Jeannine Erasmus, bottom center, 17, throws her fists in the air, alongside Hannah Keely, right, 17 both of Cary, N.C., as they cheer for the Carolina Hurricanes against the Edmonton Oilers, while watching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup hockey finals on a large-screen television outside the RBC Center on Monday, June 19, 2006, in Raleigh, N.C.
(AP Photo/Sara D. Davis)
As the Carolina Hurricanes bask in the glow of the franchise’s first Stanley Cup win, they know they owe a lot of their success to the passionate support of their fans.Those Hurricanes fans managed to do the nearly unthinkable: take the most thrilling event in all of sports (Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals), and boost the level of excitement even further.
Following the heart-breaking 4-3 overtime loss to Edmonton in Carolina in Game 5, and the miserable 4-0 drubbing in Game 6, the Hurricanes staff were determined to make sure that the "maniac Caniacs" would make a difference in the deciding game.
"We pretty much put the charge out through the media that nobody sits down tonight," director of marketing and creative services for the Hurricanes Howard Sadel said. "’Up on your feet and screaming’ was the charge that we put on the radio stations, TV and interviews, and that’s exactly how it was when people came into the building. People were just going crazy."
The frenzied sight was comparable to crowds at college basketball games, which would make sense, because the RBC Center is shared by both the Hurricanes and the N.C. State men’s basketball program.
The uncommon sight wasn’t confined to inside the RBC Center. All throughout the season and into the playoffs, thousands of fans would show up early and tailgate outside the arena, an activity usually reserved for football games.
"That has always been just a staple of our games since we opened the building in 1999-2000," Sadel said. "When it comes to the playoffs, the fans take it to another level."
The fans weren’t being silent when they stood, either. The RBC Center, which has had a reputation for being one of the loudest in the NHL, lived up to its reputation. During Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Hurricanes officials recorded the decibel level at a record-breaking 133.2 decibels, shattering the old record of 127 at a Sacramento Kings-Los Angeles Lakers playoff game.
After the final horn sounded in Game 7, the crowd probably hit that level and then some.
However, unlike many other cities, the fans didn’t riot or cause any major destruction.Right after the game, roughly 3,000 to 5,000 fans gathered for an impromptu celebration that stayed well-behaved. The next day, some 30,000 to 40,000 fans lined the streets (in 90 degree heat, no less) for a parade near the RBC Center as the team showed off the Stanley Cup to the public.
"We estimated that we’ll have maybe 20, 25 thousand, who knows. And you have 40 thousand. It was incredible," Sadel, who drove the final truck with Glen Wesley and the Stanley Cup, said.
Thousands more showed up for a second celebration the next day in downtown Raleigh, culminating in a stop at the state legislature, where a resolution was unanimously passed declaring the Hurricanes the "kings of hockey," capping off an unbelievable three-day stretch for the organization.
Another instance of ’Canes fans taking it to another level was the demand for merchandise, particularly with the Mike Commodore bathrobes.
"It actually started out as a Christmas gift from the team," Sadel said. "He picked the robe, and had Wally, our equipment manager, put his number on it. He actually came out for an interview with [Hurricanes TV color analyst] Tripp Tracy with it on, and it just took off from there. We had so many requests for the robe that we decided to put it in the store."
The demand for merchandise skyrocketed following the Stanley Cup win, when fans were buying merchandise faster than it was being produced.
"We were selling out of boxes," Sadel said. "They couldn’t get the stuff on the shelves. And that was for days."
"Two days after we had won, we came into work, and there were hundreds of people outside the arena. I said that it looked like we were getting ready to go on sale with Game 8 tickets. They were all waiting for the team store to open, so they could come in and clear it out again. It’s a great problem to have."Sadel would not reveal specific numbers, but did say that online sales of merchandise exceeded those of the previous three Stanley Cup champions.
"We expect the sales will wind down around the Independence Day holiday, but a week after that, our championship DVD will premiere, on the 11th."
Sadel recalled a particular instance during the Eastern Conference Finals in 2002 when some fans from Toronto were looking to stir up trouble.
