RALEIGH, N.C. - We've been told time and time again that the NHL simply doesn't work in the southern regions of the United States. Unfortunately, that notion remains true in most cases, but thankfully, the people of Raleigh have done their best to buck that stereotype.
Raleigh -- home of the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes -- did wonders for the credibility of its NHL franchise over the last few days when North Carolina's capital city proved to be passionate hosts for the 2011 All-Star festivities.
The hockey world really shouldn't be surprised about something that many of the sport's insiders have been talking about for years. I personally have heard several beat writers call Carolina their favourite road destination and was always surprised to hear it, but spending this past weekend in Raleigh has put that mystery to rest.
The fact that their team's city is often overlooked as a hockey hotbed is no secret to Carolina All-Stars Eric Staal and Cam Ward. Both players were drafted by the Hurricanes and were key members of the franchise's only Stanley Cup title team in 2006, with Ward claiming the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP despite being a mere rookie goaltender. Staal, meanwhile, led the NHL in postseason scoring that year with 28 points in his second year as an NHLer.
Staal and Ward's 2006 playoff performances are the stuff of legend in Raleigh, as are the postseason efforts put forth by retired players like Rod Brind'Amour, Ron Francis and Glen Wesley, who sent the crowd at RBC Center into a frenzy when they returned for Carolina's All-Star weekend.
Perhaps, even more surprising was the ovation that Peter Laviolette received from the home crowd. Laviolette was in Raleigh as an All-Star coach, but the bench boss from the Hurricanes' championship season is now the head man in Philadelphia, not Carolina. Apparently, there are no hard feelings for the coach who was fired after his club failed to make the playoffs in two straight years after winning it all.
Hearing Staal and Ward speak after their team lost Sunday's All-Star Game by an 11-10 score, it's obvious that the Canadian duo was brimming with pride about how their adopted city has taken to the sport they love.
"I think it was great for the players and the fans from out of town that came in to be able to see how hockey is down here in the south. And I think they're going to go home with a different perspective on Raleigh and the game in itself," said Ward.
Staal, Carolina's captain, echoed that sentiment later in the press conference when asked what he thought visiting hockey fans would take away from their weekend in the City of Oaks.
"I think they were probably surprised with the response that the community had given this event. I think for us we felt the energy, the buildup coming into this weekend, it was being around the community, talking about it, the fans have been excited, and then they delivered," said Staal.
Fellow Hurricanes All-Star Jeff Skinner is just a rookie and if he wasn't aware of Raleigh's love of hockey already, he certainly is now after the ovations he received this weekend from the RBC Center crowd.
Perhaps, the NHL's new All-Star format played a role in making the crowd go nuts for this weekend's events. The league selected two captains and had them draft their teams for the duration of All-Star weekend on Friday night and by the time Saturday evening's SuperSkills event was underway it was clear that the squad known as Team Staal was going to be heavy crowd favourites over Team Lidstrom.
Team Staal featured Staal, Ward and Skinner, as the Eastern Conference team would have under the previous format, but having a team named after a local hero seemed to give the hometown fans extra incentive to cheer like mad for their boys. The crowd even made some alterations to the familiar "Let's Go 'Canes" chant for Sunday's game, shouting "Let's Go Staals" instead.
Hockey fans in the northern part of the U.S. and their counterparts in Canada are not wrong to feel like the NHL belongs to them; just take a look at the top teams in attendance this year and it's obvious where the league's bread is buttered.
However, that does not mean hockey can't work in non-traditional markets and the city of Raleigh did not miss its opportunity to make that point on one of the NHL's biggest stages.