The NHL regular season ended over the weekend. The Carolina Hurricanes missed the playoffs for the sixth year in a row. What should be a heartbreaking time of the season was met merely by a shrug of my shoulders. Hey, at least they didn’t get my hopes up like the Boston Bruins.

People often ask me how I became a Hurricanes fan, as if they’d never heard of the Hartford Whalers. So many people still wear apparel with the iconic Whalers logo, probably more than when the team still played in the northeast. Struggling attendance, coupled with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s southern expansion strategy, lifted the Whalers from the Connecticut capital and to North Carolina’s in Raleigh. I happened to hitch a ride.

Since they moved to Carolina, the franchise has had more success than they ever did in Hartford. They won the Southeast Division in just their second season and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in their fifth. I still remember watching Game 1 of the 01-02 series on TV. The Detroit Red Wings were a juggernaut opponent. In Joe Louis Arena, in front of a hostile crowd, the upstart Hurricanes took the first game 3-2 in an epic OT battle that shocked anyone with an interest in hockey and a pulse. The Red Wings had ten future Hall-of-Famers on that team. Of course, David rarely vanquishes Goliath and the Canes lost the next four games en route to a 4-1 loss in their first cup appearance.

When your team is meant to be a bottom feeder, it sends waves through front offices when they break the mold. Clearly the owners weren’t content to just exist in their warm little southern enclave. They wanted to win. But the Hurricanes stepped back from the zenith. They had two dismal years in 02-03 and 03-04 before the NHL lockout in 04-05 that cancelled the entire season.

Then came magic. In 2005-06, the Hurricanes won the Southeast Division, the Eastern Conference title and the Stanley Cup. Before the beginning of that finals against the Edmonton Oilers, I realized something I missed for eight years. Hockey fans don’t WANT a team in North Carolina. Guys would always give me shit for being a Canes fan before. It wasn’t unusual and I didn’t take it too seriously. But bring on a clash between a long dormant Canadian superpower and this football country usurper and you’ll see where hockey fans’ loyalties lie. That Cup win was the most satisfying championship I’ve ever supported because it was a big “Fuck You” to everyone who thinks hockey should only exist 40°N latitude or higher.

No team wins a championship every season. The length between them dictates how disappointed we are when they fall short. New York Yankees fans expect heaping loads of World Series titles (though that sentiment may necessarily have to change). Buffalo fans are just happy the NHL and NFL haven’t abandoned their snowy wasteland. Stanley Cups like the Hurricanes’ make the waiting worthwhile. Some teams never win. The deck is stacked against them. I’ve been lucky enough to experience at least one championship in the last decade from every professional team I support.

Sticking with a perennial winner is easy. Sticking with a storied franchise, even if they haven’t won much lately, also so. Trying to support a team clearly designed to round out a full league and boost revenue through market expansion isn’t always. The Carolina Hurricanes aren’t the Montreal Canadiens or the Toronto Maple Leafs. Nor are they the Chicago Blackhawks or New York Rangers. They play in a small market where hockey is as niche as rugby. Expectations aren’t dynastic decades of continual championship chances. It’s that one storybook year where every element conspires to allow your team to break through. Even if they’ve missed the playoffs for the past three seasons and will for the next three, this one is ours.

The Hurricanes have vied for Lord Stanley’s Cup once since the championship run, when they were swept by the Penguins in the 08-09 Eastern Conference finals. It’s the way these things go. In all likelihood, I’ll never see another win. That’s okay. I’ll look forward to a few of those heartbreaking playoff losses in the future. This is the challenge and I embrace it. We’ll always have 2005-06.


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