© Copyright 1997 Dwayne Powell and The News & Observer
A local bar holds a party to shred issues of Sports Illustrated. About 40 show up, mostly event organizers and the media. Comment from a Raleigh fan: "If I had been the marketing man for the Hurricanes, I would have paid people to fill this place." Someone must have been listening: on November 13 the team announces that they will give away a car at every one of the 20 home games until the Olympic break. Rick Francis, the Hurricanes' vice president for marketing and sales, says he didn't think the team would ever have to resort to such a dramatic promotion. "We never gave away a vehicle in Hartford," Francis tells the Greensboro News and Record. "Not one. I can tell you that." In addition, anyone test driving a Ford will get a coupon for two free tickets, to any game, for any seats in the house except club seats. The promotion could cost the team $4 million; assuming, of course, that anyone redeems the coupons. The team's marketing budget in Hartford was around $100,000. The next game, the first appearance of Wayne Gretzky and the Rangers, draws a near-sellout of more than 19,000. Two days later, attendance for the Calgary Flames is estimated at less than 3,000.
The unwelcome attention has Greensboro area residents unhappy, feeling that they are being castigated for not supporting a team which they did not ask for. "I think the community ego has taken a bit of a bruising here," says Peter Reichard, director of the Greensboro Area Chamber of Commerce. "I don't think there is any real sense of ownership in this team. They essentially commute in here to play their games and commute out. It would be very good to have (the Hurricanes) acknowledge that and try to fix it. This team is ultimately Raleigh's, but we really are catching the brunt of this new venture into the state." About 70 percent of the fans make the commute from Raleigh.
From a New York Rangers Web site's league notes, November 21, 1997: "Karmanos is displaying the same disdainful attitude and lack of hockey-business-acumen that made him so hated in Hartford and helped cause the team to leave. The average ticket price for a Canes game is $38, with a family deal ($99) and student ticket deal ($15) already in place. The Hurricanes did not discount their season ticket packages at the insistence of Karmanos. 'A 10 percent or 20 percent cut wouldn't bring one more person in our building,' Karmanos said. 'I don't think it's being stubborn and I don't care what anybody says. You don't cut. I'm never going to discount season tickets because I've grown up in a market that has never discounted tickets.'"
The franchise is expected to lose $10-15 million this season, not including the $20.5 million Karmanos agreed to pay to break his lease in Hartford a year early.
The comic strip "Tank McNamara" runs a week-long series on the NHL's exploits in NASCAR country and the difficulties the "Carolina Fatbacks" face in enticing the populace. In one, the between-periods Shoot to Win contest takes on new meaning as a fan is given the opportunity to win the entire franchise if he can score one goal. The fan decides the risk is too high and refuses to shoot. Hartford Courant reporter Mark Pukalo attends an Islander game in Greensboro and notes that capacity of the 21,000-seat arena has been cut to 15,000 by the installation of black curtains. The announced crowd that night -- car, coupons and all -- is 5,651. Actual attendance is reportedly closer to 3,500. "I'm convinced that in a couple years when we go to Raleigh, it's going to be a lot better,'' defenseman Jeff Brown says. Brown is promptly traded to Toronto.
Perennial Hartford rival Boston visits Greensboro. "The announced crowd of 5,865 was appalling," reports the Boston Globe. "Not only did the actual attendance look about half that size -- there were foam-green seats as far as the eye could see -- but the fans had less enthusiasm than the Bruins generate for the average intrasquad scrimmage during open practices at Ristuccia Center in training camp."
Commissioner Gary Bettman's tour of NHL cities makes its obligatory stop in Carolina. "I assure you," he says, "nobody is making fun of this franchise." As he speaks, The Hockey News hits the stands, saying "It may even turn out the experiment in spectatorless NHL hockey the Carolina Hurricanes are running...will have some scientific value, like studies of monkeys taken from their mothers and denied physical contact and verbal comforting." A cartoon in the same issue shows Santa Claus sailing over the Greensboro Coliseum, not bothering to stop.
