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Ice Hockey Is Smokin' on Tobacco Road

Sports: The Carolina Hurricanes' trip to the Stanley Cup finals has only strengthened the transplanted team's bond with fans in Dixie.

June 10, 2002|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RALEIGH, N.C. — No, they don't think icing is something you drag your finger through on a piece of cake.

And you're not going to hear folks hanging around the arena talking about hoisting a pig up on a spit during "halftime."

Because here in the steamy heart of the Carolinas, land of tobacco, NASCAR and college hoops, people get ice hockey--and like it. And as Carolina's National Hockey League team, the Hurricanes, vies for the Stanley Cup, the Snow Belt sport is shattering stereotypes and winning converts. Thousands of them.

"I'm a woman, I'm a Southerner and I'm a Carolina fan," Raleigh native Lucy Kindsvatter yelled above a cheering din as she waited for the third game in the series to begin Saturday night. (The Detroit Red Wings went on to win, 3-2, in triple overtime.) "But I love ice hockey. It's doggone beautiful."

All Hurricanes playoff games have sold out here. The city's Entertainment and Sports Arena is generating the loudest crowds--and the best tailgating--in the league. Southern kids are picking up hockey sticks.

And in a place with tribal-like loyalty to college basketball teams, there's a growing acceptance of Canada's national pastime as a real sport.

"I used to get confused watching those guys on TV," said Raleigh truck driver Ronald McClaim, "fighting for that, that ..."

Puck?

"Yeah, puck. But you know, now I kinda like it."

This pro sports success story springs from shrewd marketing, a talented and spirited team and, more than anything else, a new reality in the South: Yankee-fication.

As good jobs and industries flow South, so do Northerners. Few places exemplify this more than the Research Triangle area of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, where half the residents come from out of state.

The area is home to three major universities, a well-established high-tech sector led by IBM and more PhDs per capita than just about anywhere else in the country. "The Triangle" has attracted more transplants than any Southern community except metro Atlanta (which is twice its size).

Cary, a Raleigh suburb, is so full of new faces that good ol' boys say the name is short for Containment Area for Relocated Yankees.

But when down South, the transplants do as Southerners do.

On Saturday, there was an eerie lack of traffic leading into Raleigh's arena in the hour before the game. Everybody was already there.

It was a spectacular day: 80 degrees, slight breeze, a Carolina blue sky. And the parking lot was filled with thousands of red-shirted Hurricane fans--from the North and South--eating chicken wings, boiling clams, swigging Budweiser, blasting Lynyrd Skynyrd from their stereos, whooping and hollering and splashing around in kiddie swimming pools balanced in the beds of enormous pickup trucks with "I am a Caniac!!!" painted on the sides.

"It's like a college atmosphere out there," said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

There's also a sense of Southern manners. Many fans told stories of chatting with their favorite players. The other day, Sherry Hollcraft, who runs a house cleaning business in Raleigh, visited with team captain Ron Francis and his wife in the grocery store.

"They had a lot of vegetables," she said.

Joyce Gagnon, a newly minted hockey fan, went to the airport Friday morning to welcome the team back after it lost Game 2 in Detroit. There were 150 people waiting for the plane. No matter that it was 2 a.m.

"They still signed autographs," Gagnon said. "Bless their hearts."

Hockey stars as a whole have a reputation for being pretty down to earth. Save for Wayne Gretzky, most are hardly blinked at outside their hometowns.

But for their part, the Hurricanes--whose logo features a puck as the eye of the storm--have provided an excellent lesson in community relations.

Keeping the Fans Happy

The team markets special ticket packages for families, players volunteer at charity events and management came up with a "contract with fans," acknowledged as a little hokey but still successful. (The contract outlined arena improvements and added foot-long hot dogs to the concession stand menu.)

This year, the team put up video screens in the parking lot so fans without finals tickets (going for as much as $1,300) could watch the game together for free.

And so for the moment, the glaring dollar signs of professional sports fade away.

"It's like a cultural exchange out there," said Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker. "When we played Toronto [in the playoffs] we had people cooking hot dogs together, drinking beer, learning the words of the Canadian national anthem."

The Hurricanes, who moved from Hartford, Conn., to North Carolina in 1997, are trying hard to avoid the fate of the Charlotte Hornets. Somehow, in an area known for great basketball, the state lost its only NBA franchise after relations soured among owners, fans and city leaders. The Hornets once boasted the best attendance in the league. This year, they held playoff games in a half-full arena. Next season they're off to New Orleans.

Part of the Caniac spirit is that they're underdogs. They're down 2 games to 1 to the heavily favored Red Wings. But just getting to the finals has been deemed a miracle for a team ranked 15th in the regular season.

On Saturday, the parking lot was sizzling with burgers, humming with music and overflowing with a sun-sweetened spirit that seemed to belong squarely in the South.

"Hey, Jacques!" one guy yelled to a French Canadian TV journalist doing a stand-up report. "Wanna brew?"

The journalist smiled and shook his head.

"I have never seen anything like this," said the journalist, whose name is actually Rene Pothier, in a silky French accent. "We could never have this in Montreal, this spirit, this much ambience."

Times researcher John Beckham contributed to this report.

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