is outstanding for the growth of the sport in North Carolina. I have seen collegiate hockey go from a fun, almost side hobby for schools to teams actually operating like legitimate collegiate programs. This mixed with the growth of youth hockey in the state just shows the growth of the sport and the impact the Hurricanes have had on the state.
Final Thoughts on the 25th Year and Hockey in North Carolina
While the season itself ended sooner than fans would have liked, and there is certainly room for criticism, even if just for a moment, fans can look at this season as a monumental step forward for hockey in North Carolina. For 25 years this team has had major ups and downs. To come so far and see hockey in North Carolina and fan support reach the levels they have, one can look at this season as largely a success.
Even the criticism of the team is not always a bad thing. It shows expectations are high and people care. No longer is a loss met with a “whatever” response from fans. They want to win. And they expect to win. You can always play the what if game for the season, but ultimately the organization seems to be building something that could have a longer lasting and further reaching impact than one good season. Consistent success on the ice and a reason for fans to join the excitement is what this 25th year of Hurricanes hockey brought.
Main Photo: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports