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Friday, May 26, 2006
In search of the Caniacs

By Bomani Jones
Special to Page 2

DURHAM, N.C. -- While sipping my morning cup of "SportsCenter" a few weeks ago, I saw the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C., on the verge of exploding during a Carolina Hurricanes win over the New Jersey Devils in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. So according to the reported attendance, at least 18,730 people 'round these parts care about hockey.

Carolina fans
Wow, there really ARE Caniacs!
So how come I only know two of them?

In three years, this much has become clear to me about North Carolina: Basketball is the state's religion and NASCAR is its pastime. Football's a big deal, too, even though the Big Four ACC schools have been stuck on sorry for much of the 21st century. But you'll sooner see Lenin on the $20 bill than find a place where football isn't beloved.

So what about hockey, a sport so hard up for a TV deal after last season's crippling work stoppage that, in spite of the fact that the game's played indoors, its games are shown on the Outdoor Life Network? One of the two North Carolinians I know that cares about hockey is from a Michigan-based family. They care about those sorts of things up there, from what I hear.

Here? I wasn't so sure.

One would think there would be a decent number of hockey fans here since there's a professional franchise, but you can't make that assumption with hockey. While most leagues expanded into areas where interest already existed, the NHL seemed to think it could land in a city and make people fall in love with the game. Or maybe they expected carpetbaggers living in the Sun Belt to convince their new neighbors of the virtues of hockey. Really, do you believe the folks at the Opry were just itching to get pucks flying in Nashville?

But the Hurricanes are good. They made the Stanley Cup finals in 2002, and they put a hurtin' on the Devils while winning the Eastern Conference semis in five games earlier this month. They've also got pretty cool uniforms, even though "Hurricanes" makes for an odd mascot for a team based about 130 miles inland. So in a world where winning fills bandwagons and fashion reigns supreme, I could understand how hockey could be appealing in the 919 area code.

"The fact that the team looks like they have a real shot at the Cup this time around will get the sport more notoriety in the state," said David Schimizzi, my aforementioned Michigander buddy. He thinks something else would also help build interest in the Canes.

"Getting better coverage than the Pro Bull Riding tour!"

NHL playoffs coverage
Sabres vs. Hurricanes
Oilers vs. Ducks
Burnside: Ruffled up
Hradek: Sabres make right moves

He's a little off-base there. The team definitely gets media attention. On Saturday, the day of the first game of the Eastern Conference finals, a cartoon image of Canes captain Rob Brind'Amour dominated the front of the Raleigh News and Observer's sports page. The N&O's Web site also features a section with photos of "Caniacs," people so enthralled by the Hurricanes that they're willing to paint their faces and look foolish in the name of team support.

So since hockey fans really do exist here, I decided to try to find these people. A friend of mine told me what he thought I'd learn on this pursuit.

"Nobody gives a rat's," he wrote in an instant message.

In Durham, he's just about right. Even though the Canes were poised to sweep the Devils in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, there were only three people in Champps Restaurant, a sports bar in southwest Durham, wearing Hurricanes jerseys. By my count, only four tables had eyes on one of the many screens showing the game.

Those folks need to thank Bill Duval, the man responsible for the game being shown at the bar.

"We got here [30 minutes before faceoff] figuring the place would be packed for hockey," said Duval, a Durham resident who put on his Hurricanes jersey and brought his son Conner to Champps to watch the game. "But at [faceoff time], I had to ask the bartender to put some hockey on [the televisions]."

FYI: The other sporting events being shown were a rerun of the previous night's Suns-Clippers game and NASCAR, neither of which carried the consequence of playoff hockey or potential joy of a local team with the chance to close out a series. I guarantee if North Carolina was playing basketball against the Duke School for Children, the game would have been on every screen and almost every eye would have been glued to the action.

But the elder Duval insisted there was interest in hockey in the area, spawned by proselytizing carpetbaggers and cultivated by the Canes' success. Conner, 13, said the kids at his school, Sherwood Githens Middle School in Durham, enjoyed hockey and many of them play on youth league teams.

"Well, the white ones," Conner clarified. In the last couple of months, you've probably heard that Durham has a lot of black people. And as you might expect, hockey's not really their bag.

Peter "Sneaky Pete" Banzani, a student at East Chapel Hill High School whom I coached in rec league basketball, says he's watched and played hockey all his life. But as much as I love the kid, Sneaky Pete's a bit of a weirdo. He's a white kid with shoulder-length dreadlocks that plays basketball with multi-colored wristbands with the Lion of Judah embroidered on them, says "The Last Waltz" is one of his favorite movies, and once called me to ask if I had read Vonnegut's latest. The Sneakster is one of the coolest kids I've been around, but he's isn't the representative teenager.

Eric Staal
The Hurricanes' Eric Staal might be the one who puts hockey in the hearts of Carolinians.

Bill Duval said I was looking in the wrong places if I wanted to find Caniacs.

"If you go to Raleigh, you'll see the fans," he said.

