January 4: The Ottawa Senators score three goals in less than five minutes in the third period to rally from a four-goal deficit and tie Carolina 4-4. Former Whaler Paul Ranheim has a goal and two assists, the best single-period point total by a Carolina player in nearly two years. Recently traded Nelson Emerson was the last to have a three-point period, in 1997....Attendance: 5,655. The next two games are losses on the road, to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
And just in case you thought that arena deal was wrapped up... Centennial Authority members again turn aside a proposal from Raleigh and Wake County officials to provide the final $5.2 million for construction of the new arena. Concerned about the restrictions the offer would impose, the authority votes instead to investigate other options -- including a bank loan and a surety bond -- to cover the shortfall in its $158 million budget. The proposal, among other provisions, would keep the authority from pursuing other loans, while giving the city and county governments 38 percent of any future resale of arena naming rights by NCSU and the right to overrule design changes and to control future lease agreements. "I don't understand what the city is trying to do except take over," authority member Clay Ferebee says. After the authority's vote, Raleigh mayor Tom Fetzer renews his pledge to ask the Raleigh City Council to withdraw its offer.
From The Hockey News: "The Raleigh Entertainment and Sports Arena will finally open in the fall. 'It'll be so different for us,' said Ron Francis. 'And that's nothing against the people of Greensboro. The ones who come are really vocal.' We offered him the space to thank each one personally, but he declined."
A letter to the editor of the News and Observer: "Please discontinue the coverage of the ill-fated Carolina Hurricanes on any other page but the last one in your Sports section. The interest in hockey here is almost non-existent, and in 10 years or less they will be history and that fiasco in West Raleigh will be an albatross around the taxpayers' neck (all except the N.C. State faithful, who got the biggest steal in U.S. history since Seward's Folly)."
Center Ron Francis goes a month without an assist before earning three in a 3-2 win over Florida January 14. Defenseman Al Iafrate, who had been attempting to make a comeback following his retirement before the start of the season, aborts his effort.
The Hurricanes, who once led the Southeast Division by 10 points, watch their lead dwindle to a single point as the Florida Panthers mount a pre-All Star break offensive. The Panthers' prospects brighten immensely with the signing of star right winger Pavel Bure. Bure had requested a trade from Vancouver and has been sitting out the season in the dispute, but his impact in Florida is immediate: six goals in his first three games, including a hat trick and some dazzling plays that remind everyone why he is called the Russian Rocket. Canes GM Jim Rutherford, nervously looking over his shoulder, takes the opportunity to snipe at the Panthers for signing Bure. "He's a player who walked out on his team," Rutherford says. "A guy like Bure is not going to disrupt anything, but I don't know if he's going to give them their money's worth." Rutherford should be reminded that the Hurricanes were willing to shell out $38 million for Sergei Fedorov, another player who walked out on his team...
Center Keith Primeau makes his first All-Star appearance January 24.
January 27: the Canes begin their season-ticket drive for the 1999-2000 season, which they hope will be the first in their new arena. Ticket prices will range from $20 for general balcony seats to $95 for VIP and club level seats. There are still some nerves quaking at the prospect of filling 19,000 seats; "I've said all along the arena is going to be too big," Raleigh mayor Tom Fetzer says. "All the consultants told us 19,000 is too big." "We live in an age of big events," says the Canes' Dean Jordan. "People want big events, so you have to have a facility that can handle big crowds. We're here to stay. We signed a 30-year lease. Not only do we have to pay rent for the next 30 years, but we have to cover operating losses for the next 30 years." (Just a gentle reminder: the Whalers demanded a cost-free, rent-free arena, and an option to leave after 10 years, in Hartford...)
January 28: The Canes defeat the Rangers 3-2 for their first home overtime win since January, 1997. The Rangers draw another "reduced-capacity" sellout crowd of 11,059. Ron Francis, after 47 games, has eight goals and 15 assists, and is a team-worst minus-nine.
January 30: Despite being outshot 45-10 for the game and 18-0 in the third period, the Hurricanes manage an improbable 3-1 win over the Montréal Canadiens. The game sets two dubious records: never before had the franchise played a period without getting a single shot on goal, and never before had the franchise finished with so few shots on goal in a game.
