Thursday, May 14, 2009

HCTB Road Trip: Carolina's RBC Center

The introductory sequence before the game began. Skip to the 5:30 mark to see the crowd really get going.

The last time I followed the Bruins to a Carolina home game, the Hurricanes had been orphaned in Greensboro, North Carolina. Attendance was so paltry in the massive Greensboro Coliseum that the upper deck was hidden behind a giant black curtain. The rest of the arena was half-filled with Bruins fans, displaced followers of the Greensboro Monarchs, and a lot of empty green seats. Later that season, the Bruins would eliminate the Hurricanes from the playoffs.

My, how things can change in a decade. Arriving at the RBC Center two hours before gametime was nothing like that depressing experience in Greensboro.

Along the road leading to the arena, the highway patrol had posted electronic signs telling non-ticket-holders to turn back because the game had already been sold out. Thousands of fans congregated in the parking lots and lawns around the arena to tailgate -- and mind you, this was real tailgating as one might expect to see at a college football game. Full-sized grills, TVs with satellite dishes, and fans already starting chants.

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.

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The Bastahd said...

"Why doesn't every team do this???"

Yea... you try doing that in downtown Boston or NY by their Gardens. My guess is that most hockey venues are actually in the city instead of out in the burbs/boonies.

Tom said...

LOL @ thought of NYC tailgating.

Nuuuuugs said...

Great read. Sounds like a great time, and a great road trip for the family. How long was the drive? Four or five hours I figure.

Tom said...

It was an 8-hour trip that extended to 10 due to bad weather and pit stops. Then the reverse drive... ugh.

FooF-BBF said...

That must've been a long drive home after the loss. Glad to see you had a good time. Very nice article.

I couldn't imagine having season tickets and tailgating every home game.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

Many teams' fans could do with learning some hospitality and losing some arrogance. *cough* Montreal *cough* Boston *cough* Vancouver **coughing spasm since list too long**

Ashley said...

Nice post. I'm glad to see that even the visiting fans appreciate the RBC Center as much as us Caniacs do.

Anonymous said...

Hockey looks good in Carolina.

Too bad it looks so god-awful in boston. Nice try, but this team has now lost in the early rounds 2 years in a row.

Anonymous said...

I work at the RBC Center and it is truely great to see someone who enjoyed themselves there. Thanks for such a great read, and I certainly hope you will be back!