How the Carolina Hurricanes grew into the NHL Playoffs’s preeminent home team

Another night in Raleigh, another win for the Carolina Hurricanes — and another chapter in one of the most remarkable subplots of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Hurricanes are now up 3-2 in their series with the Rangers, which, much like their opening round clash with the Boston Bruins, has been mired in one reality: The Canes can’t win anywhere but home.

Across 12 playoff games the Hurricanes are 7-5, with all seven wins coming at home, and all five losses away. Carolina remains the only team left who haven’t won a single playoff game away from home, while also being the only team not to lose at home. Perhaps the most remarkable element to this dichotomy is that home wasn’t always a happy place for this team.

For much of the Hurricanes’ existence, the franchise has been influenced by external forces. Each year they’re forced to vacate PNC Arena to go on an expansive road trip so the North Carolina State Fair can use its parking lot. The team has constantly had to contend with waxing and waning fan interest, propped up by a transplant local community, who largely migrated from other parts of the country to work in the Raleigh-Durham area’s lucrative pharmaceutical or tech sectors. These traditional hockey fans would sooner don an away team’s jersey to see their childhood team than switch to the red and black.

It wasn’t just normal to see so many away fans at a Hurricanes game, it was fated. However, as with all things in sports, winning cures everything. Things began to change after the team’s remarkable Stanley Cup run in 2005-06. The area started taking more pride in their local hockey team. Those 20-something fans who’d wear anything but a Canes jersey to a game — they had kids, and these new locals, now becoming young adults themselves weren’t just hockey fans, they were Hurricanes fans.

With that demographic shift came growth. The team, often mocked for poor attendance and pegged for eventual relocation by fans of legacy franchises, began to see everything change. In 2014-15 the Hurricanes were 29th in the NHL in attendance, attracting just over 12,000 fans a night and filling only 67 percent of their arena. Now, the team is 13th in the league, besting hockey strongholds like Detroit, New York and even Toronto in attendance.

We’ve seen this happen in Nashville and Tampa Bay, but the Canes’ rise to prominence came a little differently: it started by becoming a bunch of jerks. That one line from curtain-clad loudmouth announcer Don Cherry in 2019 changed everything for the Carolina Hurricanes. In one moment he gave the Canes something they lacked in the community for decades prior: an identity.

“I know what I’m talking about. You never do anything like that. They’re still not drawing. They’re a bunch of jerks as far as I’m concerned.”

This came following a discussion of the Canes’ now signature “Storm Surge,” creative post-game celebrations devised to engender goodwill between the players and their local fans. When Cherry called the players jerks, and followed by chiding the lack of attendance — that was all the team needed. Call it defiance, call it southern pride, that might all be a little labored — but the end result was the same: Fans in the area weren’t going to let this fly.

Suddenly the team took on a new tone. On social media the organization embraced being jerks. Their mission wasn’t just to support a hockey team, but challenge convention, tear apart hockey’s “unwritten rules” and forge their own. Fans began to show up in droves, taking on the mantle of jerks themselves.

If you attended a game a decade ago, then this season, the difference was staggering. Carolina jerseys overwhelmed visiting fans. The nosebleed seats were no longer safe-haven for visitors, but full of raucous Canes fans wanting their voices to be heard. The Storm Surge celebrations remain, but the tone is entirely different now — there’s pride that comes from being a jerk, from being a Carolina Hurricanes fan. That’s what’s fueled not just a remarkable season, but a new era.

Now that hometown pride has created a fascinating new problem for this team: They need the fans in Raleigh. At least, that’s how it seems. The reality of whether there’s an emotional effect on the Hurricanes can only be answered by the players themselves, but the dramatic disparity in play is showing that something is happening at home and on the road.

In these playoffs, the Canes have thrived in front of their own fans, feeding off them and rebounding from adversity, but seeming lost away from home ice. The saving grace for this all: The Hurricanes are in a great spot, if this could continue. With the Panthers out of the playoffs Carolina are destined to have home ice advantage all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals — but nobody really thinks this ludicrous home stand can continue, while the ability for the Canes to win on the road seems less certain.

Regardless of what happens for the remainder of this season the real story underpinning it all is that of a franchise who found a purpose. In a lot of way they earned a home, and they did it all by being a bunch of jerks.

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