As some of you may know, I grew up below the Mason-Dixon line, in the great state of North Carolina. North Carolinians are passionate about sweet tea, Cheerwine, biscuits, the great outdoors, our college basketball, our Carolina Panther football, and most recently, our hockey. The state capitol, Raleigh, NC, plays home to the Carolina Hurricanes NHL team. In recent years there has been great speculation on hockey in the south. Hockey has always been a Yankee thing, and to add to that, Atlanta just lost their team to Canada. That was a low point. That was the line that was crossed. To me, that is when I as a proud southerner say “F*** You Canada, I like hockey too!”
So maybe it wasn’t my country rage that led me to attend Saturday nights hockey game at the RBC Center to see the Pittsburgh Penguins vs. the Carolina Hurricanes. A former squeeze of mine had invited me to go with her. So sue me if I didn’t pay complete attention to the entire game, I tried as hard as I could to catch every speck of detail so that you, the reader, could re-experience your first thrill of an NHL game as I explain mine.
The drive to Raleigh from Elon, NC was long, but hot with anticipation and good conversation as we cruised down I-85 through the Research Triangle. As we pulled onto the exit ramp and I turned the wheel until the RBC Lion was in view, I was taken back to the Charlotte Coliseum days when the Charlotte Hornets were all the buzz in the area. The Hornets were once the pride of the Carolinas. After many years of great college basketball, we were on the professional stage, and we embraced it like no other, only to have it stripped from us at such a young age, like if a parent were to abruptly switch their child from diapers to briefs, and shit hit the fan. You see, both the RBC Center and the former Charlotte Coliseum are open area ones, as opposed to urban coliseums like Time-Warner Cable Arena in Uptown Charlotte. The parking lot is the entire area surrounding the RBC Center. So basically no matter where you park, it costs $10. As we parked and walked, I realized that this was also the home of NC State Wolfpack basketball, my former squeeze that accompanied me to the game (we’ll refer to her as “Woman”), who is a Wolfpack fan (booo) told me that they just lay the hardwood on the ice for the basketball games. “I wonder if their feet get cold…” said Woman.
Our seats were hardly spectacular, looking straight I was watching the goalie, and as opposed to telling you how many rows up we were, I’ll tell you that we were about 6 rows from the top. I was very impressed though, because with my horrendous eye-sight I could still follow the puck very well, which prior to the game was a very real issue in my head. After player introductions, in which Goalie Cam Ward, and Forwards Jeff Skinner, and Eric Staal were the most cheered, there was the face off, and the game was on.
One minute and twenty seconds had passed by, and….. GOAL!!!
The boy wonder Jeff Skinner backhanded the puck past Marc-Andre Fleury for my first ever in-person witnessed goal. And the crowd goes wild! These country boys, hicks, white-trash women, country girls, and occasional Yankee that’s moved down to North Carolina for the cheaper real estate sure love their Canes! During player introductions, Woman had commented on how young Jeff Skinner looked, I then consulted my smart phone to find that this kid was born in 1992, he’s 19. I’ve never failed to be shocked at these young athletes. How much they’re making, how talented they are, everything and it was no different here.
I had said to Woman that I would be thoroughly disappointed if I didn’t see a fight tonight. Seconds later, boom, punch landed. I wonder how popular the NHL would be if it weren’t for fights. The rest of the first period was a cluster of sluggish play from every Hurricane besides Cam Ward. The Canes couldn’t keep the puck off of their side of the ice, but Cam just kept on knocking it away from the goal. Watch out Cam Newton. The whole three period thing really throws you off the first time you experience it. It really is like they have two half-times. Thanks Canada.
The second period was a Ruutu and Skinner party, Jeff Skinner hooking up Tuomo Ruutu for two goals to make it a 3-0 Hurricane storm for Pittsburgh. The crowd couldn’t have been more into it. I very much frequent Carolina Panthers games, and while the crowd has most recently become heard due to NFL rookie sensation Cam Newton aka Black Jesus, they have seldom been anything comparable to the Raleigh crowd at the RBC Center. Prior to this game I was saying to myself that the Hurricanes should be based in Charlotte instead of Raleigh, because Charlotte is better than Raleigh, which is a fact that still holds true. Kudos to you though Raleigh, your fan base for the Hurricanes is one to be reckoned with. I approve.
In the first thirteen minutes of the 3rd Period, the Penguins scored 3 goals. Two of them by the apparently hated Jordan Staal, brother of Canes Star Eric Staal. Every single mention of Jordan was booed with immense loathing, but hey I couldn’t blame them, I was booing too, but boy was I liking the prospect of Sudden Death, the best overtime in all of sports exists here, in the NHL. Unfortunately though, with 5 minutes to go, the hero Eric Staal, saves the almost Hurricane disaster with a goal of his own to take back the lead. Along with the loudest cheer of the night thusfar, the announcer was now dangling out the opportunity that if the Canes scored 5 goals that night, that everyone would get free queso at Moe’s the next day! This got the crowd going, and sure enough with but three minutes left, Chad LaRose knocks in the final and fifth goal for the Carolina Hurricanes, and with that, came the largest cheer of the night, a basically guaranteed win, and free queso. We southerners love our cheese.
As the final buzzer sounded, Woman and I walked out, with our heads high, and confused about how we obtain our free queso. I couldn’t help but smile; my first hockey game ever was a complete success. Then my smile faded as I realized I didn’t note where I parked.