Lighting the Lamp, With Rick Ackerman
What did one Hurricane say to the other Hurricane in the locker room?
"I'm keeping my eye on you..."
Yes, for the first time in over two years, the Carolina Hurricanes hockey team storms into the Trade-Stocks Center for a meeting with the Blues. Carolina is about as average an NHL team as it gets so far this season, struggling to maintain a .500 record in the Metropolitan, the weakest division in the league. Hampered by the third worst offense league-wide, considerably less than two goals per game, the Hurricanes have also been hard-bit by the injury bug, losing a whopping 96 total man-games in 20 contests.
The best defenseman on the team, Joni Pitkanen, is out for the season with a broken heel and Tim Gleason, the second-best, has missed the last six games (not including last night's game with Anaheim) with an upper body injury. The best over-all player on the club, goaltender Cam Ward, a former Conn Smythe Trophy winner (the first rookie to win the award since Patrick Roy did it in 1986) and NHL all-star, suffered a lower-body injury on October 24 in Minnesota and has now missed ten games, although he is currently listed day-to-day and is practicing with the team. His back-up, Anton Khudobin, was injured on October 13 during a home loss to the Coyotes, forcing the Hurricanes to rely on 27 year old Justin Peters, who distinguished himself at Charlotte in the AHL last season. Yet perhaps the cruelest injury of all was that to speedy winger Jeff Skinner, who had nine points in ten games before injuring his hand on October 24 in Minnesota. He has now missed ten games and is sorely missed. Skinner, a first round pick in the 2010 draft and a Calder Trophy winner in 2011, also has a history of concussions, suffered in both 2012 and 2013.
A lack-luster, average hockey team that has trouble scoring will also have trouble attracting fans, and the Hurricanes' home attendance has suffered so far this season. Carolina is currently ranked 24th in the league with an average of 15, 243, 82% capacity at the PNC Arena in Raleigh. Only 13,278 showed up to see the Canes defeat the high-flying Colorado Avalanche just last Tuesday. Last season's team, which finished 13th in the Eastern Conference out of the playoffs, outdrew the Blues by around 300 fans per game.
The Hurricanes first entered the league as the Hartford Whalers when the former New England Whalers franchise of the World Hockey Association was absorbed into the NHL in 1979. Sandwiched between the markets of the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, the Whalers were doomed to failure in the Civic Center, the smallest rink in the league, seating just over 15,000. Poor on-ice performances combined with rising operating costs, especially players' salaries, forced owner Peter Karmanos to relocate the team, despite promises the franchise would stay in Hartford until the end of the 1998 season. In May 1997, the Whalers turned into Hurricanes as Karmanos relocated the team to the Research Triangle area of North Carolina and a new arena in Raleigh. Blue and green uniforms were swapped for red and black outfits, matching the colors of the North Carolina State University Wolfpack, who would share the arena with the new hockey team.
Unfortunately, the new Entertainment and Sports Arena was not completed, and the Hurricanes were forced to play home games in Greensboro, 80 miles and around an hour and a half drive from Raleigh. With over a 21,000 capacity for hockey, the Greensboro Arena became the largest NHL venue at the time, yet fans balked at making the long drive and attendance was disastrous, averaging around 10,000, or less than 50% capacity. To make matters worse, only 29 (out of 84) games were televised, and more often than not, Wolfpack basketball displaced Hurricanes hockey on the radio. On the ice, Carolina prospered, led by stars Ron Francis, Keith Primeau and Gary Roberts, and won the Southeast Division in 1999. The long-awaited move to the completed rink in Raleigh finally occurred in time for the 1999-2000 season, yet the Hurricanes missed the playoffs.
A vastly improved club qualified for the playoffs at the end of the 2002 season, led by forwards Francis, former Blue Rod Brind'Amour and Jeff O'Neill, defensemen Sandis Ozolinsh and Sean Hill and goaltender Arturs Irbe. The Hurricanes defeated the favored Devils, Canadiens and Maple Leafs before bowing out in the Finals to the Red Wings.
However, poor teams the next two seasons and a lockout in 2004-05 saw attendance drastically decline. Coach Paul Maurice, hired when the club was in Hartford, was replaced by Peter Laviolette for the 2005-06 season and led Carolina to a division championship with 112 points, a franchise record. After losing the first two games of the first round against Montreal, Laviolette replaced struggling goaltender Martin Gerber with rookie Cam Ward, a first round draft pick in 2002. Ward was in goal for all four victories as the Hurricanes defeated the Canadiens in six games, the Devils in five, the Sabres in seven and then the Oilers in seven before almost 19,000 fans in Raleigh to win the Stanley Cup.
Carolina never returned to those glory days and faded back into obscurity, as evidenced by declining attendance to this day. Hopefully the Blues will not play down to a weaker team and instead blow the Hurricanes out tonight.