The fans were loud, if not numerous, at Carolina's playoff debut
On April 20, two days before the Hurricanes would play their first postseason game since migrating from Hartford in April 1997, Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford was fixing to eat a leisurely breakfast in his Raleigh house. He poured a glass of cranberry juice, shook some wheat flakes into a bowl and turned to Dennis Rogers's column on the NHL in the sports section of Raleigh's News & Observer. "We didn't care if the team moved here from Hartford," Rogers wrote, "we don't care if they win or lose while they're here, and we don't care when or where they'll go if they pack up and leave."
How's that for Southern hospitality? "At first I took it personally," says Rutherford, whose team will move 80 miles east from its temporary home in Greensboro to more populous Raleigh next season. "Then I told myself that even in NHL strongholds you find a few people who don't like hockey."
In North Carolina the few have been the multitude, so it was surprising last Thursday when the Hurricanes' 2-0 loss to the Bruins unfolded before so many vociferous fans at the 11,059-seat Greensboro Coliseum, which has the NHL's smallest capacity. The 10,000 or so on hand proved that at least some Carolinians are thrilled to have the Hurricanes.
The team announced a sellout for Game 1 despite large swaths of empty seats and the fact that 10 minutes before the opening face-off a fan could have purchased four seats together in any of three price ranges ($50, $40 or $30). Attendance figures in Greensboro over the past two seasons can be defined in two ways: disappointing and doctored. Last year Carolina said its average attendance was 9,108; this year it was 8,188. Yet Dean Jordan, president of the Hurricanes' parent company, Gale Force Holdings, says ticket sales were actually up 31% this season. Last year's numbers, he admits, "were inflated."
However many there are, Hurricanes loyalists should be crowned the most devoted hockey fans south of Philadelphia. Some 85% make the drive from the Raleigh area. Whether or not Carolina thrives in the playoffs—the Hurricanes beat the Bruins 3-2 last Saturday to even the best-of-seven first-round series at one game apiece—last Thursday was a seminal night for the faithful. The fans waved white hankies and erupted into sustained "Let's go, Hurricanes!" chants. "That noise in this building gave me tingles down my spine," Carolina center Keith Primeau said after the game.
The cheers must have pleased Rutherford, who had presided over four playoffless seasons for the franchise before this year. He also may have been happy, at least momentarily, to see a big headline in Greensboro's News & Record sports section last Thursday proclaiming THE WAIT IS OVER. Unfortunately for Rutherford, the story was about the start of golf season in Greensboro.
Brian Leetch's Free Agency
Big Money Is In His Future
Like his Rangers teammates, defenseman Brian Leetch feels blue for having missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season and bluer still at the prospect of life without Wayne Gretzky. Those disappointments, though, aren't going to stop Leetch from having the off-season of his life. He plans to marry Mary Beth O'Neill on June 26, and sometime between now and the end of their honeymoon Leetch will become very rich. He and Avalanche winger Theo Fleury are by far the most attractive players among the 75 or so set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1.
The 31-year-old Leetch, who won the Norris Trophy in 1992 and '97 and who earned $34 million last season, is one of the seven best blueliners in the NHL, and he'll soon be the highest paid of the lot. The Rangers' initial offer surpassed the $6 million that the Bruins' Ray Bourque will earn next season (at this point he's scheduled to be the NHL's highest-paid defenseman), and Leetch will most likely seek $8 million a year over several seasons. He may get it, because, says one Eastern Conference coach, "the Rangers must sign him. There's nobody out there who can replace him."