All great cities have major league franchises. Faded industrial giants cling to theirs with hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives and irrational zeal that borders on the insane. The Hurricanes arrival was similarly political. The state lobbied, successfully, for the team to be located in Raleigh. Their time here has been about our growth as a community and arrival on the national scene just as much as it has been about keen management and a patient ownership. All in all, our little major league-team-that-could has been a most refreshing addition to our local cultural environment.
Part of that unique history has been our embrace of our own unique traditions, those inherited from college football and basketball: the absurdly loud and continual noise that has reached epic proportions (140+ dB in the 2006 playoffs) and the hours long tailgates in the acres of parking lots around our arena.
This is part of new Raleigh; institutions like these are things that hold communities together through their boom times and beyond. They become rallying points when cities are down, see: New Orleans Saints (and less so Hornets.) For a community, a City, and a region defined by myriad collegiate alliances (local and imported), the Hurricanes are our unifying rallying call.
Who cares if you can understand the game? Who cares the game is played on ice and people are tailgating in the parking lot? It’s a whole bunch of fun, and our fans seemingly delight in being the Mayberry of the NHL.
The parking lots are a massive party as the season gets toward the warmer months. By playoff time, it’s ready to go. It’s unique in the League. The NHL tries to be its cold, businesslike self in places like Atlanta, Tampa and even Nashville, but in Raleigh, it has had to adjust and cajole a fan base ready to roast pigs, eat fried chicken, walk around the parking lot with an icy beverage, and hoot and holler whenever it seems reasonable. And it does, a lot. Why not? This is our team.
We followed the recent series, in both cathartic suspense, frustration and euphoria, through some good and bad days for tailgates, together, as a City and Region.
The team has won in a statistically absurd kind of way. Bringing back the most elusive tradition reappeared after both game 7s: hundreds if not a thousand people, some coming from as far away as Greenville and Rocky Mount, to pay homage to their heroes who will live to fight another day.
A collective embrace, along a quiet RDU street at 1 AM (or 3), the airport, in a nod to our small town character, almost completely dead. It’s a tradition rooted in the chaos of 2001 when people actually mingled with the team as they came out of their executive terminal. Early Wednesday morning, airport busses passed by, each carrying a few wary employees, their horns blaring and the fans shouting in agreement. The plane lands, and the team went to their cars, like the normal people they can be here. As they leave, they pass the crowd, zooming by in a miniature parade, grins on their faces, Jussi Jokinen was taking pictures from the Finnish mobile.
They’re home, back to their little southern town, ignored by ESPN, Versus and NBC, but loved by the most unique fan base, still adjusting to its major league status, and unified for the first time behind one team.
It’s about hockey, and these have been some amazing games, but then again it’s about Raleigh and how far we’ve come. The value of the Hurricanes, taken in context with other progress, was about both the coronation of a Stanley Cup Champion and a leading twenty-first century metropolis.
Get out to the RBC Center, party like there is no tomorrow (because we’re getting close to that point), ticket or not, and bring on the Pens. Maybe there is a little more magic left in this team.