Luke DeCock

Gary Bettman remembers what it was once like here, and is starting to be again

Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton (19) celebrates one of his two goals in Tuesday’s 6-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings.
Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton (19) celebrates one of his two goals in Tuesday’s 6-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings.

The thing people overlook about Gary Bettman, especially the Carolina Hurricanes fans who reflexively booed him when he was shown on the scoreboard Tuesday night, is that he believed in this market when there seemed like there was no reason to believe in it and has been steadfast in that belief for 20 years.

The NHL commissioner is a polarizing figure among hockey people and fans, and there’s more than enough material on the negative side of his ledger to justify that, from the lockouts to the league’s concussion denial to the failure to find a way to remain in the Winter Olympics. But in this zip code, in this area code, on Edwards Mill Road, there’s at least this: his belief that the Hurricanes could work in perhaps the least likely hockey market of all has been unwavering.

So seeing the Hurricanes become relevant again, and not merely through their postgame celebrations but by winning enough that they have to dig pretty deep to come up with new ones, is as rewarding for Bettman as it is a tribute to his patience and faith in the mere idea of the Hurricanes.

“The buzz is palpable,” Bettman said before the Hurricanes’ 6-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday, sitting in a sixth-floor arena conference room that he and his management team, including loyal deputy Bill Daly, had appropriated as a war room from which to run the league during his day-long visit.

“And this has always been a good market. I always think back to the 2006 Stanley Cup final. When has there ever been a major-league event where everybody stood for the entire game? That’s a testament to the passion of the fans here and the excitement this team can generate.”

Bettman, during his first visit to Raleigh this season, saw a traffic-cone mockup of a hockey rink on the field at Carter-Finley Stadium as a preview of a future outdoor hockey game there and offered his perspective on the Canes’ Storm Surge postgame celebrations and the criticism thereof, which could be summed up as: different things work different places and that seems to work here. (Tuesday’s celebration was appropriately meta, with the players throwing T-shirts into the crowd as the “bunch of jerks” insult-turned-motto was projected onto the ice.)

But there was also a sense of it being a bit of a victory tour for the commissioner. The Hurricanes control their destiny for the playoffs, attendances are rising and the ownership transition Bettman helped facilitate, from Peter Karmanos to Tom Dundon – “a ball of energy,” in Bettman’s words – has gone about as smoothly as could be hoped.

After so long in the hockey wildnerness, things are finally looking up around here. What was old is new again. What was quiet is loud again.

“It’s fun to be out there,” said Dougie Hamilton, who was narrowly denied a hat trick late. “Our crowd was really loud. Even when we were up a bunch of goals, they were still cheering, still loud. It’s great to see.”

Anyone who was around for any of the playoff runs in this building – from the Game 4 overtime win in 2001 through the 2009 conference finals, and all the madness between – knows what PNC Arena is like in April, what happens to the market when the Hurricanes get into the postseason, when all the people who didn’t pay attention all winter suddenly become superfans. Even the 2011 All-Star Game became a tribute to the Hurricanes as how things are supposed to work in a non-traditional market.

That was also the last time the Hurricanes were in this position, only to be cruelly denied on the final day on their way to annual irrelevance. Over the past decade, memories of the way this team can take over the Triangle have faded, to the point where there are people who don’t even believe the stories about how it really was. (Are car flags even a thing any more?) Like Hamilton, they’re just now getting a sense of what it might actually be like.

But Bettman remembers. Bettman still believes. Whatever else he’s done wrong, he’s done right by this franchise, which may finally be turning that elusive corner.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.