With the win in Montréal, the Canes (23-18-7) are five games over .500 for the first time since moving to North Carolina. The franchise has not been five games over .500 since December 28, 1996, when the Hartford Whalers were 17-12-6. The last time the franchise was five games above .500 in the second half of the season was in 1988-89 when the Whalers finished with a 38-33-9 record.
Playing in the penultimate game at storied Maple Leaf Gardens, center Ron Francis notches two goals and three assists in his 1,300th game. The Hockey News, however, notes that "the free-agent signing of Francis...has been roundly criticized as the biggest bust in the NHL this season." On February 18 defenseman Paul Coffey matches Francis' record for longevity, becoming the 21st player to appear in 1,300 NHL games.
To prod North Carolinians to buy season tickets for the club's first season in Raleigh, the Hurricanes enlist the services of racing legend Richard Petty. One of North Carolina's most recognizable and admired figures, Petty will appear in print, radio and TV advertisements for the Canes. Petty's first TV spot, which debuts during a Duke-North Carolina basketball game, features a stunt double racing around the rink in a souped-up Zamboni with Petty's famous No. 43 on the side. Petty, who used to own the minor-league Charlotte Checkers, says he is certainly not a hockey neophyte--although he has never been to a Hurricanes game. "I used to go to hockey games all the time," Petty says. "But it got to where I couldn't sit in the crowd because so many people wanted autographs. I had to quit coming."
Your Webmaster humbly submits that a Hurricanes game is probably the one place Petty could watch a game in peace...
Adam Burt, a mainstay of the franchise for all of his 11-year NHL career, increasingly finds himself the odd man out as the club's seventh defenseman. "We've come full circle as an organization," he tells the News and Observer. "We didn't always have the kind of depth at the defensive position that we have now. It's a good problem for the coaches, but it's not so good for the d-men....I felt a lot of excitement about coming here after so many lean years in Hartford. And the pinnacle will be the move into the new arena in Raleigh next season. I want to be a part of that." He won't be. On March 6, Burt is traded to the Philadelphia Flyers for left wing Andrei Kovalenko. Burt, 30, has recorded three assists and 46 penalty minutes in 51 games for the Hurricanes this season. He has scored 36 goals and 106 assists in 626 career games, and was the final link to the franchise's last playoff team in 1991-92.
Immediately following the trade, the Canes head into an important match-up against Florida. Carolina has the opportunity to take a 10-point lead over second-place Florida in the Southeast Division. The Canes' league-worst power play (no goals in the past 23 chances; six goals in the past 97) produces goals from Sami Kapanen and Ron Francis, but Scott Mellanby's goal at 8:23 of the final period enables Florida to nab a 2-2 tie. Carolina is outshot 35-15. The Canes hold an eight-point lead in the Southeast Division; Florida has two games in hand. Ron Francis, in 64 games, has 13 goals and 24 assists, and is a minus-eight.
March 10: It's Richard Petty Night in Greensboro, and the King takes in his first Canes game, driving a freshly-painted No. 43 Zamboni during the first intermission. "There's nothing really like going," Petty says. "You get caught up in the atmosphere. It's like racing. If you can even get them in the door, they'll be hooked." The visiting Penguins are unimpressed, rallying from a two-goal deficit to beat the Canes 3-2 in overtime. Attendance: 10,563. From ESPN: "Richard Petty Night bigger than Beanie Baby Night...but still not a sellout."
Bizarre sidelight I: the costume designer who created Buddy the Beast, the mascot for the Hurricanes' American Hockey League affiliate in New Haven, claims the team never paid the final bill for the costume. The plaintiff, Jeff Russell, files two claims in New Haven small claims court -- and catches the attention of producers from The People's Court television show. Management from the Beast decline to go on the show, claiming their records show Russell was paid in full.
(Comment from your humble Webmaster: Buddy should be thankful he wasn't almost suffocated in a Zamboni.)