December 26: the Canes celebrate the day after Christmas by suffering their second 5-2 home loss to the woeful Florida Panthers in a seven-game span. The loss leaves the Canes tied with Florida for the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference. Asked if things could go any lower for his team, coach Paul Maurice responds: "I'd hate to say no."
Reports of the franchise's estimated losses for the season reach $25 million.
On-ice woes continue for the team, and to shake things up general manager Jim Rutherford engineers a trade of Hartford fan favorites Sean Burke and Geoff Sanderson. The move would have been unthinkable in Hartford, suicidal; in Carolina, Sanderson, one of the Whalers' top scorers, had become the Invisible Man on the scoreboard, and Burke was best known for a domestic dispute with his wife. Speculation had run high all season that Burke, an unrestricted free agent in 1998, would go in a trade to bring the team some much-needed scoring power. Instead, he is traded for goaltender Kirk McLean.
Sanderson took a parting shot at the Carolina market. "In Hartford, we had decent support, but we came to Greensboro and that cut the fan support in half," he said. "They'd announce maybe 8,000 on a good night and 4,000 on a bad one. You don't hear too much noise, and it's hard to get into the game."
With the NHL in recess for the Olympic Winter Games, and the team seven points out of the playoffs, the Hurricanes make some news by tendering an offer to disgruntled Detroit star Sergei Fedorov. The Hurricanes, desperate for help on the offense and hopeful that a "name" star will fill some seats, offer $38 million -- including a $26 million signing bonus, $14 million to be paid up front and $12 million paid over the next four years or in one lump sum if the team makes the conference finals. The deal is structured to make it difficult for the high-payroll Wings to match. The NHL rejects the offer sheet on grounds that it violates the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement, and in arbitration argues that the deal is unfair because Detroit is likely to make the conference final in 1998 while Carolina is unlikely to even make the playoffs. On February 25 the arbiter rules in favor of Carolina, but within an hour the Red Wings, as they have always insisted they would, match the offer and Fedorov returns to Detroit.
Karmanos, who had said he was optimistic that the Red Wings wouldn't match the offer, changes his tune the day of the settlement. "I always expected they were going to match," he says. The front-loaded offer didn't go over too well around the NHL. Boston general manager Harry Sinden declares it "a ridiculous offer." Sinden points out that offers of that kind usually backfire: either the original team matches the offer or the team gets the player, only to have the deal fail to lead to a Stanley Cup. "It hasn't worked yet, has it?" Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman says the Hurricanes "need to do some research into running a team." A Flames executive tells the Calgary Sun, "There are a few owners in the league, and they are killing our game. They are going to wipe out the small-market team. They care about themselves only and not the league."
The Hurricanes set off on an extended west-coast road trip. From ESPN: "It's March Madness time, and the NHL has been put in its place in a place where it doesn't belong -- North Carolina. As an example of the impact Hurricanes hockey carries in this college basketball-crazed state, a game between the 'Canes and the Kings appeared to be available to those few daily fans only through word of sportscaster mouth. Triangle Radio network stations...couldn't carry the 'Canes out of deference to their top-priority teams' ACC tournament involvement. So the game didn't appear to have a radio outlet, and also wasn't to be televised. Sources report no one noticed."
Stories drift out of Raleigh that the new arena--which the Canes hoped to open in October of the 1999-2000 season -- is running behind schedule and over cost. "We have a legal agreement with the Centennial Authority," says Karmanos, "to put $20 million into the building. Now they have a legal commitment to finish that building." Authority members, meanwhile, have indicated that if cost overruns occur because of any improvements meant for the hockey team, then the Hurricanes should pay those overruns. "We didn't cause them any delays," responds Karmanos. "In fact, the extra stuff we put in, the Centennial Authority insisted that we put in....if they're trying to make the Hurricanes the fall guy, they better think twice."
During negotiations to keep the Oilers in Edmonton, potential investor Todd McFarlane of "Spawn" comic book fame reveals that the Hurricanes have contacted him about buying a piece of the Carolina club. Karmanos claims that his interest in selling up to 30 percent of the team has nothing to do with the organization's financial losses, which are expected to hit $25 million. McFarlane joins the local group that makes a bid to purchase the Edmonton Oilers; the Hurricanes quietly approach other investors.
