It ain't over 'til it's over: as the 1998-99 season approaches, the arena authority continues wrangling with the Raleigh city council and Wake County commissioners over the final piece of financing on the new building's fiscal shortfall. At issue is a condition attached to the allocation that a net 38 percent of any future additional naming rights revenue derived from the arena "and elements of the arena complex" go to the county and city. Centennial Authority leaders say they accepted that condition without realizing what they were doing, even though that language was in several drafts of the agreement. The authority says it cannot offer a share of naming rights revenue earned from interior advertising, private sponsorship of rooms within the arena, or anything else inside the building, because it already has assigned that revenue to NCSU and the Hurricanes. In other words, it promised something it does not control.
Reef Ivey, a member of the Centennial Authority, writes a letter to the editor critical of the scorn the News and Observer has heaped on the work of the authority. "With all of the so-called problems your paper has indicated with the Centennial Authority," he writes, "the fact remains that the arena is going up, and when it is completed will be the finest of its kind in existence. What other facility does the city and county have which can be called the finest in existence?" Readers can only wonder just what fitments the new building will have that will qualify it as "the finest in existence," but with such grandiose declarations it is hardly any wonder city councilors feel the taxpayers are being fleeced.
The Hurricanes leave former Whalers Kent Manderville and Kevin Smyth unprotected in the October 5 waiver draft. And Kevin Dineen, the last man to captain the Hartford Whalers, gives up his "C" to former Whaler Keith Primeau. Primeau, who wore the "C" in Hartford when Dineen was out of the lineup, will be the 11th captain in the franchise's history.
The national media weigh in with their 1998-99 NHL season previews. While most publications predict a playoff appearance for the Hurricanes -- Sports Illustrated ranks them 10th in the 27-team league, but stops short of predicting a first-place finish in the four-team Southeast division -- Sport magazine begs to differ, ranking them no better than 12th in the 14-team Eastern Conference. "Ron Francis...was the prize of the summer free-agent crop, but the Hurricanes blow, so it's unlikely he'll take them far. Somebody should, though -- like back to Hartford, or Winnipeg, or anyplace else where the fans actually want a team."
October 10: new faces, same results. The Hurricanes blow a three-goal lead in the final period to tie the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-4 in the Carolina franchise's 1998 season opener. Attendance: 8,195. That same night, Hartford's AHL franchise, the Wolf Pack, draws 10,641 for their first home game of the season. The Associated Press, bless them, does not fail to note the disparity in their wire report on the Canes' game.
Adding insult to injury, the Raleigh News and Observer, in a story noting that the team is "close" to inking a radio contract for the season (see: August, 1998), reports that fans who tried to get the RealAudio broadcast of the season opener through the NHL's Web site were instead treated to play-by-play of...the Miami Hurricanes' football game against Florida State.
October 13: the Carolina Hurricanes become a part of NHL history...as the first victim of the Nashville Predators, the league's expansion franchise. The Predators' first NHL goal is scored on Trevor Kidd by Andrew Brunette. Two more first-period goals, by Denny Lambert and J.J. Daigneault, send Kidd to an early shower. "Nothing fancy," Canes coach Paul Maurice says. "No smoke and mirrors. They hit us, they outskated us, they deserved to win. We didn't put on our work boots tonight and we paid for it. Obviously, I'm not very pleased. There were very few shining moments for us."
After 11 games, the team claims a 4-4-3 record, certainly better than last year's 1-7-2 start. The team gets its first win of the season, vs. Vancouver, on October 20, after starting the season 0-1-3. But attendance in Greensboro is actually worse: the team draws 5,531 for the Dallas Stars; 5,569 for the Los Angeles Kings; 5,092 for the Chicago Blackhawks; 5,573 announced for the Vancouver Canucks. "That's 'announced' as in the figure given to the media," notes the Raleigh News and Observer. "No announcement on the attendance was made by the public address announcer in the Greensboro Coliseum." The numbers are probably far more realistic than in 1997-98, when frantic ticket giveaways -- and a magical doubling of the season-ticket base by giving seatholders an extra set of tickets -- artificially ballooned reported attendance. Perhaps more worrisome, the team's offense has managed no more than three goals in any game since the four scored in the opener against Tampa Bay, and have just one power-play goal to show for 31 opportunities. Much-touted center Ron Francis, in 11 games, has scored two goals.
With a 5-4 overtime loss to Anaheim (in which the Canes had a 3-1 lead in the third period) and a 3-0 loss to the last-place San Jose, the Canes fall to 6-7-3 for the season. The Hurricanes, after 16 games, are 6-80 on the power play and have not scored with the man advantage in their last 44 opportunities. Ron Francis has tallied three goals and four assists. Asked if he expects attendance to pick up at Greensboro Coliseum once the Canes return from their road trip, owner Peter Karmanos says "The best tonic for attendance is winning. I guarantee that with six or seven straight wins, those crowds will pick up significantly at Greensboro." The Canes have put together exactly two two-game winning streaks so far this season.