March 18: Ron Francis gets his 444th career goal and new acquisition Andrei Kovalenko his third goal in five games with the Canes, but Carolina, with the NHL's worst power play, goes 1-for-6 and falls to Colorado, 3-2. The Hurricanes manage only two shots in a 1-minute, 22-second five-on-three chance midway through the first period. "We have struggled a bit in the power play," says coach Paul Maurice. Francis has 16 goals and 25 assists in 69 games. The Canes are 0-2-4 in their last six road games.
March 21: with a 3-2 overtime loss to Dallas, the Canes fall to 0-3-4 in their last seven road games.
March 22: a 5-2 loss to St. Louis drops the Canes to 0-4-4 in their last eight road games. Carolina's top two scorers, Keith Primeau and Ray Sheppard, are held to just one shot on goal apiece -- and none in the first two periods. Gary Roberts, after being slashed, punches St. Louis defenseman Ricard Persson in the face, then challenges the entire Blues bench to a brawl "in a sorry scene that looked like an outtake from the movie 'Slap Shot'," says the News and Observer. The Canes, who led the division by as many as 10 points in January, now hold a five-point lead over the Florida Panthers -- who have two games in hand.
March 26: The Maple Leafs, the highest-scoring team in the league, visit Greensboro. Goaltender Arturs Irbe is yanked for the second time in six games after Toronto scores on its first three shots in a span of 1:39. Leafs captain Mats Sundin intercepts a clearing attempt by Irbe behind the goal and finds Steve Thomas, who rips a shot into the net before Irbe can get back. Irbe "doesn't have a reputation to be one of the best puck-handlers," says Sundin. "It was kind of a weak goal." Backup goalie Trevor Kidd allows four more goals and the Leafs romp over Carolina 7-2. It is the franchise's worst defeat since a 7-1 loss to Pittsburgh in November, 1996, and the Canes' fourth loss in their last five games. Their league-worst power play goes 0-7.
Two days later, the worst team in the league, the Tampa Bay Lightning, visits Greensboro. Bad as Tampa's record is -- a league-worst 40 points -- they seem to have the Canes' number. In the season opener, they battled back from a 4-1 deficit to salvage a tie. On March 28, the Canes squander a 3-1 lead and Tampa Bay holds on for the 3-3 tie. Four of the Canes' top six defensemen -- Glen Wesley, Sean Hill, Curtis Leschyshyn and Dave Karpa -- are out with injuries; a fifth, Steve Chiasson, has been out since December 19.
Goalie Trevor Kidd, who has played backup to Arturs Irbe for much of the season, signs a contract extension (through the 2000-01 season, at $2 million annually) but openly worries about the possibility that he could be left unprotected in the June 25 expansion draft. Carolina will lose a goaltender to the expansion Atlanta Thrashers, who begin play in the Southeast Division next season. "I want to be here," Kidd tells the News and Observer. "My family enjoys it here. But I'm not going to be Mr. Nice Guy again next year playing 22 to 24 games." Kidd is 6-10-5 with two no-decisions, a 2.82 goals-against average and .901 save percentage in 23 games.
In addition to the expansion draft in June, the Canes will also have to deal with a number of high-profile restricted and unrestricted free agents, including a number of former Whalers (noted below in blue). Unrestricted players can sign with any team; restricted players may solicit offers from other teams but the Hurricanes may keep the player by matching the offer.
Of particular interest is the status of Keith Primeau, who has emerged as the team's franchise player and a fan favorite. He is also the player with the most value on the free-agent market. Primeau could attract a lucrative offer sheet from another NHL team, which the Canes would have 48 hours to match. There have been no negotiations on a contract extension since February 24. "Both sides were just so far apart that it didn't really make any sense to go on," Primeau tells the News and Observer. "For the sake of my game and the team, I would rather not have negotiations in the second half of the season. It would become a distraction." Speculation is that Primeau will seek -- and could easily command from another team -- a payday in the range of $6 million per year, which would make him the Canes' highest-paid player (the current high salary is Ron Francis' $5.2 million).
It would be ironic if a struggling team -- the Islanders or the Rangers, say -- signed Primeau to an offer sheet similar to the one the Hurricanes offered Sergei Fedorov in February, 1998 -- $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 team was widely criticized at the time for contributing to salary escalation in the league. It may also have been a deal that will now blow up in their faces.
