Raleigh rallies

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 7:42 AM ET

RALEIGH, N.C. -- By missing the playoffs two years in a row and losing another one to the lockout, the Carolina Hurricanes began this season having frittered away virtually all of the momentum from 2002's improbable run to the Stanley Cup final.

Hockey in Raleigh-Durham, as non-traditional a market as there is in the NHL, needed all the help it could get, and it wasn't getting it from the Canes.

With crowds in the 13,000 range, on good nights, they barely registered.

Now, they're off the charts.

"It's been an exciting year, a great year for this organization and this market," said Kevyn Adams, one of the few remnants of their last Cup appearance. "People here have really responded. It's been a great building, a great environment. That's what's been fun about this year; our fans have come back strong after a tough couple of years and then the lockout."

Now Raleigh is filling their building with fans and filling the newspapers and airwaves with hockey talk.

"We've always had a strong, loyal fan base," continued Adams. "What we hoped for as players is that if we went out and did our job on the ice the casual fan would start to take notice. And all of a sudden it goes from 13,000 to 15, to 17, to 18,000 because you're picking up those casual sports fans. Nothing rallies a city and a market (more) than a playoff run. We saw that before."

And they blew it. In 2002 they lost in five to Detroit, then fell off the edge of the earth.

"If you look back, it actually happens to a lot of teams," Craig Adams said of the post-Cup hangover season. "We were a team that had to fight for everything we had, win a lot of one-goal games. If you come back the next year and forget how hard you had to work, or think it might come a little easier because you went to the final the year before, you lose some of those one-goal games.

AN ELUSIVE THING

"We knew what was happening, but it was hard to put it together. Momentum is an elusive thing, and it was gone. And all of a sudden you're not even in the playoffs."

It was devastating, for the Hurricanes as well as their market.

"To go to the Stanley Cup finals, and then for two years your team is absolutely abysmal," said Aaron Ward. "To stew over that, knowing you were that close ..."

It was a mistake they promise won't happen again.

"The team we have now is better than the team that went to the final in 2002," said general manager Jim Rutherford. "And younger to the point that it will have a chance to maintain this as we move forward. It shouldn't have to be a roller-coaster ride."

Ward, one of nine players left over from 2002, notices a big difference.

"The seasons were very different," he said. "In 2002 we got on a roll in the playoffs and said 'let's see how far we can take this.'

"This year, management made some great moves in the off-season and we set a high standard for ourselves from the start. And our core (Eric Staal, Cam Ward and Mike Commodore) is young enough that we will again next year."

A handful of unrestricted free agents means there is bound to be change, but 2002 has taught them well.

So has 2006.

"Most likely not everyone will be back," said Matt Cullen.

"It's too bad. We have such a unique, special group in here. It's been so much fun and such a good season.

'THE GOOD TIMES'

"You look back and think of the good times and how much you like and respect everybody in here. This is the last time we're going to be together as a group.

"This is sort of everything you dream about as a player. And it's good for the game itself - the game is spreading. For us to be a part of this is unbelievable."


Videos

Photos