There’s nothing I enjoy better than covering sports action in the Lowco and beyond. But there’s something special about attending a game not as a reporter, but as a fan. Especially when it’s a playoff game in one of the loudest arenas in sports.
I’ve always been told how few athletic experiences can top the excitement, the intensity, and the adrenaline rush of playoff hockey. Last Friday night, I experienced it for the first time — alongside a legend in the sports journalism industry.
Curry Kirkpatrick was never a diehard ice hockey fan in his younger days. He was most known for his work on the college basketball scene covering the great North Carolina teams of Dean Smith over his remarkable three-decade tenure. He became a renowned name at Sports Illustrated for his captivating coverage of hoops and the professional tennis circuit, including the famous rivalry between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg.
But during his time at ESPN in the 90s and early 2000s, Kirkpatrick began to appreciate the demanding and high-energy game of hockey. It was that sport that gave the state of North Carolina its long-awaited first professional championship. The state had its fair share of collegiate national titles with Duke and North Carolina, but there was nothing like the feeling in the Raleigh-Durham area when the Hurricanes first brought home the Stanley Cup in 2006.
A city that had no business being in the hockey realm grew a fan base that embraced the sport and engineered a lifetime of memories. Some 16 years later, the captain of that championship team is now the head coach and has rekindled that magic. After missing the playoffs for nine straight seasons, the Hurricanes have made the dance for the fourth year in a row with a real shot to capture the Cup again. Witnessing a ‘Canes playoff game was on my bucket list for a number of years, and Kirkpatrick helped me make that happen. It was certainly worth the wait.
From the moment you enter the parking lot, you’ll know that this won’t be any ordinary hockey game. In fact, it would make you think you’re about to watch a big-time college football clash. It was a full-fledged tailgate atmosphere everywhere you looked, with kids playing street hockey and fans chowing down on some delicious barbecue. Then, the Carolina faithful entered the arena ready to bring the noise.
I’ve been to some loud sporting events in my years as a fan, including college football at Death Valley and a basketball game at the Dean Dome. But there was nothing even remotely close to the energy that built up when the Hurricanes took the ice. Carolina Panthers star Christian McCaffrey went to work on the siren, and the arena went absolutely insane. I’m talking over 110 decibels. The stage was set for Game 2 in a second-round series against a New York Rangers team desperate to solve an impenetrable Hurricanes defense. And the home team delivered an absolutely clinical performance.
Kirkpatrick was certainly a hockey fan prior to Friday night, but it was interesting to hear his thought processes when absorbing the game, especially in a sport that was not on his beat throughout his journalistic career. He was enthralled by the play of Carolina’s elite defense that blocked shots and broke up passes all night. It’s no different than basketball — defense all comes down to effort — and head coach Rod Brind’Amour’s team showed it for a full 60 minutes.
Kirkpatrick was also impressed by the leadership of Finnish star forward Sebastian Aho, who showed off his passing prowess to set up the go-ahead goal — and bring the house down. While playing down a man in the second period after a Carolina high-sticking penalty, Aho sizzled a highlight-reel between-the-legs pass to Brendan Smith, who sent the sensational feed into the back of the net. The former New York Ranger scored his first goal of the playoffs against his former team and gave the Hurricanes a lead they would not relinquish.
The crowd’s unrelenting energy and the Canes’ terrific defense in the third completely stymied any New York comeback, and Aho’s empty-net goal with two seconds left sealed my longtime dream of witnessing a home playoff win. Antti Raanta picked up his first career postseason shutout, and the Hurricanes seized a well-deserved 2-0 series lead.
I can’t thank Curry enough for giving me this opportunity. It was a sporting experience unlike any I’ve ever seen before. If you haven’t done so before, find a way to watch a hockey game in person — I promise it won’t take long to get hooked. In fact, you won’t have to go too far to see one — assuming you can’t swing tickets to Monday’s Game 7 in Raleigh with a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals on the line. The Savannah Ghost Pirates will drop the puck for the first time this fall, and the atmosphere should be electric. I can’t wait to catch a game or two at the brand-new EnMarket Arena, and I can’t wait to do it after seeing my team hoist the Cup this summer.