March 31: If Peter Karmanos thought moving the team to North Carolina would bring it respectability and end years of Whaler-bashing by the press, he must have choked on his cornflakes while reading ESPN's Web site. "Should Anyone Trust This Team?" asks the headline to Rob Parent's story, a dissection of the team's woes as they enter the playoff stretch drive. "After six straight years of playoff misses stretching from Hartford to Greensboro, and lagging luxury-box sales for a new building in Raleigh they claim will be ready before the millennium, the Hurricanes have been playing all season under a cloud of pressure," Parent writes. "A lead which at one time looked insurmountable in the league's weakest division has become very vulnerable, slowly but surely dissipating through games like the 'Canes have had in recent days ...In their last eight [sic] games, the Hurricanes are 1-3-2. [Ed. note: the Canes' record in their last eight is 1-4-3; they are 1-3-2 in their last six.] Not exactly the way to nail down a playoff spot considered necessary for [coach Paul] Maurice and perhaps general manager Jim Rutherford, if they want to save their jobs." Parent goes on to refer to "the trail of red ink that owner Peter Karmanos' team has blazed from New England to the Piedmont Triangle," "a team payroll nearly as stratospheric as rich Eastern neighbors in Philadelphia and New York" and "unaggressive scoring lines, tentative defensive efforts, not enough solid goaltending."
April 3: "Evidently," sniffs Cecil Harris in the News and Observer, "the Southeast Division champion will be the team that stumbles across the finish line first," as the Hurricanes continue their late-season swoon with a 1-2 loss to Chicago. Carolina's power play, worst in the NHL, goes 0-5 against the worst-ranked penalty killing team in the league. Carolina is now 1-5-3 in their last nine games, 0-5-5 in their last 10 on the road. The only bright spot for the Canes is that Florida, with the loss of Pavel Bure to knee surgery, has gone 2-6-1 in their last nine and has managed to gain no ground in the standings.
April 7: The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Canes can clinch the franchise's first division title since 1987 and first playoff berth since 1992 with a victory over the Montreal Canadiens and a Florida loss to Boston. The Panthers do their part, dropping their fifth straight game in losing to the Boston Bruins 5-2. But the Canes fall to the Canadiens -- who were officially eliminated from playoff contention earlier in the week -- 2-0 at the Molson Centre. Carolina is 0-6-5 in their past 11 road games, 2-6-3 in the past 11 games overall. But another Florida loss will guarantee the Canes a playoff berth. "Considering the way the Canes have played lately," notes the News and Observer, "it may well take the Panthers' own hands to drive the final nail into their coffin."
And that, of course, is how it happens. On April 9, the Panthers drop a 3-1 decision to Buffalo, falling out of playoff contention and handing the Canes an automatic third seed in the reconfigured Eastern Conference. At the end of the season, the Southeast Division champions have fewer points -- 86, which under the previous divisional alignment would have been good only for the eighth seed -- than the seven other playoff contenders.
Playoff fever hits the Carolinas; well, a case of the sniffles, at least. In their first home game since clinching the Southeast Division title, the Hurricanes draw 6,790 fans for a match with the Washington Capitals. "Evidently," notes the News and Observer, "it was too much to expect 10,000 fans to attend last Wednesday to show the Canes some gratitude for bringing the Stanley Cup playoffs to the state." "If we have only 6,700 fans in our building for the playoffs, then maybe we should play all our games on the road," left winger Gary Roberts says after the game. For the record, the Canes average a league-low 8,118 fans through 40 home games. For 23 weeknight home games, the attendance average was 7,257. Attendance was down about 10 percent over the previous year. As of April 18, neither of the Canes' first two playoff games -- which will be played against former New England rival Boston -- are sold out.
"The running joke over the season's final week," notes John Altavilla in the Hartford Courant, "was teams were losing in an effort to position themselves to play Carolina in the first round." The Whalers played the Bruins twice in their brief Stanley Cup playoff history, first-round exits in 1990 and 1991.
