These Hurricanes are different

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:13 AM ET

RALEIGH -- After the Carolina Hurricanes won Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final on Thursday, general manager Jim Rutherford stopped on the way home to bask in the glow.

He joined some tailgating fans, looked at the gleaming white RBC Center and savoured the moment.

"I sat in the chair there and I looked around and remembered when I came here. It was just a big pile of dirt there," he said yesterday. "There wasn't any arena. There wasn't anything, and I did start to reflect a little on what really went on.

"I remember when we first came here, you go to different places, you meet different people, and we would actually have to explain to people why we were here."

It wasn't easy. The team eventually would be based in Raleigh, but at the time, it was playing its games in Greensboro, some 80 kilometres away.

The situation was far from ideal. It didn't make much sense to try to develop fans in Greensboro, because most of them wouldn't want to make the trek to Raleigh in two years when the new building opened. Similarly, potential future fans in Raleigh preferred to wait for the team to get there.

The team was in limbo -- both on the ice and off. And it stayed that way even after the move.

"We had a team that, for the most part over those years, was competitive," Rutherford said, "but if we didn't make the playoffs, we just missed, and then we were picking in the middle of the draft.

"We could never get to a point where we could get that elite player to get us over the hump."

There were some good Carolina teams, led by players such as Jeff O'Neill, Ron Francis, Steve Chiasson, Kevin Dineen, Gary Roberts, and Rod Brind'Amour.

Some were still around for the fortuitous run to the Stanley Cup final in 2002. That Hurricanes team was one of those which had all the blocks fall into place at the right time.

It wasn't really a great team, but because it went so far, expectations were raised. To many, the Hurricanes seemed like a team on the rise. Quite the contrary.

The next year, the Hurricanes went into the tank, partly because the opponents were taking them seriously after their success, partly because they suffered some serious injuries.

But the low finish gave them the second overall draft pick which translated into Eric Staal, one of the brightest young lights in hockey.

IMPACT PLAYER

The franchise that had been good, but not great, suddenly had its impact player. And when Martin Gerber turned out to be a genuine goalie, and a few more spots were filled with free agents, the Hurricanes became what they are today -- a balanced mix of veterans and youngsters with a very real chance of winning the Stanley Cup.

But it should not be confused with the 2002 team.

"It's a totally different situation," Rutherford said. "In February of 2002, we were a team that wasn't sure whether we were going to make the playoffs and the team came together at the right time and we got in the playoffs.

"There were a lot of people contributing in the playoffs, but the fact of the matter is that the goaltending carried us. Kevin Weekes had the great back-to-back saves in the one game here, or we were probably out in the first round. Then Arturs Irbe came in and took it over the rest of the way."

Today's Hurricanes team battled for first place in the Eastern Conference all season long and lost out only in the final game.

"The team that we have now has more depth," Rutherford said. "It's more balanced. It's more skilled and a lot more people can contribute to winning."

For the first time since the Carolina Hurricanes evolved out of the Hartford Whalers, it can be said that the team is a genuine power.

It has been a long, gruelling, and sometime circuitous road.


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