They sold 18,978seats at a hockey rink in Raleigh on Monday night, and almost no one used them.For three hours, from the first strains of the Canadian and U.S. nationalanthems until the last Carolina Hurricanes player had taken a twirl with themost fabled trophy in sports, a crowd stood as it might have for a tip-offbetween Duke and North Carolina and then forgot to sit, roaring in witness of awell-traveled franchise bringing another kind of championship to Tobacco Road.¬∂ In squelching what appeared to be a historic Edmonton Oilers comeback, theHurricanes found a wellspring of energy and emotion-and a couple of goals fromthe oddest sources-in Game 7 to win the Stanley Cup 3-1. It was the first NHLtitle for a franchise, the erstwhile Hartford Whalers, that merged into theleague from the defunct WHA in 1979. ¬∂ Carolina was led by a 22-year-old rookiegoalie, Cam Ward, who didn't even start the first two games of the playoffs; awinger, Erik Cole, playing with a broken neck that hadn't completely healed;and a pair of workmanlike defensemen, Aaron Ward and Frantisek Kaberle, whobeat estimable Edmonton goalie Jussi Markkanen. Even though the NHL went to alengthy replay and denied Carolina an apparent goal in the first period (withthis league, it's always something), the Hurricanes, and their indomitableshot-blocking defense, fended off a team that mounted a furious charge in thethird period. Goalie Ward finished with 22 saves and was named the Conn SmytheTrophy winner.
Although theCup-winning goal came on Kaberle's power-play slap shot at 4:18 of the secondperiod, the rightful author of it was Cole, who began the playoffs two monthsago in a neck brace yet made a dramatic entrance into Game 6. Cole drove to thenet along the right wing, forced defenseman Jaroslav Spacek to hold him andgave the Hurricanes a man-advantage. Eight seconds later Carolina had a 2-0lead that even the resilient Oilers, who rallied in the third period behindFernando Pisani's playoff-leading 14th goal, couldn't surmount.
If there had beenan arc to the Stanley Cup finals while the Hurricanes were taking athree-games-to-one lead-surging Carolina special teams, the imperturbability ofCam Ward, the impotence of the Edmonton power play-in Game 5 the series neededan ark. Tropical Storm Alberto was lashing Raleigh, dumping 7.6 inches of rainin 16 hours. One of the Oilers dubbed the storm Hurricane Alberta ("That'spretty clever by hockey-player standards, turning an o into an a," Oilersforward Rem Murray drolly observed), and a mood as defiant as the weatherpervaded the Edmonton team, a belief that the series would return to Raleighfor Game 7 come hell or high water. The Oilers announced their intentions 16seconds into Game 5 when Pisani tipped in defenseman Chris Pronger's pointshot.
Three hours laterPisani finished what he started by picking Eric Staal's pocket, skating inalone and blistering a shot past Ward's glove for the first shorthandedovertime goal in finals history, a 4-3 Oilers win and a tropical depression foralmost 19,000 Caniacs. Said Carolina coach Peter Laviolette, "In overtimewe were set up to win it [on the power play]-and it didn't happen. It was atough one to get over. Maybe the toughest we've been through."
If Carolina wasreeling, Edmonton was further emboldened. From the back of the team plane thenext morning, Pronger loudly demanded that someone pop in a DVD of Gladiator."He is," left wing Ethan Moreau explained, "a control freak."Then again, after playing almost 34 minutes of Game 5, going +3 and serving ashalf of the Oilers sandwich (with Raffi Torres) that knocked Hurricanes centerDoug Weight out of the series with a shoulder injury, Pronger could haverequested the director's cut of Gigli and there wouldn't have been a peep."He can control a plane, a room, a city, a game, a series," defensemanSteve Staios said of Pronger, a 12-year veteran who also played for the Whalersand the St. Louis Blues. "He can do whatever he wants. He's got rareleadership ability." Pronger was arguably the playoffs' most dominantskater, and Carolina tried to run the 6'6" 220-pounder at everyopportunity, yet, as Hurricanes center Kevyn Adams said, "you keep going athim, but it seems like you do as much damage to yourself as you do tohim."
