The introductory sequence before the game began. Skip to the 5:30 mark to see the crowd really get going.
One small corner of a huge tailgate party. Why doesn't every team do this???
Needless to say, by the time I reached the arena doors I was getting butterflies about the prospect of taking my family into the cheap seats. After all, the RBC Center is famed for its claim as the loudest building in the league, and I wasn't seeing a lot of Bruins faithful in the crowd. The last thing I wanted was to bring my wife and 2 children into the proverbial eye of the Hurricane.
So I taken totally off guard by what happened next.
Within a minute of walking through the doors, I was approached by a man decked head-to-toe in Hurricanes merchandise. He shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and told me how glad he was that I'd made the trip. For the next few minutes we swapped stories of hockey on the road, pondered the state of the game in Raleigh, and introduced our families to each other. As we walked away, I had a warm feeling from the good fortune of meeting a friendly Canes fan right away.
The RBC Center democratically allows all fans to visit the glass during warmups.
But he wasn't the last I'd meet. It seemed as though my Bourque jersey (and, to be fair, the presence of a 6-month-old wearing a tiny Bruins outfit) was a beacon for diehard Hurricanes fans to introduce themselves and welcome my family to Raleigh. It was like being a head of state on a visit to a banana republic which had just discovered oil under its beaches.
And this was in the moments before a playoff game!
Commitment to winning is the first step in building a fanbase.
Perhaps this is because the Caniacs recognize their role as the frontrunning fanbase of the Southeast. They are following a newly-arrived team in a newly-arrived city. They understand that there is still a steep uphill climb for their team before the "traditional markets" of the NHL recognize them as brethren.
But they also understand that they have experienced more Finals games since 1997 than the Bruins, Canadiens, Flyers, Penguins, Sabres, Rangers, Islanders, Maple Leafs, Capitals, Blackhawks, Blues, and Canucks combined. They know that they are a legitimate fanbase and no longer just a bandwagon mob.
And they want everyone else to know it too.
I'm impressed that, despite the intensity of this series and the fact that the Hurricanes blew open a close game in the third period, I didn't witness a single negative action towards any visiting Bruins fans. No fights, no drunken taunts, no thrown nachos.
But maybe that was because, unlike that pitiful atmosphere in Greensboro circa 1998, the arena wasn't half-full of Bruins fans. In fact, even the cheap seats (where it's usually easy for a visiting team to score a block of tickets) were a sea of red, interrupted only occasionally by a Lucic sweater. And the Canes fans weren't bandwagoners, either -- these were folks with signed Justin Williams jerseys. Real fans.
B's faithful were few and far between, even in the cheapies.
Overall, the atmosphere was electric and authentic. The crowd stood through much of the game and the noise level was like that of a Rolling Stones concert. On the rare occasion that the visiting fans managed to organize a "Let's Go Bruins!" chant, the home fans quickly overpowered it. I haven't seen such an active crowd since Friday nights in high school.
The finals few seconds tick off the clock, to the delight of the Caniacs.
Of course, the real test of the Carolina franchise's strength will be to carry this sort of support into the lean times. But it certainly appears as though Caniac Nation is going to be a permanent fixture in the NHL landscape, Dixie's answer to the playoff energy of Calgary and Detroit.
And having seen up close the warmth and dedication of their fanbase, the future of hockey in Carolina is starting to look pretty good.