I’m wearing this shirt and hat today, and they’re very special to me; I got them on this day in 2006, when the Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup:

Stanley_Cup_Champions_gear.jpg

I didn’t just get these that night, I was in the stands watching the team win. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, something I’ll always remember. That was easily the best $120 I’ve ever spent. Just getting those tickets was something I was proud of.

As the Hurricanes were marching through the playoffs and heading toward their second Stanley Cup Finals in four years, hockey fever was growing in Raleigh. We started greeting people out and about by saying, “Let’s go ’Canes!” As soon as the ’Canes clenched their berth I knew I wanted tickets. I’d already attended a couple games against New Jersey in the Conference Semifinals and by the time we made it to the Conference Finals it was already looking likely that we would make it to the Stanley Cup Finals so I only went to one game to save my money (I’d missed the conference quarterfinals against Montreal as those games happened right in the middle of finals during the first semester of my sophomore year of college). When the ’Canes eliminated Buffalo I talked to my brother and texted a couple friends to see if they were in. They were, so I woke up early the next morning and got in line for tickets around 6am. Some of the people had been in line since the ’Canes victory the night before. As it was I wouldn’t have wanted to be any later; I was number 68 in line, but by the time I got to the box office when tickets were on sale the cheapest seats at $100 had already sold out and to get 4 tickets at the next cheapest level, $120, we had to split our seats up 2 and 2 and be seated in two different sections. This was already a lot of money for a college student to be spending, but my brother and I justified it by reasoning, “how often does this happen? We may never have another chance to see a Stanley Cup Championship!” To get the most out of our money we only got tickets for games 5 and 7, because if you’re going to be at only a couple of the games, you want those games to be the one where the championship is won!

Looking back, it’s funny how expensive those $120 tickets seemed; they’re a steal by any other team’s standards! The cheapest seats are often closer to $1,000! When the New York Rangers made it to the Championship a couple years ago it was actually cheaper to fly to Los Angeles and buy tickets to the games in Los Angeles than it was to try to buy tickets to the games in New York. Some tickets in Raleigh were reselling in that price range, but that was not money the team received. Incidentally, at the time it was illegal to resell tickets for more than face value, so scalpers attempted to circumvent that law by “selling sweaters” or other memorabilia on eBay, and then including a ticket to the game with the purchase of the shirt. My friend Freddie’s boss offered him something like $500 for his tickets, but he declined, feeling the experience would be worth far more than the money.

And boy was it! We entered game 5 with a 3 game to 1 lead over Edmonton. Things were feeling good; we even had an actual tropical storm heading into the area that day, Alberto, and there was some talk of postponing the game over concerns about flooding. The game was exciting, but like the weather outside the team wound up performing as a tropical storm, not a hurricane, and the series moved back to Edmonton. At that point we were almost hoping the ’Canes could win it in Edmonton, because we would’ve gotten our money refunded for the game 7 tickets. Of course, we were all excited for the chance to see our team win the championship at home, but we were also nervous because Edmonton had come back from being down 3 games to 1 and tied the series at 3 games apiece!

The night of the game the energy was palpable. Large numbers of people who didn’t even have tickets were tailgating in the parking lot and planning to watch on screens erected outside, just so they could be a part of the moment. Inside the arena was rocking; we’d already acquired a reputation that season as “The Loudest House in the NHL,” but that night we stood for the entire game and basically never stopped yelling. The ribbon board and center scoreboard kept flashing signs saying “NO ONE SITS TONIGHT!” which in one sense was kind of funny considering how much money everyone had paid for those seats. The exception to that policy was a friend of mine whose seat was in front of an Edmonton fan. That fan wanted to sit, but he couldn’t see past my friend if he was standing. The Edmonton fan got an usher over and eventually a police officer came. My friend tried to protest that the entire arena was standing and the video boards were saying to stand, but he was told if he didn’t sit down he would be kicked out, so he sat. The Edmonton fan could’ve saved his effort, though; the ’Canes took an early lead and never gave it up. When Justin Williams sealed the game with an empty net goal the noise in the arena was deafening. I have never experienced such energy from a crowd of people; it was truly something special to be a part of.

Legacy

Jeff_with_Stanley_Cup_small
With the Stanley Cup in December 2006. If I can find a larger copy of the photo I’ll replace this.

Looking back 10 years later makes it feel all the more special. The intervening years have not been kind to the franchise. The Hurricanes only made the playoffs one other time, in 2009. It’s now the second-longest streak in the NHL without a playoff appearance, second only to the Edmonton Oilers, who haven’t made it back to the playoffs since losing the Stanley Cup Final to the Hurricanes in 2006. The lack of success has led to diminishing support (and revenue) for the team over the years. During the 2005–2006 season the Hurricanes had fairly strong local support and built on recent success, having also played for the Stanley Cup just 4 years earlier, but no support was stronger than during the playoffs as bandwagon fans jumped on. A lot of people view bandwagon fans negatively, thinking they hop on when times are good and disappear when times are bad, but the good thing about bandwagon fans is there are always a few who hop on and never hop back off, and that’s how the game is grown. I myself was more of a bandwagon fan before those playoffs; I’d try to get to a game every year, but I didn’t really understand the game and didn’t follow the team. Attending 5 games in the span of a few weeks and watching all the rest of the games on TV helped me to really understand how the game worked and got me excited about hockey and the Carolina Hurricanes. Ever since then I’ve paid much closer attention to the ’Canes and attend multiple games every year. I even started getting mini-plans during the 2009–2010 season.

Sadly, the prolonged underperformance by the team has hurt their local support on the whole. Attendance is down dramatically; often it feels like fans of the visiting team outnumber fans of the Hurricanes. “The Loudest House in the NHL” is now just a distant memory. The change is somewhat inexplicable. The team for many years still had the same manager, Jim Rutherford, that put together those teams that played for championships in 2002 and 2006, yet they have struggled ever since. Even after Rutherford was forced into a brief “retirement” we’ve seen more of the same results under his protégé, former team captain Ron Francis. It’s a little disappointing to see Rutherford with the Pittsburgh Penguins now and seeming to have the old touch of success again; this year the Penguins won the Stanley Cup for the fourth time in team history. I’m happy to see Rutherford having success, but to see it happening elsewhere instead of with us makes it feel like there’s a problem with the team itself, like maybe the glory days are over. With the continued poor performance on the ice and at the box office, we start to worry that the team’s days in Raleigh might be numbered. The team came here from Hartford, Connecticut, and while we’re thrilled to have the team we understand losing them was painful to the fans in Connecticut. The fans here in North Carolina don’t want to be in a similar situation.

When we bought our tickets to the Stanley Cup Finals, we justified the expense on a college student budget by saying, “how often does this happen?” Secretly we were hoping the answer to that question would be “a lot.” If it had continued on the pattern of every four years we’d be thrilled. Looking back now makes it feel all the more special, but in a bittersweet way, like something wonderful that happened and may never happen again. Even in the moment I knew: it was and would be one of the most amazing experiences I will ever have.

Let’s Go ’Canes!

Featured Image Credit: Public Domain by Bobby Schultz, via Wikimedia Commons.

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