April 20: playoff fever hits the media. "Let me share with you the worst-kept secret in Raleigh," writes Dennis Rogers in the News and Observer. "The real reason hockey is here at all is that the folks in charge of the new Wolfpack arena figured that having a professional team would enable them to build a bigger and more luxurious sports palace than they could afford just for NCSU basketball.... You'd be surprised how many diehard Wolfpack fans want the Hurricanes to quickly fail and move out of the arena."
The Canes spend "tens of thousands of dollars," notes the News and Observer, "getting the word out about the playoffs, running ads everywhere from television to country and religious radio stations." They also stage a series of promotional events, from a rally at a Raleigh restaurant to a surprisingly grueling contest in which a group of fans digs through 10 tons of ice in search of 30 hockey pucks, each one numbered for a corresponding prize. At least one emerges with bloody knees after nearly half an hour of flailing in the ice. And fan Rob Garrett goes on a live, local radio program where, in exchange for a pair of playoff tickets, he will have a Hurricanes logo tattooed on his ass.
April 23: The Carolina franchise gets its first taste of playoff hockey since Montreal's Russ Courtnall beat the Whalers' Frank Pietrangelo in the second overtime in game seven of the Adams Division semifinals on May 1, 1992, at the Forum. Russ Courtnall is in Los Angeles, out of the playoffs this year. Frank Pietrangelo is playing in Manchester, England. The Forum has been mothballed. Even the Adams Division is gone, replaced by the oh-so-geographic and easy-to-remember conference alignment of the modern NHL.
"The playoffs came to Greensboro on Thursday, and thousands of people and thousands of empty seats attended the game," writes Ed Hardin in the Greensboro News & Record. Broadcast nationally on ESPN2, the "reduced-capacity sellout" crowd contains a suspicious number of empty seats, and the ominous black curtains make the arena seem both smaller and louder. The Hurricanes dominate early, and Boston does not get a shot on goal for the first nine minutes. Carolina center Ron Francis injures his ankle midway through the first period, returns for a shift in the second and then sits out the rest of the game. In the third period, Bruins winger Rob DiMaio strips the puck from Jeff O'Neill at the top of the right circle and beats Arturs Irbe up high. Tough guy Ken Belanger, not known for his finesse, then gets one by Irbe on a wraparound shot minutes later. Boston goalie Byron Dafoe, who led the league in regular-season shutouts (10), grabs another, stopping all 19 Carolina shots en route to a 2-0 victory for Boston.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, on hand for the game ("He said he was impressed, and he smiled a lot, but it might have been gas," cracks Ed Hardin), insists that he has never had any doubts about the Carolina franchise, despite the fact that owner Peter Karmanos lost $30 million last year and may lose another $25 million this season, and despite the fact that the Canes again finished last in the league in attendance. "For the long run, you don't take a snapshot," Bettman says. "When you look back in five years, everybody will be comfortable that this is a stable, successful, healthy franchise and that the Carolinas is truly hockey country."
See you in 2004, Commish.
April 24: Canes winger Ray Sheppard scores with 2:55 left in overtime to give the Canes a 3-2 victory over the Bruins and tie their playoff series at one game apiece. Ron Francis misses the game due to the sprained ankle suffered in the series opener. Carolina also plays with only four defensemen from the second period on after losing Marek Malik to a thigh bruise and Nolan Pratt to a groin strain. Former Whalers Steve Chiasson and Glen Wesley each skate more than 36 minutes on defense.
April 26: the series shifts to Boston's FleetCenter, where a crowd of 17,565 watches the Hurricanes take a 2-1 series lead with a 3-2 win. On April 28, the Bruins retake the momentum with a 4-1 win that evens the playoff series at 2-2.
Bizarre sidelight II: a West Hartford man, contending he was seriously injured by a puck that flew over a plastic shield during the last home game of the Whalers, files suit. Michael Keany claims negligence on the part of the team, the National Hockey League, Ogden Entertainment Inc., the city of Hartford, and then-Whaler Andrew Cassels, who deflected the puck into the crowd. Keany contends that Ogden Entertainment, the NHL, and the city were negligent and careless because the plastic barriers weren't high enough and because they failed to provide a safe seat. All NHL arenas warn spectators of the dangers of the puck going into the crowd. The same warning is on the game ticket....