The eyes of the sports world focus on Hartford with the announcement that the NFL's New England Patriots, unable to work out a deal to replace antiquated Foxboro stadium in Massachusetts, have signed a memorandum of understanding with the state of Connecticut to move to a new, 68,000-seat outdoor stadium to be constructed in downtown Hartford. While a number of hurdles remain, most observers feel that the deal offered to Patriots owner Robert Kraft is simply too good to pass up, and that the Pats will indeed begin play in Hartford in the fall of 2001. The Boston press is understandably merciless in their assessment of Hartford's viability as a market, but the national media is surprisingly generous, and almost every article describes the state's move to secure the Patriots as a response, in part, to the loss of the Whalers.
As details of the state's offer to the Patriots begin to emerge (other NFL owners call it the best deal in the league's history), there is perhaps no man more thoroughly thwarted than Peter Karmanos. Inevitably, the question is asked: why were the Patriots able to work out such a generous deal when the Whalers were not? "You don't miss the water until the well runs dry," Karmanos tells the Boston Herald. Connecticut governor John Rowland "had absolutely no interest in keeping the team there. He had put all kinds of restrictions on building an arena. He did everything in his power to convince me we should move the team -- which is why we moved the team. He held out no hope that we could get a stadium built, while making clear there couldn't be any taxpayer money in it." Rowland, Karmanos points out, has offered the Patriots everything he denied the Whalers -- a rent-free facility with none of the team's own money tied into it.
While Karmanos notes that he experienced difficulties on many fronts in Hartford, he suggests that Rowland did the most damage. "He just wasn't a hockey fan. Maybe he's a football fan. I'm serious. The guy didn't know diddly about hockey -- he never came to a game. But football won't interfere with his busy schedule. He could go sit in the governor's suite eight times a year and be perfectly happy."
To his credit, Karmanos refutes the perception that Hartford is not a big league town. Any team could survive there, he claims, as long as the circumstances were right. "I think (pro sports) is more than capable of surviving in Hartford with the right kind of deal. The governor didn't understand...how important having a major league team was. They can make all sorts of snide remarks about the Hartford Whalers and all that, but the fact was it was a respected NHL team."
November 19: a 3-1 loss to Philadelphia. After beginning the 1997-98 season with a 1-7-2 start, which left the team in a hole it was unable to climb out of in time to make the playoffs, the Hurricanes knew it was imperative to begin the 1998-99 season in better form. A 6-4-3 start gave the team a league-leading 15 points. But with five losses in their last seven outings, the Hurricanes' record after 20 games stands exactly where it was in 1997: 8-9-3, for 19 points.
November 22: the Canes lose 5-2 to New Jersey, stretching their record to 8-10-3. Center Ron Francis, in 21 games, has four goals and four assists.
Despite a tumultuous 20-game stint in Hartford in 1996, after which he demanded to be traded and earned the everlasting enmity of Whalers fans, the Hurricanes reaquire defenseman Paul Coffey from the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks had acquired Coffey from the Flyers in June but the 37-year-old was limited to 10 games (and a total of four assists) because of a persistent back injury. Coffey comes at the price of former Whaler Nelson Emerson, 31, who has eight goals and 13 assists while playing all 35 games this season, his fourth with the franchise. Emerson enjoyed his best NHL season with the Winnipeg Jets in 1993-94, recording 33 goals, 41 assists and 74 points; he was traded to Hartford in October 1995.
From ESPN.com: "Maybe they haven't checked [the] Wall Street Journal, but Coffey futures are way down." But the Canes are desperate for help on the blue line after learning that defenseman Steve Chiasson must undergo shoulder surgery that could sideline him for the rest of the season. Chiasson, who has one goal and eight assists in 24 games, will become an unrestricted free agent after this season.
After 35 games, the Hurricanes are 16-14-5, good for first place in the new Southeast Conference; second-place Florida is five points back, but with four games in hand. Center Ron Francis has tallied six goals and eight assists for 14 points in 35 games; he is a minus-eight. Two games later, he has 15 points and is a team-worst minus-11. From the New York Post: "Ron Francis, who conscripted with the Hurricanes for five years and $22.5M, understandably denies it, but Slap Shots has been told by a well-placed individual that the future Hall of Famer not only regrets signing with Carolina, but wishes he had solicited an offer from the Rangers."
The Canes host what The Hockey News calls a "reduced-capacity sellout" crowd of 11,059 for a win over the Detroit Red Wings, then draw just 5,684 for a game against the Oilers two days later. An Edmonton writer dubs it "Invisible Fan Night." They close out 1998 by hosting another "reduced-capacity sellout" crowd of 11,059 for a December 26 game with the New York Rangers (which Carolina loses 6-3), then drawing 7,898 for a Tampa Bay match December 30 (which they win 4-3). And Santa has something in his bag for the Canes: almost two months into the season, they finally land a radio deal that will allow home games to be heard in Greensboro.
The Hockey News' cartoonist Dave Elston, who last year tweaked the Canes by showing Santa sailing over the Greensboro Coliseum without stopping, this year sends holiday greetings by depicting a Coliseum worker frantically pitching seats out a window, shouting "Do we have a sellout yet?"
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