Fans coming back to watch Hurricanes

RALEIGH, N.C. -- There is a conceit in so-called traditional hockey markets that hockey fans in the South are generally folks who've wandered into the rink to get out of the heat.

But fans of the Carolina Hurricanes are real, live human beings. They like to gather outside their SUVs in the parking lot of the RBC Center and talk hockey while having a beverage or cooking up some meat. They listen to and call into talk radio to share their feelings about the power play and Cam Ward and the draft. They have feelings. They fall in love. Sometimes, they fall in love with each other.

Like Patrick Drollinger and his fiancée, Lynnae Pagels, who met tailgating during the 2002 playoff run. Drollinger, 41, a retired stockbroker from the New York area, was making a fruity drink with a fancy blender that he was able to plug into his car's cigarette lighter. Pagels had just moved to the Raleigh area from Tampa and was a big hockey fan. She found the Canes booster club in the parking lot outside the area, and a few fruity drinks later, the rest is history.

It was Drollinger who started the tradition of going to the airport to welcome the team home after playoff road games. It was during the 2001 series against New Jersey, which inexplicably won Game 5 to stave off elimination. In the spirit of many similar traditions, it had its genesis in a local bar, one where Drollinger et al. had been watching the game. After several beverages, Drollinger suggested it might be fun to go to the airport and meet the team when it landed. Raleigh-Durham International Airport isn't that big, which is good because the welcoming committee wasn't that big, either -- six people.

Drollinger said he can still see the look of disbelief on the players' faces as they exited their charter to hear the group chanting, "Canes in seven, Canes in seven!"

"Jeff O'Neill almost fell down the stairs," recalled Drollinger, who grew up a die-hard Islanders fan.

The tradition carried into the long 2002 playoff run, and by the end, there were thousands descending on the airport to greet the team when it returned from the road.

"The guys on the plane were actually looking for us," added John Gallagher, Drollinger's close friend and former president of the Hurricanes' booster club.

Both recall an early, defining moment in the relationship between the team and fans during that same 2001 playoff loss to the Devils. With New Jersey cruising to a series-clinching win in Raleigh in Game 6, Hurricanes fans spontaneously rose and began cheering the team with about five minutes to go.

"It still gives me chills thinking about," Drollinger said. "Players were crying on the ice."

"It just got louder and louder," added Gallagher, 33, who moved from the Wheeling-Pittsburgh area in 1998. And no, he wasn't stalking Ron Francis when he moved here.

Sure, there always will be some nut who calls into the Hurricanes' postgame talk show and demands that North Carolina State's basketball coach be fired. Hey, it's the South. What did you expect?

But defenseman Aaron Ward, who knows a thing or two about hockey markets after spending most of his formative years in Michigan and winning two Stanley Cups with the Red Wings, said things are changing in Raleigh.

In the past, NCAA basketball losses by Duke, Wake Forest, North Carolina or NC State would send the sporting community into a spiral for days. But with the Hurricanes' success this season, fans have something to fall back on, Ward said.

"Is there a love for the game here? Absolutely. I see it in restaurants. I see it in bars," said Ward, who expects to make his post-career home here in part because the game is part of the community. "It's kind of woven itself into what Carolina is."

"There's definitely a buzz. There's definitely a feeling in the community that wasn't there the last couple of seasons," veteran Kevyn Adams added.

That, of course, was the $64 million question coming out of the lockout, not just in Carolina, but in all the nontraditional hockey markets. Would anyone care? How long would it take for these teams just to get back to their previous levels of fan interest?

The team has been able to dismiss those concerns emphatically, in large part because the team has done what all teams must do -- put a quality product on the ice. The Hurricanes, having the best season in franchise history, are the best home team in the NHL, and fans have responded.

Of the 17 home games between Dec. 29 and March 27, the Canes drew fewer than 15,000 just three times and have sold out seven games.

The impressive part of Carolina's resurgence at the box office is that a significant portion of its attendance is walk-ups. Generally, teams see attendance spikes only after they've had a successful season because that's when season-ticket sales generally increase.

Because the team did so poorly the previous two seasons, the season-ticket base had eroded substantially, but the team's on-ice performance this season has seen attendance jump 25 percent over that of the 2003-04 season.

Given the team's success this season, GM Jim Rutherford is hopeful that by next season, the team will be at, or surpass, its best season-ticket base of about 11,000.

"They've come such a long ways," Gallagher said. "To see [the buzz] back again is very cool."

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.