Raleigh, NC: PNC Arena, April 7th 2016 (9 of 30)

Planning

Sometimes things do not turn out the way you intended. I booked this trip back in October, while the Habs were ruling the NHL. For this next to last regular season game, I had visions of momentum for the playoffs, or maybe even a fight for a spot in the post season dance. But that’s not how things would play out.

The Habs lost star goaltender Carey Price early on to a knee injury, and the wheels came off the cart quickly after that, with the team’s deficiencies suddenly exposed. Even before injuries started piling up (the line up that hit the ice for this game was mostly made up of players who started the season in the AHL), the team struggled with offense, and for a while seemed unable to catch a break. On the Hurricanes side, while a few points ahead of the Habs in the standings, they were also out of contention, having liquidated a few veterans at the trade deadline.

So this game was, in all essence, meaningless. Or was it? During the week leading to the game, there was a lot of chatter that the Carolina Hurricanes would be relocated to Quebec City during the summer. If that came to pass, we would have attended the last NHL game in Raleigh. As I write this, no further rumours have come out and Canes owner Peter Karmanos strongly denied the rumours. We’ll see I guess.

I always say that the game is just an excuse for a trip, an opportunity to visit a city I would not have gone to otherwise. This trip would serve as the perfect example.

The trip

We took an early (and I mean early) morning flight (that was strangely routed through Detroit) and landed in Raleigh around noon. We stopped by Hertz to grab our rental car and headed out for downtime Raleigh for lunch. The PNC Arena is about halfway between the airport and Raleigh, and going from one to the other is very easy. It’s about 12 minutes from the airport to the arena, and the same from there to downtown Raleigh.

We put our faith in Google Maps and tried a little whole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant called Centro located dowtown. Walking in, the smell was mouth-watering and we couldn’t wait to order. The walls were covered with religious icons and other iconic items from south of the border to form a charming cluttered decor. The food lived up to its aroma, and their margarita was fantastic too. We walked back to our rental Jeep Wrangler (a late substitution from Hertz that provided us with quite a few laughs, considering I’m more used to driving compact cars) and made our way back to the hotel.

The Comfort Suite is located right across from the PNC Arena and was the ideal place for our stay. There was a sizable contingent of Habs fans at the hotel, even that far south of Montreal. Once we had our room, we quickly left to go back downtown to make the most of the 3 hours we had to enjoy the city.

Sightseeing

One of the first thing I do when planning these trips is to google “10 things to do in <name of the city>”. In the search on Raleigh, the Museum of Natural Science caught my eye and that is where we made our way. It turned out to be right beside the Museum of History, and we started with an exhibit called “The Story of North Carolina”.

From the Native nations that inhabited the land, to the first British colonies (including the mysterious disappearance of the Roanoke colony) to the rise of the cotton industry, textile mills, tobacco plantation, the Depression and the rise of banking, the history of the state was laid out with artifacts, reproductions, movies and text to illustrate the state’s history. Famous names pepper its history: Sir Walter Raleigh (the capital bears his name) who founded the first two colonies, explorer Daniel Boone and even the pirate Blackbeard who ultimately met his demise there.

The exhibit isn’t shy to mention the issues of slavery that tore its population apart when the civil war came around, and the racial segregation that followed, as was the case in much of the country. These days, black people amount for a little over 20% of the state population; from my admittedly short stay there, they do not seem to be markedly poorer than other folks, which is the case in many places in the US.

Another exhibit at the museum is the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. It became obvious why Raleigh is often described as a non-natural hockey market: there were exhibits on all major and minor sports, but hockey gets one lone mention honoring Sault Ste-Marie, ON native Ron Francis, who holds many franchise records with the Hurricanes (some dating back to when the team was the Hartford Whalers), and is now the team’s general manager.

