- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 26, 2009

— They are perfectly placed on an elevated patch of grass along the route players take through the parking lot to RBC Center. And they can identify the automobiles of members of their Carolina Hurricanes from a thousand feet away.

Immediately, someone grabs one of the signs the group has for nearly every player, and the whole crew of a few dozen fans greets the car with a hearty cheer. Some players wave or honk, but on Saturday before Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, Erik Cole - who gave the patrons of “Cole’s Grassy Knoll Bar and Grille” their namesake - has a special surprise.

Cole stops his vehicle and out pop Charlie and Matt Pusateri, and immediately the group is sent into a frenzy. The Pusateri brothers are childhood friends of Hurricanes defenseman Joe Corvo (who is riding with Cole), and this is their second time hanging out with one of several groups of tailgaters who make spending an afternoon with “The Caniacs” such a unique experience.

“We went to Erik Cole and said, ‘Hey you got to hook us up. We don’t know anybody.’ He said, ‘Oh man, I got the perfect spot - Cole’s Grassy Knoll,’ ” Charlie Pusateri says. “We only had a little cooler of beer with us, but luckily we got to meet some great people, and they treated us very well. We had to come back.”

Tailgating is an essential part of the fan experience, especially in the South. While the ritual is sparse or nonexistent in most hockey markets, there are thousands of tailgaters strewn about the vast RBC Center parking lot on this day. People start showing up as early as six hours before game time.

The location is key on several fronts. Raleigh is the heart of ACC country, and college sports reign supreme. RBC Center is blessed with plenty of parking and grass for people to set up grills and games - like the bean bag-tossing contest Cornhole or nets for roller hockey.

“It has just taken on that college persona,” says Jeff Benicase, who started “Cole’s Grassy Knoll.” “Here you can get Duke, [North] Carolina and [N.C.] State fans together, and they all have one common team. It is also the setup. [In] downtown Pittsburgh, you aren’t going to [find] this. It’s not like you could do this in Chinatown [in the District].”

Adds Russell Kandel, chief architect of another large group: “I think things like these tailgates bring people into the fold. They see it when they walk around and go, ‘Wow, that looks like a lot of fun.’ ”

When the Hurricanes moved to North Carolina from Hartford, Conn., in 1997, the franchise, like others that have arrived in nontraditional hockey markets, had to find ways to build the fan base. Some from this area made the trek west to Greensboro, where the team played its first two seasons before RBC Center - then known as the Raleigh Entertainment & Sports Arena - was built.

In the first few days of this building’s life, tailgating was not allowed, but that didn’t last long.

“I actually have a ticket - a framed ticket - from the night they opened this building for $75 for having an open container in this parking lot,” Patrick Drollinger says. “With the ACC, you can’t have alcohol at the campuses, and because this building is shared with N.C. State, they originally said you can’t tailgate. People flipped their wigs, and the next week Jim Cain, who was the team president at the time, sent out a letter to the fans apologizing and said, ‘We’re sorry; we are going to allow tailgating.’

“It is a lot of fun. It is a little like a football atmosphere.”

What once was just a few small groups has blossomed into an epic event for each home game, especially during the postseason. Groups of tailgaters circle the stadium, and this isn’t a typical hot dogs-and-hamburgers scene.

Kandel’s crew is eating king crab. Another group of fans, who double as West Virginia football supporters, are feasting on London broil and stuffed jalapenos. Those in “Cole’s Grassy Knoll” aren’t satisfied with just a few cases of beer - they have an entire bar’s worth of alcoholic products.

Drollinger’s group decides to pay homage to the enemy, in part because one of the members, John Gallagher, grew up a Penguins fan and lived in Pittsburgh before moving to Raleigh. They are making sandwiches with fries and coleslaw on them - just like the famous sandwiches at Primanti Brothers in the Steel City - and blaring from the speakers of someone’s car is The Clarks, a popular band in Pittsburgh.

“The first year I moved down here was when Ron Francis signed as a free agent [from Pittsburgh in 1998], so I thought, ‘OK, maybe I am supposed to be here,’ ” Gallagher says. “When the Penguins would come to town, I would wear my Penguins jersey, but I’d root for the Hurricanes the rest of the time. But there was such a small group of Hurricanes fans that I felt like I needed to help them out, and I made the switch.”

Hockey has not caught on in every southern U.S. city like it has here. The Hurricanes boast a robust group of season-ticket holders, thanks in part to tailgating and the team’s success. When Carolina made a surprise run to the 2002 Stanley Cup Finals, fans from Detroit and other traditional markets deemed this place hockey’s “Mayberry.”

Benicase’s group put a new spin on the nickname after the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006. One of the many signs that hang at “Cole’s Grassy Knoll” says, “Welcome to Hockeyberry. Stanley Cup Population: 1.”

“It was tough when they first got here because there were only about [4,000] or 5,000 fans, but [the organization] has been very good about, ‘Hey, here is what we’re about, and here is what we’re trying to build. We want to do this right,’ ” says Gallagher, who not only became a staunch Hurricanes fan but served as president of the booster club for two years. “People have been able to relate to that, and that’s why the fans have held pretty steady even though we’ve had a couple of years without making the playoffs.”

One member of Kandel’s group, Doug Stager, has a 6-foot tall replica of the Stanley Cup with a motorized water fountain in it in the bed of his hunter green pickup truck. He made it with a 55-gallon drum, a five-gallon bucket, a large ketchup can and a stainless steel mixing bowl.

It goes in the back of his truck once the playoffs start and remains until Carolina’s run ends, which could be Tuesday night in Game 4 because the Penguins have a 3-0 series lead.

Kandel and Stager are part of a group of fans who meet the team at Raleigh-Durham International Airport when it returns from road games in the early morning hours. There were about 1,000 waiting for the Hurricanes after they defeated Boston in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

It is an interesting mix of transplants from the northern part of the country who grew up hockey fans and people who are native to this area and have become fans. Anyone who thinks Hurricanes games are just an excuse to get drunk needs to witness the kids playing street hockey in the parking lot, which can only bode well for the future financial success of the franchise.

“The amazing thing is you’ve taken a bunch of people that didn’t really grow up with the game and now they understand it,” says Kandel, a New York native. “They have started to really recognize the nuances of the game.”

Adds Stager: “I grew up here in Raleigh, and the only ice we had was for our tea.”

A few tents down is a contingent of Penguins fans who have made the trip south. Several Hurricanes fans say they are proud of how hospitable their fan base is, and the tailgating scene lures plenty of visiting fans.

The Washington Capitals are no exception. Every year the Caps Road Crew brings a caravan of buses for a Caps-Hurricanes contest. It started in 2000 with one bus and about 50 people, but it has swelled to three buses and 150 people. This season, the group even staged a street hockey tournament.

“For Caps fans, it is perfect,” says Sherrill Muzzoco, director of the Caps Road Crew. “I tell people, ‘If you can do one trip per year, do Carolina.’ It is fairly inexpensive, we can get great seats, the locals are terrific and the tailgating is a humongous plus.”

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