How the Carolina Hurricanes reinvented hockey in North Carolina, and what's next

James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Smoke from pulled pork and burgers on grills wafted through the parking lots outside PNC Arena. The cars blasted Kanye West and country music. The fans parked some four to five hours before the Carolina Hurricanes dropped the puck for their first playoff game in a decade, and played cornhole, drank beers, and wheeled pigs (yes, real pigs) in wooden wagons.

As center Jordan Staal pulled into his usual parking spot at the arena, he couldn't help but smile.

"I've been waiting a long time for this," Staal said. "It was so cool to see."

Added defenseman Justin Faulk: "We've had a lot of bad years here. It's hard for fans to enjoy the teams that aren't doing well. Except for maybe kids, and the extremely die-hard fans. But if you were here on Monday, it was loud. People were tailgating. It was something to see. That's the way they do sports down here, I guess. And you want to be a part of it, you want to be around it."

The Canes snapped their 10-year playoff drought by finishing fourth in the Metro Division with 99 points. That set up a first-round matchup with the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals. Though Washington won the first two games, the Canes routed the Caps 5-0 in their first home game of the series, which was as much a statement as it was a celebration for a franchise that has reignited excitement in this community.

"We'd all probably be telling a fib if we said we'd be at this point," general manager Don Waddell said. "Certainly we thought we'd be a playoff-bound team. We felt good about the changes we made to the roster. But to end up with 99 points is probably more than we thought. The biggest thing is gaining respect back with the community. That's a big step we've taken this year. We'd always say, 'Next year is going to be the year, next year...'"

But how did "next year" become "this year," and what comes next for a franchise that seems to have arrived ahead of schedule?

The 2018-19 season was the first full season with Tom Dundon as majority owner. Dundon has become noted in professional sports for his short-lived foray trying to save, and then ultimately folding, the upstart Alliance of American Football league -- reportedly losing $70 million along the way. He has had much more success with the Hurricanes, where he is intimately involved with day-to-day operations (Dundon is the type of owner who can be seen around the team locker room after a game, and also in meetings with personnel and business folks). Although the Canes are currently operating at a loss, there are a number of encouraging signs.

Waddell says the Canes are up just over 12 percent in attendance year over year. During the final weeks of the regular season with the Canes making a playoff push, Carolina was up 20 percent year over year. Interest, of course, has spiked during the playoffs. Twenty-four hours before Game 4, the cheapest tickets available on the secondary market were nearly $400 for a pair.

Even more encouraging are the commitments for new business. The Canes are already at $2.5 million for new business with season-ticket sales for next season. Last year at this point, they were at $400,000.

"In a market like this, every year you lose 10-12 percent [of season-ticket holders]," Waddell says. "People move out of market, they can't afford it, they're not happy with the way the team performs."

According to the team, last year at this time, the renewal rate for season tickets was 72 percent. This year, they're currently at 91 percent. The new plans sold year over year has been an increase of 262 percent.

When Waddell arrived in Carolina five years ago, there were 5,000 season-ticket holders. Now there are 7,500. Waddell predicts they could add some 2,000 more for next season.

During the 2018-19 season, the Canes had their four highest game-day merchandise sales in franchise history. That includes Whalers Night in December, Bunch of Jerks Night in February, as well as the last two final home regular-season games.

For the first playoff game, merchandise sales are up over 75 percent compared to the last home playoff game in 2009.

Of course the challenge will be sustaining it -- both on and off the ice. The Canes have seen a surge of interest before, and they let it fade away. The arena was just as packed around the time the team won the Stanley Cup in 2006. "Early in my career, this was a really tough building to play in, really loud," said Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik, a 16-year NHL veteran.

Said Canes center Sebastian Aho: "You heard stories of how great it was. It was definitely different my first two years here, but now I see how great the crowd can be."

The Hurricanes have endeared themselves to the community.

"The fans have responded to a couple of things," Waddell says. "In the beginning of the season, even though we didn't win every game, our fans realized we were giving everything we had every night."

The Hurricanes have 12 new players on the roster and a coach, Rod Brind'Amour, who was not only a fan favorite during his playing career but appealed to current players because of his work ethic and relatability. Brind'Amour is humble, if not yet polished as a coach.

In the preseason, Brind'Amour -- nine years removed from his own playing career -- took the same conditioning test the players did. The 48-year-old sheepishly admitted his marks would have been good enough to pass. The legend of Rod the Bod lives on.

"It's hard for us not to have that work ethic instilled in us when, to be honest, our head coach is probably working harder than we are," Faulk says. "In the gym, watching video, we know he's here all day."

Things really took off when the Hurricanes introduced the Storm Surge -- elaborate postgame celebrations after home wins (see our ranking of all 23 of them here). They were a reason for fans to sit in their seats after the game.

"One of our best marketing tools was something our players came up with," Waddell says. "The Storm Surge was 100 percent a player idea, and folks in the community latched onto it."

And when Hockey Night in Canada announcer Don Cherry criticized the team as a "bunch of jerks," that only made things better.

"That was just another marketing tool that was gifted to us," Waddell says. "We capitalized on it from a financial standpoint, we've had more than 15,000 'Bunch of Jerks' shirts sold, but the dollars don't mean as much as the value of everyone talking about it; not just locally, but nationally."

And that's how the Canes have become one of the best stories of the NHL season.

Just ask one of the 12 new players: backup goalie Curtis McElhinney, an Ontario, Canada, native who played the past two seasons in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.

"Compared to Toronto where I was before, it feels like the polar opposite," he says. "Around town, the biggest thing is people honestly don't know who you are. In Toronto it's a little different. But here, you see bumper stickers and T-shirts and driving around neighborhoods you see hockey nets every now and then.

"And then when people find out you are a hockey player, you find out they have been a fan since [the Canes] have been here, and they're so excited to talk. It's a small-town feel, but it's one that makes you feel welcome. I think everybody loves it, and obviously getting to this point changes everything. "

For Dundon, Waddell, Brind'Amour and everyone else, they're hoping this is just the beginning of something special.