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College region unites to support Hurricanes

Carolina's succes has infected Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State fans with hockey fever.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 8, 2002


RALEIGH, N.C. -- Adam Gold would have loved to talk about something other than hockey.

As host of a sports talk show on WRBZ radio, he had a wide range of available topics, including baseball's growing steroid scandal and the upcoming Indy 500.

But all anyone wanted to talk about that day in late May were the Hurricanes, who, the night before, clinched their first trip to the Stanley Cup final.

Things have gotten more intense as Carolina prepares to host Game 3 tonight against the Red Wings at the Entertainment and Sports Arena.

"Right now, I can talk hockey for three hours a day for five days a week," Gold said. "It's all anyone is talking about."

Yes, indeed, the Triangle, an area including Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, has gone gaga over the Hurricanes, tied at 1 in the best-of-seven series.

No longer can Carolina players run to the store for some milk without being mobbed for autographs. Captain Ron Francis said he even got a thumbs-up in church. Somebody put a Hurricanes jersey on the statue of George Washington in front of the state capitol.

A Chapel Hill bakery designed a loaf of bread in the shape of the Hurricanes' logo, added red sprinkles and some chocolate and called it the Hurricane Swirl.

The three Cup games against the Red Wings sold out in 20 minutes, and the 18,500-seat ESA is said to be the loudest arena in the league.

"It's going to be wild," Carolina goalie Arturs Irbe said. "If people think they saw how crazy crowds can be in Detroit, they may get an eye-opener (tonight)."

The attention is welcome, though it does seem out of place. (Please, no calls about hockey in Florida.)

College basketball is god in the Triangle with North Carolina State in Raleigh, Duke in Durham and North Carolina in Chapel Hill. NASCAR arouses passion. But so do the Hurricanes, who, in a way, are the only game in town.

"When you have some of the best college sports fans in the country, and they all pull for the same team, it's unbelievable," said Dan Magee, a season-ticket holder who traveled with brother Kevin to Detroit for Games 1 and 2.

"Everybody I talk to said they were hooked the first time they went to a game."

Winning is key, but Carolina also worked to overcame the public-relations missteps it made when it relocated from Hartford as the Whalers.

From 1997-99, the Hurricanes played in Greensboro, about 80 miles northwest, while the ESA was built.

"We moved in with a fan base of zero and no history," team president Jim Cain said. "There were no folks in the organization from North Carolina. We moved in with attitude and arrogance, expecting people to come to support us just because we were there. That didn't work."

Meaning there were lots of empty seats.

Even the opening of the ESA in October 1999 did not go well, with traffic snarls and concession areas not completed.

So after the 1999-2000 season, Cain, who was hired in January 2000 and is a native of High Point, N.C., directed telephone and in-arena surveys to find out what fans wanted.

The result was 125 items Cain said the team is "contractually obligated to provide," from flexible ticket plans to better concessions.

"They did an unbelievable job marketing it," Dan Magee said.

Then they started winning. The fans got passionate and gave the games a collegiate atmosphere. They tailgate. They paint faces and do stupid things such as eating buckets of worms to win tickets.

"College basketball is No.1, no doubt about it," Gold said. "But there is room here for a lot of people to be passionate about a lot of things."

"People in New York waited 54 years for a Stanley Cup," said Magee, who came to Raleigh from New York in 1995. "I'm getting to see this their first five years in the league. Unbelievable."

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