I figured he was right. That's where the team plays. Plus, my buddy that didn't expect me to find any fans told me that if I found hockey fans, "they'll probably say, 'Go Canes,' in the same voice they say, 'Go Pack!'"

(From a dyed-in-the-wool Tar Heels fan like him, that's no compliment.)

Still, I wasn't putting money on it. Raleigh and Durham are distinct communities, but they're not worlds different or far from one another. It's about 20 minutes by car from my house in Durham to Raleigh, which is closer than Fort Worth is to Dallas. Though I could be wrong, I'm pretty sure the folks in Funkytown root for Dallas teams. Hell, there is still a number of Redskins fans in the area that developed an allegiance to the Skins before the Panthers came to Charlotte 11 years ago. And considering the stereotype that NC State fans are, shall we say, rural, they didn't strike me as part of the NHL's core fan base.

No matter. After a quick search on Google Earth, I headed to Sammy's Tap and Grill, which asks visitors at its Web site to, "join [them] for all NC State and Carolina Hurricanes games." Sammy's sounded like a great place to test my buddy's theory.

I arrived at Sammy's with 14:23 left in the first period. There was no doubt that this was a Canes/Wolfpack spot. From the walls to the felt on the pool tables, nearly everything in the place was red or black (save for an inordinate amount of Steelers stuff). Including the staff, there appeared to be about 20 people inside the bar and nearly the same number sitting outside, many of whom came to watch hockey. Good thing for them; otherwise, they would have been stuck watching the inexplicably long buildup to the Preakness, lacrosse on ESPNU or some soccer game from across the pond.

I sat at the bar next to a gentleman named Paul Seeber. His eyes were glued to the game. So I waited until intermission to ask if he was a hockey fan, a question with an answer so obvious that I was afraid he'd think it was a pickup line. Of course, he said yes (and no, he didn't think it was a pickup line).

But he did so in a voice that surely wasn't native to the area, more Barry Melrose than Charlie Rose. Seeber's from upstate New York, which I didn't think would make him too helpful in my quest. I expected folks from those cold states to dig hockey. I wanted to meet people from 'round here that enjoyed the game.

But Seeber was different than I expected. He grew up near Watkins Glen, so he was a NASCAR fan before he got to North Carolina. Surprisingly, he was never concerned with hockey when he lived in New York, but he got into the game here and he did so through the most wonderful thing in this world: a hookup.

"I got hooked on the free tickets [my friend] got from his job," he said.

Those freebies made Seeber a serious fan, the type that gets a kick out of explaining parts of the game to those unfamiliar with it. From him, I learned that Eric Staal is a young player to watch and exactly why the rule changes made for a more enjoyable game. He also provided a compelling, almost universally acceptable reason to watch hockey.

"It's like football on ice, man."

Sorta. Were this a football game, Sammy's would have been packed tighter than the waitresses' shirts. And they were packed good and tight.

I think Seeber could sense my doubts about whether these hockey fans really existed. He looked around the small pub and saw there weren't many people there and that most of the hockey-related noise came from one table.

"If this were a night game," he said, "the place would be packed."

Since I'd only gone out to see day games, I figured it would be worth the time to test his theory. So I decided to return to Raleigh before Game 2 of the Canes-Sabres series, even though it conflicted with the final games of the Spurs-Mavericks and Suns-Clippers series.

This time, I went to a fairly large establishment. I'd been there a few times to watch boxing, and I remembered seeing a framed Hurricanes jersey on the wall. Considering the place is cushy, has decent food and lots of televisions, I figured it would be the place to go to find these hockey fans that continue to evade me.

Wrong.

I swung open the door 30 minutes after faceoff. My first thought was to look at the floor to make sure I didn't trip over tumbleweed. The crowd was so sparse that I wondered if the health inspector had given the place an F-minus or something.

After I sat at the bar, the manager left his game of pool -- yes, the place was so empty that the manager was playing pool -- to tell me the drink and appetizer specials. So I decided to ask him if hockey fans normally come to his establishment on game days.

"They must all watch the games at home," said the manager, who requested that both he and his place of business not be named. "I don't see any sales because of the Canes."

Then he asked when that night's game would start.

"Half an hour ago," I said.

He laughed before pointing to the televisions on the walls.

"You see I don't even have the game on."

He can't be blamed for that. This manager said that his establishment used to pull out lots of stops for Hurricanes games. He said he used to offer a buffet during hockey games, but he stopped because the food would go to waste.

Well, maybe that's just his spot. Or maybe not.

"I go to all the bars and clubs in the area," he said. "I don't see anything different when the Canes are playing [than what happens at his bar]."

I handed him a business card, thanked him for his time and headed home to watch the second half of the Spurs-Mavs game.

"If we get a big turnout of Canes fans, you'll be the first person I call," were the parting words he offered me.

While that favor would be appreciated, I'll keep breathing in the meantime.

During Saturday's Canes game, Seeber conceded, "Hockey's never gonna be No. 1 like basketball. But it's here."

So I've heard. It's just not what I've seen.

Bomani Jones is a frequent contributor to Page 2. Tell him how you feel at bomani@bomanijones.com.