They keep hearing about all the fabulous golf courses in the area, and once in a while, as they gaze out the bus window, they even see one. They are constantly asked how they like their new home in North Carolina, and the players formerly known as the Hartford Whalers can give only one honest response: Home? What home? We ain't got a home.
"To be honest," says Carolina goalie Scan Burke, "this place doesn't feel like home."
Their season has been reduced to one long, strange 82-game road trip. They are like some down-on-its-luck country band playing in front of small crowds, in a small city, with no home and no hope. Their nickname, the Hurricanes, is the only thing about them that makes sense, because thus far the NHL's incursion into tobacco country has been a natural disaster.
The team's headquarters and eventual home are in Raleigh (where a new arena is scheduled to be ready for the 1999-2000 season); the interim arena is in Greensboro, 80 miles away; and one of the practice facilities is in Hillsborough, which is somewhere in between. The fans, well, we're not sure where they come from, but it probably wouldn't take long to ask. The Hurricanes drew 18,661 on opening night in Greensboro three weeks ago, but since then they've played before quaint gatherings of friends and family. The paid attendance for last week's 3-3 tie against the Buffalo Sabres was 6,278, but only about 4,000 fans attended the game. That's about the same number of people who wait outside after games in Philadelphia to watch the Flyers' Eric Lindros drive away.
Spread throughout the Greensboro Coliseum—the venue scats 20,800 but is reduced to 15,902 for Hurricanes games so it doesn't seem quite so empty—the sparse crowd looked like a reunion of normal, well-adjusted Kennedy cousins. The season-ticket base is 3,083, by far the lowest in the NHL. "To say it has all gone smoothly, the way we had hoped, that wouldn't be true," says veteran defenseman Adam Burt. "I think everything will be great when we get to Raleigh, but for now, a lot of people in Greensboro are like, Hey, why bother? You're not our team."
The Carolina players spend more time on the bus than the Partridge Family. Consider: The New York Rangers have six road games this season that won't take them as far as the Hurricanes have to travel for home games. At times the Hurricanes are bused 80 miles from Raleigh to Greensboro for games, and after the morning skate they retreat to a hotel for lunch and a nap. Their wives and children are bused down later in the day, and together the players and their families return to Raleigh after midnight. All but two of the players are married, and among them there are 31 children of the Cane. That adds up to a lot of blown bedtimes. "Two a.m.—that's what time we get home from home games," says Burke, who is not one of the team's two bachelors. "I haven't gotten home at 2 a.m. since I was a young guy hitting the nightclubs." Burke says the players are planning to have postgame buffets at the new arena because they have yet to find a decent restaurant in Raleigh that's open after games.
It could be worse. After all, we're talking about hockey players, the most humble, down-to-earth species in pro sports. If a baseball owner had pulled this stunt, Donald Fehr would have taken hostages by now. "Whenever we start feeling sorry for ourselves, we just have to look at the trainers and the equipment guys," says Burt. "They're the ones who have to lug everything back and forth. They're the guys I feel sorry for."
So far the team has done little to lure the locals to the rink. At week's end the Hurricanes were 1-6-2 and in last place in the Northeast Division. While the offense has merely gotten off to a slow start, the defense has been awful, allowing more goals than all but three other teams. Losing is nothing new for this franchise—the Whalers' last winning season was 1989-90—though the situation may be especially bleak this winter. No sport is as emotional as hockey, and nothing is as deflating to a team as looking up at 15,000 empty seats. "It's not going to be easy, but we can't use this as an excuse," says right wing Kevin Dineen, a 14-year NHL veteran. "We can't say, 'Well, we were in a tough situation.' No one wants to throw these two years away."
Does anyone have a choice? The players knew that owner Peter Karmanos was planning to pull out of Connecticut and set up shop somewhere else, but they never dreamed they would be in transit this long. The Hurricanes will be hockey hoboes for two years—and that's if there are no construction delays. "They're professionals, and they understand," says Karmanos. "I think they're happy with what's going on and excited to be moving into a new building in two years."
Sure they are. Telling a hockey player that everything will be O.K. in two years is like telling a five-year-old to wait until after church to open his Christmas presents. These guys are taught not to look two games ahead. "We know 50 percent of the guys in this locker room probably aren't going to be here when the new building opens," says Burke, who will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and will likely be dealt by the March 25 deadline if he hasn't signed a contract extension.