Hartford sidelight: citing concerns about environmental and infrastructure problems that could delay the opening of a downtown Hartford football stadium until 2003, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft announces that he is pulling out of the deal to move his team to Connecticut. Governor John Rowland, who just two days earlier had compared the Patriots' intention to move to that of the Whalers -- "Once a decision was made by the Whalers, they were gone. Well, the Patriots are leaving [Massachusetts]. They're gone" -- now claims that, like the Whalers, the Patriots had no intention of staying in Hartford. The governor is clearly angry at the failure of the deal and at speculation that he was duped by Kraft. "No one walks away from a year's planning and a $374 million package because of concerns the schedule would not be met," he says. Rowland claims the state will take legal action against Kraft and the NFL, although he does not say what form that action would take. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue made a high-profile visit to Boston earlier in the week and is widely believed to have brokered the deal from the state of Massachusetts to keep the team in Foxboro.
"Next to Tagliabue," writes Jeff Jacobs in the Hartford Courant, "NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is grand pooh-bah of the Hartford Downtown Council....
"Rowland couldn't stop the Whalers from leaving. Rowland, despite his chest-thumping about leaving a legacy, couldn't deliver the Patriots. Both times he kept moves cloaked in secrecy. Both times that secrecy led to ugly, unforeseen twists."
Rowland makes a brief statement on April 30 to announce the dissolution of the agreement, delaying the event until after the local 6 p.m. newscasts. The scene is eerily reminiscent of the breezy press conference in which he announced the departure of the Whalers, although this time his hangers-on -- all looking like they were measuring the dimensions of the very real damage to Rowland's political reputation -- have the good sense to not cheer and clap, as they did then.
April 30: With their playoff series knotted at two games apiece, the Hurricanes return to Greensboro and take a 2-0 lead into the third period. But Boston nabs three quick goals in less than two minutes (including P.J. Axelsson's first playoff goal of the series, off a turnover by Marek Malik), and only a late goal by Sami Kapanen salvages regulation play for the Canes. Bruins defenseman Ray Bourque logs 53 minutes of ice time as the game goes into double overtime, ending with Anson Carter's goal almost 15 minutes into the second extra frame. Boston will carry their 3-2 series lead into May 2's game at the FleetCenter. Bruins coach Pat Burns takes a swipe at the black curtain that hides 10,000 Greensboro seats and allows the Hurricanes to claim phony sellouts. "We have the same curtain at home," he tells the Boston Globe. "We're going to pull it up and there'll be another 10,000 fans there. You think it's loud here? You haven't heard nothing yet."
May 2: Gary Roberts shoots the puck over an open net after Bruins goalie Byron Dafoe's save on Sami Kapanen. Keith Primeau has a shot on the doorstep of a completely empty net blocked by Bruins defenseman Kyle McLaren, then fans on a pass from Martin Gelinas to the right of the goal. Glen Wesley loses control of a rebound with the net open. Robert Kron misses a wide-open net. And Dafoe gets his second 2-0 shutout of the series as the Bruins blank the Hurricanes 2-0 to win the quarterfinals 4-2.
May 3: Hurricanes defenseman Steve Chiasson is killed when his pickup overturns while he is returning home from the team's playoff loss in Boston. Chiasson is thrown from the truck after it runs off the road at about 4:15 a.m. Selected by the Detroit Red Wings in the third round (50th pick overall) of the 1985 NHL Entry Draft, Chiasson spent eight years with the Wings before being traded to Calgary in 1994. He played in his first NHL All-Star Game in 1993 and scored his 300th NHL career point in 1995. Chiasson played 18 games for the Whalers in their final Hartford campaign, tallying three goals and 11 assists. A native of Barrie, Ontario, he is survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter.
While his tenure in Hartford was brief, forever etched in the memory of Whalers fans is a photo of a dejected Chiasson sitting in the locker room after the announcement of the team's departure from Hartford.
Rest in peace, Steve.
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