The Hockey News, in its annual draft preview, ranks Carolina's prospect pool dead last of the 26 NHL teams. The Hurricanes "have amassed the league's weakest group of NHL prospects...management has sabotaged its scouting staff's efforts by using three picks on defenseman Glen Wesley and trading away top prospects Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Hnat Domenichelli."
Goaltender Sean Burke, now playing for Philadelphia, visits Greensboro and takes some wind out of the Hurricanes' playoff sails by holding his former team to one goal in a 3-1 Flyers victory. Newspaper reports indicate that half the crowd of 13,216 were cheering for the Flyers. "The Flyers were well represented tonight," Burke said. "It's a shame for that team over there that they have to come back to their home building and play in front of 50 or 60 percent of the visiting team's fans because they're in a playoff race."
The team closes out the month by tying Montréal at home to pull within three points of a playoff berth. Announced attendance: 8,671.
Perhaps it is just the punch line to a year-long joke, but on April 1 the team announces cuts -- "huge cuts," says the News and Observer -- in their single- and season-ticket prices. Karmanos, who had been quoted saying "You don't cut. I'm never going to discount season tickets," now admits that "we priced the tickets too high." On-ice seats, formerly $100, drop to $75, and seats for the season will be discounted 10 percent -- a total cut of 33 percent. Club-level seats remain at $75 a pop but drop to $2,835 for a full season with the discount. In addition, the team unveils an incentive and discount package for its season-ticket holders, who will receive a 10 percent credit toward their account for each dollar spent by any referral.
The club announces that the number of upper-deck seats will be reduced dramatically as the team lowers the black curtains, which now cover only the end zones, all the way around the upper deck. Overall capacity will drop from 20,800 to 10,800.
The real joke was yet to come. After winning five straight road contests, the Hurricanes are finally within striking distance of Ottawa for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. But on April 8, former Hurricane Geoff Sanderson scores the decisive goal in a 3-1 Buffalo victory. The Canes would never get another opportunity to move into the eighth spot with a victory, and instead must hope that Ottawa climbs no further in the standings. The team returns to Greensboro for their first meeting of the season with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Canes win 5-2, eliminating the Leafs from the Western Conference playoffs, but the players are openly disappointed with the announced crowd of 8,368. "If they were looking for a night to come out, there was no better night," left wing Paul Ranheim says. "Now I'm thinking to myself, I wonder if it'll be any different if we are in the playoffs. Here we are in the playoff hunt against a team that's been around since the beginning, and yet it was a pretty thin crowd."
"Be it ever so humiliating," noted the News and Record. "There's no place like home."
On April 11, 1997, the Hartford Whalers, just two points behind Ottawa for the eighth playoff spot and with a game in hand on the Senators, played the struggling New York Islanders. Instead of picking up the two points, the Whalers lost and left their fate in the hands of the Senators, who, on April 12, in their final game of the season, defeated Buffalo to clinch the last spot. April 11, 1998: the Carolina Hurricanes, four points behind Ottawa with five games left, take a beating at the hands of the lame-dog Leafs and lose 5-1. On April 13, they lose to Boston while the Senators win in Tampa Bay. And on April 14, the Senators eliminate the Hurricanes from the playoffs by beating Florida and going up seven points with just three (now meaningless) games remaining for the Canes.
"You had to feel for them," says Boston coach Pat Burns after the April 13 game. "I walked off and looked at them. There's a team that's starting to wonder if there's life after the regular season of hockey. That's the tough part."
"Change their uniforms, move them down to Tobacco Road near a Waffle House and a Piggly-Wiggly, and feed them grits for breakfast," crows the Boston Globe, "but when it comes down to a big game against Boston in April, the Carolina Hurricanes are, well, the same old Hartford Whalers." The Canes go on to lose their final three games, to Pittsburgh once and Washington twice, ending the season with 74 points -- one fewer than in 1997. They close the season nine points short of the playoffs.
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