Across the street, at the Natural Science Museum, we quickly went through the Nature Exploration Center. With a focus on the state’s indigenous plants and animals, both extinct and current, it is a fascinating look into many species that can be found nowhere else. The museum features an impressive whale skeleton collection that includes a massive Blue Whale, a Beaked Whale, a Sperm Whale and the remains of an endangered Right Whale collected in 1874, whose bones have been on public display for more than 100 years.

A rotunda houses the only real Acrocanthosaurus skeleton on display in the world (though a cast of it can be seen at the American Museum of Natural History in New York) and it’s an impressive sight. The skeleton bears the scars of multiple fights with other prehistoric predators, including a crocodile tooth embedded in its jaw, and you have to marvel at an era where ferocious hunters like this one still had to claw and bite their way to survival.

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Pre-game

We made our way back to the hotel and headed to the nearby Backyard Grill to grab a bite to eat. We were promptly seated in the Canes Corner of the restaurant. Coincidence or by design on account of our Habs jerseys? The giant banner bears the autographs of the players and the walls are covered with great photos of the team’s past and present stars. You don’t see much Canes memorabilia or mentions around Raleigh, and when you do, it’s mostly for the edition that won the Cup in 2006. It’s obvious that it’s harder to get people to rally behind a so-so team in this market.

Food and service was great at the restaurant. As is customary in the US, portions were humongous; I ordered a starter and the plate was bigger than what I’d expect for a meal! I also ordered a “Carolina Hurricane”, their delicious house version of the standard Hurricane cocktail.

At this point we were maybe 6 hours into our North Carolina adventure and one thing was obvious: people are incredibly friendly there. Everyone greets you with “Hi, how you doing today?” and are genuinely helpful and caring. And despite the fact that we walked into the arena’s neighbourhood sports bar wearing opposing colours, there was no animosity, just honest curiosity about how far we’d travelled for this game.

The PNC Arena

We had about an hour until game time so we made our way on foot to the PNC Arena. Surrounded by forest patches and flanked by Carter-Finley Stadium (home of the NC State University Wolfpack football team), it is the most beautiful site we’ve visited so far. Fans brought folding tables and chairs and were tailgating, with music blasting from a few cars. Tailgating is a concept very foreign to Canadian hockey fans, mostly because most games happen in sub-zero weather! A band was playing in front of the arena, and an area was setup so kids could play road hockey. What a fantastic idea!

Entrance into the arena was efficient despite the now NHL-mandated metal detectors. My camera was carefully measured against the allowed length (I had checked their website beforehand) and we were let inside.

The concourse is spacious and circulation is really easy (it also helps that it’s not sold out). The arena is squeaky clean and almost looks brand new, despite being inaugurated in 1999. The lower levels use a configuration I’ve never seen elsewhere: sections are divided in groups of four, accessible only by a series of doors where your ticket gets checked. These lead to a landing with a few concession stands only accessible to the people in these three sections. I loved this!

Speaking of concessions, the food offering was diverse and mouth-watering. Beer selection was fancy but mega expensive. Souvenir choice was pretty standard; I got my usual shot glass (great design!) and a plush Stormy, the team’s mascot, for our son. This last item was the biggest disappointment as all the ones we found looked worn out and faded. Bad batch or done on purpose?

When I started this project, I promised myself that once, I would sit behind the bench, and this game was it! Our seats were located second row behind the visitor bench, and we made our way there to enjoy the experience. We saw all the behind the scene setup necessary for Habs TV analyst Marc Denis’s pre-game interview; one guy’s job is to hold an actual LED monitor up so he can see himself and his interlocutor, Habs play-by-play man Pierre Houde.

The players soon made their way on the ice for the warm up. The view of the visitor zone was spectacular despite having to look through the glass. Home zone was a different proposition entirely, with a few extensive blind spots. During play, when the action went into these areas, we’d have to switch focus to the screens on the scoreboard. As an experience, being behind the bench is fantastic, but to appreciate the game, there is better, and I say that as someone who appreciates the galleries for the overall view of the ice.