Carolina's topline, centered by Rod Brind'Amour, drew the attention of Pronger and partnerJason Smith for most of the series, giving it the dubious honor of trying towipe that David Letterman-like gap-toothed smile off Pronger's unmarked face.That matchup gave Carolina's second-line center, Staal, a degree of liberty.The 6'4", 205-pound Staal matter-of-factly led playoff scoring with 28points, including eight in the finals-a remarkable achievement by a 21-year-oldwho is as modest as his roots, which really do come from the soil. Staal grewup on his family's sod farm in Thunder Bay, Ont., and like the three brothersdestined to follow him into the NHL-defenseman Marc, 19, may play for the NewYork Rangers next season; center Jordan, 17, should be drafted in the top fivethis Saturday; and 15-year-old Jared is on track to develop into a pro-caliberwinger-he began driving the tractor at around age six, rolling sod (the pay: $5an hour, with yearly increases of a buck, only slightly less than a Stanley Cupshare).
The work ethiccertainly didn't hurt Eric, according to his father, Henry, who saw his sonheavily scrutinized after failing to get a shot in Game 3. Eric responded,setting up the winner in Game 4 with a neat spin-a-rama pass to MarkRecchi-"Hmmm ... Eric Staal's slump?" Laviolette said, sardonically,after the match-and added two power-play goals and an assist in the Game 5overtime loss.
Pronger's (andTorres's) devastating hit on Weight-natural attrition in a two-month hockeymarathon-seemed to be just one of those things until Carolina turned it intosomething that had the potential to be one of Those Things, an event soinspiring, so memorable, that it may attain mythic status: in this case, thereturn of Cole last Saturday.
Out since March 4with a broken vertebra in his neck, Cole began plotting his return on theThursday flight back to Edmonton. He approached assistant coach Jeff Danielsand asked, "With Doug out, that means I'm in?" When the plane stoppedin Des Moines to refuel, Daniels ran the idea by Laviolette. They decided onelast CT scan couldn't hurt. In the playoffs you have to go the extra mile, andwhen the Oilers couldn't arrange a CT scan in Edmonton, Cole flew to Denver tohave the test done. The results were examined by Cole's doctors who said theinjury was about 90% healed. Essentially there would be no difference betweenCole's trying to play now and in training camp.
For Cole, who haddreamed of winning the Cup since childhood, that was all the medical clearancehe needed. "The healing has been maximized," he said, "and the riskis going to be with me the rest of my life." The power forward had been a30-goal scorer and a dynamo with linemates Staal and Cory Stillman. Even if hedrew only power-play duty after a 15-week absence, Cole figured to giveCarolina a lift.
Yet in Game 6 theHurricanes fell meekly, 4-0. "We were pretty paralyzed," Laviolettewould say on Sunday. They were outshot 21-3 with six minutes left in the secondperiod. They took a pair of too-many-men-on-the-ice penalties, the kind thatannounce to the world that the players' minds were elsewhere. Cole played18:31, in all situations, and on his second shift withstood a robust check byMoreau that Cole later said smacked of head-hunting.
"We wereinspired even if the results don't show it," Carolina defenseman MikeCommodore said the day after the Game 6 loss. "It was big for us to see[Cole] come out on the ice. Then to see him go down [on the hit by Moreau] andjump right back up, I kind of caught my breath. I thought, He's all right, goodto go. We didn't turn it into anything positive, but we can change that [inGame 7]."
Indeed, on asweltering night in what is now officially hockey country, the Hurricanes tooktheir courage from Cole. For a franchise that was launched 34 years ago as theNew England Whalers, has been a member of two leagues (the WHA and NHL) and hasplayed its home games in five cities (Boston; Springfield, Mass.; Hartford;Greensboro, N.C.; and Raleigh), maybe the coolest trophy in the world can serveas an anchor for the team and for big league hockey in the South.
Who will contend for next year's Stanley Cup? For anearly look at 2006-07 go to SI.com/nhl.
Carolina's improbable cast of heroes--including playoff MVP Cam Ward(opposite)--celebrated the franchise's first title.
The speed of Cole (26) helped draw a penalty against Spacek that set up thegame-winning, power-play goal.