Monday, May 18, 2009

A Penguins fan in Canes country

Well, it’s finally here; the NHL Eastern Conference finals. And, in an exact chain of events, the match up will be between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Carolina Hurricanes. I’m a Pittsburgher - born and raised - and therefore, by definition, an unwavering Penguins fan. As luck would have it, life has me currently residing in the home of the ‘Canes, Raleigh North Carolina. In all sincerity though, if I had to be living in the city of the enemy for any part of any sports playoffs, I’d probably pick the one I’m in. Suicide would be a better option than living in Philadelphia or Manhattan during a Pens/Flyer or Pens/Rangers series. Even Boston would be hard to handle. But I’m here in the heart of the Triangle, and it’s really not such a bad place to be.

I attended the very first Carolina Hurricanes home game. It was October 1997, and the Canes opened their inaugural season at the Greensboro Coliseum against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Stationed at Fort Bragg, NC, I made the hour-long trip to Greensboro with two Army buddies who were also from Pennsylvania. The attendance for that first game was somewhere around 5,000 with 2/3 of the crowd proudly sporting Penguins gear. There was also a spattering of Whalers sweaters. The center-ice sponsor for that game was John Deere, and during the second intermission, Jeff Burton’s NASCAR racer was driven onto the ice. I remember looking at my buddy and saying, “This is never going to work.”

12 years does a lot for a team, and with the help of a Stanley Cup championship, the Canes have come into their own right as a serious hockey team, and – as a Raleighite for the past two years – I can honestly say their fans have come into their own as well. The handout at the first Canes game – along with the program – was a fold-out chart explaining the basic rules and the refs’ calls. Those first attendees didn’t know the difference between hooking and high-sticking, and explaining icing or – God help me – a two-line pass was an all-evening affair. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find a serious Hurricanes fan who can’t give you the stats of the leading goal scorers and assist men, not to mention his opinion on who belongs on whose line and the differences between the ways the Canes play the trap on each of their division rivals. Raleigh has slowly but surely (and I can’t say when it happened) become a hockey town.

It’s no Detroit or Philadelphia or Pittsburgh for that matter, but the Triangle has shed its Mayberry image – at least in the hockey world – and is proving that its team and its fans are the real deal. I even know a former Pittsburgh fan (or two) who now flies the storm warning flag from her vehicle, and I can’t help but think there’s some foul play at work when I look up and see Ronnie Francis’ number hanging from the rafters or stop and think that one reason Cam Ward has been en fuego this season is because he’s studying under the tutelage of the man who brought two Cups to Pittsburgh in the 90s. Even Bill Cowher - the guy who runs a vey close second only to Jesus Christ in the minds of Steel City residents - has been seen buddying it up to Paul Maurice. I guess if you’re going to model your hockey club after another great team, you might as well pick one with the same set of values and ideals as what you strive to become.

Tonight begins the NHL Eastern Conference finals (and how proud Mama Staal must be). While I can guarantee that none of my Penguins sweaters will be spending much time in the closet this series, I’ve also accepted the fact that my current circle of friends ensures I won’t be immersed in a sea of Black & Gold for most of this series. As I’ve become aware of twice already this season, I’ll also be a member of the minority at the RBC Center on Saturday and next Tuesday when I attend as a representative of the enemy.

1 comment:

Lisa Creech Bledsoe said...

Methinks you hold your own just fine in your black and gold (in a circle of red and white). I can't name one single person who would willingly cross swords with you and all of your muscles. Oh, wait. Except for @jjx! :)