“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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