Triangle newcomers who don't follow sports are probably surprised to learn our major pro team plays ice hockey. The Carolina Hurricanes have entertained both hockey diehards and new fans since they arrived at the Entertainment and Sports Arena—now PNC Arena—in October of 1999.
The Hurricanes, whose history began in 1972 as the New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association, are now in a five-year playoff drought, after shocking naysayers by winning an Eastern Conference championship in 2002 and the Stanley Cup in 2006, then playing in the Eastern Conference Final in 2009.
This will be their second season in the eight-team Metro Division, which includes five Acela corridor teams—the New York Rangers and Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals—along with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Hurricanes made major changes in the off-season when Hall of Famer Ron Francis, the most decorated player in franchise history, replaced veteran Jim Rutherford as general manager. Francis quickly fired head coach Kirk Muller and replaced him with Detroit Red Wings assistant Bill Peters.
The national media consensus is that the playoff drought will continue, although factors such as injuries, hot goaltenders and suddenly overachieving youngsters can make for massive changes in the standings.
Carolina's captain is 11th-year veteran center Eric Staal, one of five past Olympians on the team. His brother Jordan is a forward and an alternate captain. Eric Staal and 2006 playoff MVP Cam Ward, who shares goalie duties with Anton Khudobin, are the only holdovers from the Stanley Cup Champions. Forward Jeff Skinner won the Calder Memorial Trophy as the 2010-11 rookie of the year.
Even when the team struggles to win, it's consistently a good show. The Hurricanes practically invented hockey tailgating—an impractical custom in the sport's places of origin in the frozen North—and they credibly bill PNC Arena as "The Loudest House in the NHL."
Carolina's first exhibition is at home on Sept. 21 against Columbus, followed by the annual "Caniac Carnival," which includes a Red-White scrimmage, on Sept. 26. The regular-season opener is Oct. 10 against the visiting Islanders.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Hockey hopes"