RALEIGH, N.C. – The Carolina Hurricanes were days away from hosting an NHL Stadium Series outdoor game and Don Waddell was feeling the stress of hoping that everything goes smoothly and the thrill of the opportunity ahead.
It’s the same mix of emotions for NHL organizers, too.
“It’s very exciting because we’re going to expose the game of hockey to a lot of people in the region here that have never been exposed to our game,” said Waddell, Carolina’s president and general manager.
The Hurricanes face the Washington Capitals in Saturday night’s game at Carter-Finley Stadium, home to North Carolina State's college football team and just across the street from their home ice at PNC Arena. The game, delayed two years because of COVID-19 attendance restrictions, is set to draw a sellout crowd of roughly 57,000.
Beyond Saturday, there is additional significance: It marks another season that the league known for its “Original Six” roots in cities like New York, Chicago and Toronto is holding marquee outdoor events in a so-called “nontraditional” market within its southern footprint.
Three years ago was Dallas. Last year was Nashville. Now it’s North Carolina’s capital city grabbing a spotlight for professional hockey in a region long associated with college football.
“This city has embraced us,” said Steve Mayer, the NHL’s chief content officer and event producer. “I think one of the things we’ve noticed being here is just the talk everywhere we go. We’re in a restaurant and the waiter or waitress comes up and they’re talking about the game, an Uber driver talking about the game, at our hotel. The buzz is really out there.”
Sean Henry, president and chief executive of the Nashville Predators, understands that feeling.
The Predators hosted last year’s Stadium Series game at the home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. Nashville had previously hosted the 2016 All-Star game and reached the Stanley Cup Final a year later. And this summer, the Predators will host the NHL draft, 20 years after first hosting the event.
Meanwhile, the NHL brought its All-Star game earlier this month to the Sunrise, home of the Florida Panthers and held one in Tampa in 2018.
“We’re kind of the go-to markets now, which is really nice,” Henry said.
“It allows you to elevate conversations,” he said. “It’s like a stamp of approval … It’s that statement of, everything’s happening in the right way. It’s like winning that blue ribbon, if you will. And you get to talk about it for years and years to come.”
At the minimum, it represents another highlight for the former Hartford Whalers franchise since relocating to North Carolina for the 1997-98 season.
The Hurricanes have hosted two Stanley Cup Final series, winning in 2006. They hosted the 2004 draft and 2011 All-Star Weekend. And after a nine-year playoff drought, they have reached four consecutive postseasons with two division titles under coach and 2006 captain Rod Brind’Amour.
They also have a devoted fan base known for rarely passing up the opportunity to tailgate or create the roaring, festive environments now common at Carolina's home playoff games.
“I think they deserve it,” Brind’Amour said. “We’ve got a great fan base down there. We know about it. I’m there every day with them and they pack the place and they’re loud and they support the team in a small market as well as any in the NHL.”
It also marks one of the handful of outdoor games to be held in a college venue rather than a professional stadium. There was an existing partnership between the Hurricanes and N.C. State considering the Wolfpack's men’s basketball program shares PNC Arena, so athletics director Boo Corrigan said officials there jumped to join schools like Air Force (2020), Notre Dame (2019), Navy (2018), Minnesota (2016) and Michigan (2014) in getting exposure that comes with being an outdoor-game host.
“When it first came up, we were all like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this,’” Corrigan said.
The NHL needed more convincing.
Tom Dundon became majority owner in 2018 near the end of the playoff drought and started pushing to host an outdoor game, but Waddell said league officials were “a little concerned” by the team’s attendance dip at the time.
“The game sold out really quickly,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said at All-Star Weekend. “I was surprised at how quickly — one of the fastest sellouts.”
There are numerous events scheduled around the game, including a pregame fan event with live music as well as a Hurricanes alumni game followed by a club-hockey matchup for rival colleges N.C. State and North Carolina on Monday.
Mayer said the NHL even plans to go “all-in on N.C. State” on Saturday night, referencing the marching band and other elements typical for Wolfpack home games.
The way he sees it, this is all part of one wide-ranging showcase: for the NHL, the Hurricanes, N.C. State and Raleigh.
“People are intoxicated by the fact that we’re here and they love the fact we’re here,” Mayer said. “Let’s play some hockey.”
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno in Washington; and AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee; contributed to this report.
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