Before we spoke this week, entering his second training camp as head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, my last conversation with Rod Brind’Amour had boiled down—coincidentally, though perhaps fittingly—to a pair of words beginning with the letter R.
The first was Rocky. As in, Balboa. Turns out that Brind’Amour adores the boxing film franchise. Even quotes lines in pregame speeches to fire up his players. On occasion these references are met with blank stares, which makes sense: All but three lineup regulars from last year’s Bunch of Jerks, who slipped past the defending-champion Capitals and then slammed the Islanders in their first playoff bid in a decade, were born after the fifth installment was released (1990). “It makes me feel really old and I hate it,” Brind’Amour said. “But I can’t not watch those movies.”
The reason that Rocky had come up that afternoon in Raleigh, a few days before the Eastern Conference finals began last May, was thanks to the second R word. The wild-card Hurricanes were undoubtedly underdogs, from the opening game of ‘18–19 to the end of their eventual sweep at the hands of the Bruins. But along the way they had earned what Brind’Amour had been preaching since his promotion from assistant coach one year earlier: Relevance.
“We were a real good team in the 2000s,” said Brind’Amour, who captained their ‘05–06 championship squad. “There were years in between when we didn’t make it and fell off the map, but it was due to injuries. We got crippled. But we were a great team, built something special, and it went like this in the years after …”
His hand made a diving motion, plummeting from an invisible cliff.
“It was so frustrating. I was still here. When you go to other team’s buildings, when you hear how they talk about your team, it’s that pat on the back and ‘Nice try, you guys are working real hard.’ And I know underneath they don’t respect what we’re doing.”
That has obviously changed. The Metropolitan Division is still a meat grinder—greetings to Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko, PK Subban, Jacob Trouba …—but general manager Don Waddell has kept the Hurricanes apace with a flurry of savvy signings and trades, and more perhaps to come. As training camp prepared to open Thursday, Brind’Amour spoke with SI.com and previewed the storylines behind one of the NHL’s most fascinating teams.
SI: Do you feel relevant now?
RB: We’re still going to be fighting that. We took a huge step in that department. I don't know if there was a more talked-about team in the offseason than our team.
Relevant in the sense that we want to be a team that people take serious, to actually win. We’ve always been known as the team that worked hard, was a tough team to play against, and we just never got over the hump. We’ve had a few years where we’ve done pretty successfully, good seasons, but fell back into the old pattern. That’s what we have to avoid.
We want to be relevant all the time.
SI: Say that happens. Say the Hurricanes make the playoffs again [in consecutive years for the first time since ‘00–02]. What will have gone right?
RB: For us, we have a whole new group again. A lot of new faces. Turnover is just the way it is in the NHL. It’s getting those guys in the mix, getting them up to speed on how we do things.
Then it always comes down to, do our goalies make some saves for us? I think last year our guys [Curtis McElhinney and Petr Mrazek], I felt, were great. When you spit them out in the blender [league-wide], their numbers were just average. But it felt like they were great. If we can get anything like that goaltending-wise, we have a chance to be relevant. If we don’t get saves, you’re basically throwing everything out the door, because you can’t play the way you want to.
SI: No pressure, James [Reimer, who replaces McElhinney] and Petr.
RB: It’s the most important position in the sport. I don't feel like we have to rely on them. But they have to be solid.
SI: What do you think of the other additions, like [forwards] Erik Haula and Ryan Dzingel?
RB: I like them. I don’t know these guys, obviously. But we’ll get a look at training camp and try to fit the pieces. On paper, our advanced knowledge of these guys, what I like about what we’re doing, we’re trying to bring in good hockey players, but also good people. They all want to be here. It’s something that’s cliché, but when you see guys signing with us, maybe even for less money than they were offered at other places, that’s a good sign.
We traded for Haula. That’s an interesting one, because he’s been out for a year [with a knee injury], almost. I think that has the potential to be something special. We needed an upgrade at third-line center. Picking up Dzingel, a lot of potential there. We’ll have to wait and see on that. We’ve done the best we could, for sure, in the offseason.
SI: Can you recall another time when Carolina was a destination like this for free agents?
RB: Generally, the guy who pays the most is going to get you. Somebody at some point is going to say that at a press conference: Why’d you come here? “They paid me the most.” That’s the reality on 99% of signings. When we can get a couple guys who feel like it’s going to be a great fit, that’s pretty good.
[My family has] been in Raleigh a long time now. Every guy who comes through here loves it. The word kind of gets out. It is a great place to live and raise families.
SI: What’d you do this summer?
RB: I’m a pretty boring guy. I feel like I’m almost nonstop hockey. Just living down here, I spent a lot of time at the beach. My wife’s family is from there, so I got to hang out for most of the summer. Just relax, try to catch up with my little guy. Spending time with the 7-year-old. Nothing that you’d find interesting, that’s for sure.
SI: A lot of film?
RB: Way too much.
SI: Know what you’re going to say to the team on day one?
RB: I don’t write it. I’m prepared. The one thing I know is, you’ve got to be prepared. I know where I’m going with it. I guess I’m ready to go. I want to get preseason over with, to be honest with you. We’ve got so many question marks, new faces, I want to see how it blends together. I love playing for real.
SI: The first call that you made upon getting promoted was to Justin Williams, effectively naming him captain. What’s it like not having him around?
RB: He’s been around. He lives here. I’ve talked to him, played golf with him. We’re always good buddies.
The awkward part was he didn’t know which way he was going to do. Now that we know how it’s going, it’s better, because we can move on. It’s nice that we have a decision that we can steer the ship whichever way we had to.
I think whatever happens, he’ll be around. He lives here. He’s still a part of our family, just not part of our team yet. Whether or not he will be, we’ll see. But we’re moving on as obviously we won’t have him. He’s had a great career.
I have a funny feeling he may not come back, because he’s at a great place in his life. He’s done everything in the game of hockey, he’s played golf every day, and he’s coaching his son in hockey. He’s living right. He’s doing it right. If we see him, that’s great. If not, I know he’s in a good place.
SI: When was the last time that you saw Justin?
RB: Two weeks ago. Right before he made his decision, we were on the golf course. I paired up with him. I’m smart. He’s about a scratch golfer. We beat Cam Ward.
There’s another [former Hurricanes player]. He lives right around the corner from me. Guys like it here.
SI: Is there a plan to replace Justin as captain?
RB: We’re going to get through training camp. There’s a lot going on with our team right now. Just want to let the dust settle, focus on the game and then we’ll see where we’re at.