The warmup gave us our first view of newly signed goaltender Charlie Lindgren, who would have his first NHL start tonight. Fresh off the college ranks, we feared his inexperience could cost us the game. On the other hand, with the team out of the playoff picture, a loss would increase the chances of a better draft pick. But having flown all the way from Montreal, I wasn’t about to root for my team to throw the game!

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Game time!

The Canes (as the Hurricanes are known) came on the ice to the sound of “Rock You Like A Hurricane”, in what has to be one of the best entrance of any NHL team. Stormy hit centre ice waving a flag bearing the teams colours and logo, and we were ready for the anthems, very well sung by a female singer whose name I unfortunately did not note. The stands were sparsely populated, with maybe half the seats occupied (the Hurricanes have the lowest average attendance in the NHL). The official boxscore ridiculously lists the attendance at 15,120 but I’d estimate it at a more realistic 8-9000. But what struck me is that no matter how few there were, their fans are devoted and love their team no matter what. Their love for their team seems more good-natured and less cynical; I couldn’t imagine these fans booing their own team, sometime that happens in Montreal when they play badly. Unconditional love versus tough love: which one is better? Hard to say. But I can say that, as a former resident of Quebec City who lived through the Nordiques moving to Colorado and knows the pain of losing your team, it would be a shame if the Canes fans lost their team.

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The game started with a bang for the Hurricanes who scored on their first shot at 1:34. Welcome to the NHL Charlie Lindgren! The ref actually brought the puck to Habs equipment manager Pierre Gervais, thinking Lindgren would like to keep the puck. Gervais looked at coach Michel Therrien with a smile saying “Really? He thinks he’ll want to keep it”. I wonder if he did.

It looked like our boys would have a hard time coming out on top, but they tied the game with 10 seconds left in the period with Darren Dietz’s first ever NHL goal. In the second, the teams traded goals then the Habs pulled ahead for good. This wasn’t a clash of titans but both teams were evenly matched which made for good hockey. The game wasn’t very physical with nothing riding on its outcome, and the sole penalty was awarded to Habs Andrei Markov at 16:12 of the third for an accidental high stick on Jeff Skinner.

When the final buzzer rang, Habs picked up a 4-2 win to move themselves further away from a lottery pick. They finally edged Buffalo by one point when they won their final game two days later.

Around our seats and in the corridors, we heard french here and there, from other Habs fans who’d made the trip or were on their way back from Florida, or now living in the area. One man even struck a conversation with me in French right away as he just assumed I was from Montreal! The amount of devotion this team gets is unreal. Everywhere we’ve run into Habs fans.

Exiting the arena was very easy, with again everyone being respectful. The weather outside was beautiful and we enjoyed the nice walk back to the hotel. Discussing our evening before going to bed, my wife and I agreed that the PNC Arena is the nicest arena we’ve seen so far in our nine stops. It is clean, well designed, offers great food and is comfortable. The presentation of the game is also one of the best we’ve seen, with great and relevant graphics shown throughout the game and an excellent announcer. The only aspect I found sub-par was the goal song, a custom version of Avicii’s “The Night”, complete with North Carolina wrestling legend Ric Flair “woos”. But hey, the opponent goal song is always annoying, you know? 🙂

We flew back to Montreal early the next day, with a stop at JFK. I was happy to see that renovations have made this former hellhole a pleasant airport to spend 2 hours in. I guess I need to stop avoiding it 🙂

This trip for me was all about the people. Discovering classic southern hospitality was very much fun, and seeing firsthand the Hurricanes fans made me understand the importance of these less natural hockey markets. As much as I’d like for a team to go back to Quebec City, I sincerely hope it won’t be the Hurricanes. And I hope more North Carolinians will discover the beauty of hockey and start following the Canes. They’ve got the basis for a nice team. Of the 9 cities we’ve visited so far, Raleigh takes top spot. Thank you for your hospitality.

Carolina Hurricanes - Stormy

Carolina Hurricanes mascot Stormy

 

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