They keep hearing about all the fabulous golf courses in the
area, and once in a while, as they gaze out the bus window, they
even see one. They are constantly asked how they like their new
home in North Carolina, and the players formerly known as the
Hartford Whalers can give only one honest response: Home? What
home? We ain't got a home.
"To be honest," says Carolina goalie Sean Burke, "this place
doesn't feel like home."
Their season has been reduced to one long, strange 82-game road
trip. They are like some down-on-its-luck country band playing
in front of small crowds, in a small city, with no home and no
hope. Their nickname, the Hurricanes, is the only thing about
them that makes sense, because thus far the NHL's incursion into
tobacco country has been a natural disaster.
The team's headquarters and eventual home are in Raleigh (where
a new arena is scheduled to be ready for the 1999-2000 season);
the interim arena is in Greensboro, 80 miles away; and one of
the practice facilities is in Hillsborough, which is somewhere
in between. The fans, well, we're not sure where they come from,
but it probably wouldn't take long to ask. The Hurricanes drew
18,661 on opening night in Greensboro three weeks ago, but since
then they've played before quaint gatherings of friends and
family. The paid attendance for last week's 3-3 tie against the
Buffalo Sabres was 6,278, but only about 4,000 fans attended the
game. That's about the same number of people who wait outside
after games in Philadelphia to watch the Flyers' Eric Lindros
Spread throughout the Greensboro Coliseum--the venue seats
20,800 but is reduced to 15,902 for Hurricanes games so it
doesn't seem quite so empty--the sparse crowd looked like a
reunion of normal, well-adjusted Kennedy cousins. The
season-ticket base is 3,083, by far the lowest in the NHL. "To
say it has all gone smoothly, the way we had hoped, that
wouldn't be true," says veteran defenseman Adam Burt. "I think
everything will be great when we get to Raleigh, but for now, a
lot of people in Greensboro are like, Hey, why bother? You're
not our team."
The Carolina players spend more time on the bus than the
Partridge Family. Consider: The New York Rangers have six road
games this season that won't take them as far as the Hurricanes
have to travel for home games. At times the Hurricanes are bused
80 miles from Raleigh to Greensboro for games, and after the
morning skate they retreat to a hotel for lunch and a nap. Their
wives and children are bused down later in the day, and together
the players and their families return to Raleigh after midnight.
All but two of the players are married, and among them there are
31 children of the Cane. That adds up to a lot of blown
bedtimes. "Two a.m.--that's what time we get home from home
games," says Burke, who is not one of the team's two bachelors.
"I haven't gotten home at 2 a.m. since I was a young guy hitting
the nightclubs." Burke says the players are planning to have
postgame buffets at the new arena because they have yet to find
a decent restaurant in Raleigh that's open after games.
It could be worse. After all, we're talking about hockey
players, the most humble, down-to-earth species in pro sports.
If a baseball owner had pulled this stunt, Donald Fehr would
have taken hostages by now. "Whenever we start feeling sorry for
ourselves, we just have to look at the trainers and the
equipment guys," says Burt. "They're the ones who have to lug
everything back and forth. They're the guys I feel sorry for."
So far the team has done little to lure the locals to the rink.
At week's end the Hurricanes were 1-6-2 and in last place in the
Northeast Division. While the offense has merely gotten off to a
slow start, the defense has been awful, allowing more goals than
all but three other teams. Losing is nothing new for this
franchise--the Whalers' last winning season was 1989-90--though
the situation may be especially bleak this winter. No sport is
as emotional as hockey, and nothing is as deflating to a team as
looking up at 15,000 empty seats. "It's not going to be easy,
but we can't use this as an excuse," says right wing Kevin
Dineen, a 14-year NHL veteran. "We can't say, 'Well, we were in
a tough situation.' No one wants to throw these two years away."
Does anyone have a choice? The players knew that owner Peter
Karmanos was planning to pull out of Connecticut and set up shop
somewhere else, but they never dreamed they would be in transit
this long. The Hurricanes will be hockey hoboes for two
years--and that's if there are no construction delays. "They're
professionals, and they understand," says Karmanos. "I think
they're happy with what's going on and excited to be moving into
a new building in two years."
Sure they are. Telling a hockey player that everything will be
O.K. in two years is like telling a five-year-old to wait until
after church to open his Christmas presents. These guys are
taught not to look two games ahead. "We know 50 percent of the
guys in this locker room probably aren't going to be here when
the new building opens," says Burke, who will be an unrestricted
free agent at the end of the season and will likely be dealt by
the March 25 deadline if he hasn't signed a contract extension.
Karmanos, naturally, says he had no choice but to leave his team
in limbo for two seasons while a state-of-the-art arena is
erected for him largely with public funding. To leave his team
in Hartford would have been unfair to--get this--the players.
"No matter which interim situation we ended up in," says
Karmanos, "it would have been better than being lame ducks in
Hartford and having the players listen to catcalls every night."
Well, you can be sure the boys are safe from catcalls in
Carolina. In fact, they're safe from everything but secondhand
smoke: They won't get booed, jeered or blasted by the very
accommodating local media. "You want to talk about a team with
no pressure," said Dineen after the Hurricanes tied Buffalo.
"Here we are, coming off four straight losses, and everyone is
talking about what a great tie we just had."
North Carolina has been the home of minor league hockey teams
since the 1950s, but the game was largely viewed as a cult
sport. The Hurricanes represent the NHL's first serious attempt
to capture the imagination of NASCAR country--while, of course,
charging full NHL prices, another reason for the team's dismal
turnouts. Selling hockey in this state will be a slow process.
"One night, at the end of a period, I heard somebody say, 'Here
comes the Zamboozi,'" says Burke with a laugh. "It didn't take
long for us to realize we weren't playing in an established
Burke says playing in Carolina has given the team a renewed
appreciation for Hartford. While the Whalers often seemed lost
in the abyss between Boston and New York, they had a loud and
loyal following. The Whalers, in fact, averaged 13,657 fans in
their final season, 87% of Hartford Civic Center capacity. "It
was not a bad atmosphere," Burke says. In the big crowd at the
Hurricanes' opener in Greensboro was a contingent of about 1,000
Whalers fans who had traveled from Hartford. Carolina management
has since offered all former Whalers season-ticket holders free
ducats to four games--transportation not included. Catcalls, we
assume, will not be tolerated.
"We had 9,000 or 10,000 of the greatest fans in hockey,"
Karmanos says of the Whalers faithful. "And we really, really
tried to make it work. We told [city officials] we needed a
rent-free, debt-free building, and they didn't want to give it
to us." Karmanos, to his credit, is up-front when asked why he
shipped the Whale off to Carolina: In the end, he says, it was
all about money. "We could have sold every seat to every game
and gone all the way to the finals and still lost five to seven
million dollars," he says. "Because all we got was the gate
[receipts in Hartford]. In Greensboro we've got a better radio
and TV contract. We've got suites revenue. We've got concessions
revenue. We've got parking revenue. We've got advertising. And
we've got a new building opening in two years."
Until then they've got the Greensboro Globetrotters, a
bleary-eyed band of hockey hoboes with no home, no fans and no
hope of winning much of anything. It's enough to drive a man to
drink. Make mine a double Zamboozi.