Karmanos, naturally, says he had no choice but to leave his team in limbo for two seasons while a state-of-the-art arena is erected for him largely with public funding. To leave his team in Hartford would have been unfair to—get this—the players. "No matter which interim situation we ended up in," says Karmanos, "it would have been better than being lame ducks in Hartford and having the players listen to catcalls every night."
Well, you can be sure the boys are safe from catcalls in Carolina. In fact, they're safe from everything but secondhand smoke: They won't get booed, jeered or blasted by the very accommodating local media. "You want to talk about a team with no pressure," said Dineen after the Hurricanes tied Buffalo. "Here we are, coming off four straight losses, and everyone is talking about what a great tie we just had."
North Carolina has been the home of minor league hockey teams since the 1950s, but the game was largely viewed as a cult sport. The Hurricanes represent the NHL's first serious attempt to capture the imagination of NASCAR country—while, of course, charging full NHL prices, another reason for the team's dismal turnouts. Selling hockey in this state will be a slow process. "One night, at the end of a period, I heard somebody say, 'Here comes the Zamboozi,' " says Burke with a laugh. "It didn't take long for us to realize we weren't playing in an established hockey town."
Burke says playing in Carolina has given the team a renewed appreciation for Hartford. While the Whalers often seemed lost in the abyss between Boston and New York, they had a loud and loyal following. The Whalers, in fact, averaged 13,657 fans in their final season, 87% of Hartford Civic Center capacity. "It was not a bad atmosphere," Burke says. In the big crowd at the Hurricanes' opener in Greensboro was a contingent of about 1,000 Whalers fans who had traveled from Hartford. Carolina management has since offered all former Whalers season-ticket holders free ducats to four games—transportation not included. Catcalls, we assume, will not be tolerated.
"We had 9,000 or 10,000 of the greatest fans in hockey," Karmanos says of the Whalers faithful. "And we really, really tried to make it work. We told [city officials] we needed a rent-free, debt-free building, and they didn't want to give it to us." Karmanos, to his credit, is up-front when asked why he shipped the Whale off to Carolina: In the end, he says, it was all about money. "We could have sold every seat to every game and gone all the way to the finals and still lost five to seven million dollars," he says. "Because all we got was the gate [receipts in Hartford]. In Greensboro we've got a better radio and TV contract. We've got suites revenue. We've got concessions revenue. We've got parking revenue. We've got advertising. And we've got a new building opening in two years."
Until then they've got the Greensboro Globetrotters, a bleary-eyed band of hockey hoboes with no home, no fans and no hope of winning much of anything. It's enough to drive a man to drink. Make mine a double Zamboozi.