RALEIGH, NC - JUNE 21: Chad LaRose #59 (L) and Aaron Ward #4 of the Carolina Hurricanes wave to the crowd during a "Hail To Our Champions" parade to celebrate the team's Stanley Cup victory over the Edmonton Oilers June 21, 2006 in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
"As the story went, the fans were looking for a fight, and they got a hamburger and a beer," Sadel said. "Their fans were all jumping around, going crazy, and our fans were like, ‘Okay. You wanna have a drink? You want a burger? You want something?’ So it was an interesting education for the Toronto market to see our fans, and to see our market."
Unfortunately, even with that existing education, the stigma of Carolina being "NASCAR country" didn’t sit well with Sadel.
"It’s unfortunate that there’s always going to be this stigma when people come down. It’s just foolish. Negligence on their part is not understanding the market. He pointed out that many of the tickets sold in the Buffalo series were bought by fans who had moved from the upper New York state area to the so-called "Triangle" Raleigh-Durham area.
Still, the Southern hospitality that the Hurricanes fans extended to the Toronto fans was likewise extended to the rest of their playoff opponents.After some "fans" in San Jose took it upon themselves to boo "O Canada" in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs, things could have gotten ugly.
Thankfully, the Edmonton fans refused to respond in kind, instead singing along with "The Star Spangled Banner" through the rest of their playoff run. The Hurricanes likewise took the high road, choosing to sing along to both country’s anthems. "Knowing our fan base, I would have been beyond shocked if that had happened," Sadel said. "I mean, I could understand maybe if it was the 70’s and we were playing Russia and they were playing the Russian national anthem. But those were different times and different circumstances completely.
"To boo the Canadian national anthem is so disrespectful and ridiculous," Sadel continued. "Our team has always sung both anthems. This is supposed to be a celebration of hockey. Each team should have a respect for both teams on the ice and both national anthems and cultures."
Carolina fans likewise showed respect for New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur following Carolina’s five-game drubbing of the Devils. "I can’t be any prouder of our fans for how they have a respect for the teams, for the individual players on the other teams, and their efforts," Sadel said. "At the end of the series, everybody’s shaking hands, and Brodeur coming to get off the ice, and hundreds of our fans gravitating around there to give him a standing ovation coming off the ice. I mean, in other buildings, you could see fans booing."
All of this never surprised Sadel, saying the team’s fan base is quite different from many other teams in the league.
"Our fan base is very different. Our building is very different. The first thing people notice when they come is, ‘You’ve got something very different in this building than in any of the other 29 buildings.’ It’s incredibly family-oriented. They couldn’t believe, here you are in the Eastern Conference Finals and the Stanley Cup Finals, and how many kids were at these games. And I told them, double and triple that number during the regular season.
"This is a family-oriented building," Sadel continued. "We are very protective of that. It is one of the most secure buildings. The greatest compliment I ever got was from a single mom from Chicago who sought me out because I was wearing my Hurricanes badge. ‘Oh, I just wanted to tell you something. I would have never taken my kids to a hockey game there. I just have to tell you, this is just the most comfortable building to walk in and out of. And when I pull into the building in my car, I feel like I’m pulling into the driveway to my house.’ And we are very protective of that."
Sadel spoke about his experience being down at ice level during the final moments of the game.
"I focused up my camera on the JumboTron, as the clock ticked down to 3-2-1, and then the place just went crazy. It’s hard to put to words what the feeling was like. I remember people on the glass crying. Grown men crying in the crowd, just so incredibly excited, and so emotional."Much was made in the press over Carolina being an "non-traditional market" with "non-traditional fans."
Given their passion in the stands and success on the ice, perhaps teams across the league could learn a little something about the fans from "Tobacco Road."
RALEIGH, NC - JUNE 20: Carolina Hurricanes fans look for the parade to arrive during the 2006 NHL Stanley Cup Celebration on June 20, 2006 at the RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. The Hurricanes defeated the Edmonton Oilers in seven games to with the NHL Finals. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)