In the fall of 2005, I picked a fortuitous time to take up an avid interest in my local pro hockey franchise. The Canes were ranked near the bottom of the NHL at the outset of the 2005-06 season, and yet I watched nearly every game that was televised and attended several in person. I witnessed each step along the way as the little team from North Carolina skated toward their winningest season since their previous incarnation as the Hartford Whalers. When the Hurricanes ended up in the Stanley Cup finals, suddenly everybody in the Raleigh-Durham metro area caught the hockey fever. Now that our hometown team is the defending champions, team support and game attendance this season are going to be absolutely huge. North Carolina's first professional sports championship has made it cool to be a Caniac. But I can sit back with a smug, condescending sigh and proclaim that unlike these fair-weather fans, I've been a Hurricanes nut all along.

Except I really haven't. As I said, it's really more a matter of good timing than diehard allegiance for the home team. Oddly enough, the history of my involvement with hockey can be directly attributed to technological innovations, rather than a passion for ice skaters slapping pucks around.

Growing up, I never had any interest in sports at all, whether playing or watching. I've always despised football and baseball and still do. As a student at the University of North Carolina, living in a dormitory across the street from the Dean Smith Center, I had no choice but to become a fan of Tar Heel basketball. Honestly, that just inevitably happens, and resisting it is about as futile as spending four years in Switzerland without ever having a taste of chocolate. And my sole other interest in athletics also has its roots in my college years.

Some friends had an old Nintendo NES, and one of the coolest games in their collection was a hockey game called Blades of Steel. I never had a Nintendo, but a year or so after graduating college I bought a Sega Genesis. Looking around for games that might be fun, I remembered Blades of Steel and ended up getting the Electronic Arts hockey game. Although I'd never watched an NHL game in my life, I found myself consumed with the Sega Genesis simulation. Street Fighter II notwithstanding, EA hockey was my favorite Genesis game ever. There was something about the mechanics of the game of hockey that made it an ideal match for video games: the frictionless momentum of the skaters, the puck ricocheting around the rink, the sheer satisfaction of slamming the opposing team's winger on his ass. It was a blast!

Electronic Arts NHLPA '93And in the process of playing this game, I absorbed a lot of information about real-life hockey. I became familiar with the names of all the NHL's top players and learned which teams were good and which teams sucked. Next thing you know, I started watching actual games on TV. I felt an eerie sense of recognition meeting the flesh and blood counterparts of these athletes I'd come to know as pixelated sprites. Based on my game-playing experiences, my favorite teams were the New York Rangers, the Montreal Canadiens, the Detroit Red Wings... for some reason I gravitated towards Original Six teams, even though I had no idea at the time that that's what they were. Of course, the Hartford Whalers held little to no appeal.

In time, I graduated to a Sony PlayStation and far more sophisticated upgrades of EA hockey. Even though these later games were far more realistic and detailed, with dynamic camera angles and lifelike play-by-play announcing, they simply weren't as fun as the primitive old Sega Genesis version. Or Blades of Steel, for that matter. My interest in both hockey and video games were on the wane, as I got distracted by the Internet and these new-fangled DVD movies, among other things. I thought it was cool when the Whalers moved to town and became the Hurricanes in 1997, but even that major development didn't move me to resume following the NHL. I attended some games now and then, but I never really caught the Caniac Fever.

There are several reasons for this. For one, not much of anybody around here was all that jazzed right away about the new hockey team. For their first couple of seasons the Hurricanes played their home games an hour away in Greensboro. Also, back in those early years, the Hurricanes pretty much sucked. It was mostly our area's contingent of relocated Yankees who made up the Canes' modest fan base in those days. Us Southern folk weren't brought up watching this peculiar ice-based activity and had to be taught its arcane rules of blue lines and icing. The label "Redneck Hockey" arose to address the cultural mismatch of an NHL team transplanted to Tobacco Road. Even with the Hurricanes making it to the Stanley Cup finals in 2002, the team seemed condemned to fourth-class status behind the Tar Heels, the Blue Devils and the Wolfpack in the hearts of Triangle sports fans.

So this brings us to the fall of 2004, when I bought my high-definition television. Everything looked awesome in HD, but even a hater of athletic competition like me has to admit that sporting events look extra super awesome. I used to put on an NFL game and gaze upon the action, wishing so bad that I didn't hate football. Just as with the Sega Genesis over a decade earlier, a new high-tech toy got me to recollecting a past fondness for hockey. But guess what? The NHL was on strike. Now that I possessed the technology to see the puck on TV without needing that Fox Sports blue glow, those greedy bastards had decided to take a year off. I had to content myself with catching selected UNC basketball games in glorious high definition. Those were great, but still I hungered for more sports in HD that I could actually enjoy watching.

And after I'd owned my HD set for a year, I saw the promos announcing the return of the NHL. I'd sampled some HD re-broadcasts of games from the NHL's previous season that had got my mouth watering, so I decided it was time to try out hockey again. Oh my goodness, did I get hooked. Hockey in high definition is a beautiful, wonderful thing. It's so much easier to follow the action and get involved in the game that it ever was on crappy old standard TV. I know it's weird to say about a game so notorious for its violent intensity, but I find watching hockey to be deeply relaxing. It's hypnotic, somehow, to get swept up in these teams' relentless efforts to get that puck in the back of the net. I think the main reason why I can enjoy hockey and basketball far more than other sports is the continuous back-and-forth action, so different from the tedious stoppages that help make football and baseball so unbearable. When there's a break in the action in an intense hockey match, you're actually thankful for the respite. Plus, the new rules introduced in the post-strike NHL have greatly refined the game for the benefit of spectators. It's grand entertainment.

I got so into it that I set my DVR to record every NHL game on HDNet and the HD broadcasts of OLN and Fox SportsNet games. Resuming my preferences from the Sega Genesis days, I especially enjoyed following the Rangers and the Red Wings. And though I'm more interested in the Eastern Conference than the less familiar teams out west, I can watch just about any game any enjoy the action regardless of which two teams are on the ice. But of course, there's one team that I care about most of all. My Carolina Hurricanes.

At the outset of the season, I was only interested in watching the handful of Hurricanes games that would be broadcast in HD. But I quickly grew so involved in the exploits of my local team that I started recording all of their games, even the ones in suck-def. I went to a few regular-season games, far more absorbed in the action on the ice than I had ever been at past games. I had become a true Caniac.

And so this gives me a slight sense of superiority over the Johnny-come-lately fans who have fallen in love with the Canes only since they brought home that shiny silver Cup. I can claim a degree more authenticity than these newcomers, but honestly not much. And I'm stepping it up a notch this season. Instead of waiting on free or cheap tickets to periodically drift my way, I have slapped down the big bucks for a 24-game package with sweet third-level seats at dead center ice. I'm going to be making the RBC Center my second home. Even if the Hurricanes can't repeat their successes from last season, which would be almost impossible for any team to manage, I'm damn well looking forward to watching them make their best run at it.

And it's been fascinating for me to observe that, even after winning the Stanley Cup, the Hurricanes still have a hard time getting respect. Just a couple of weeks after they clinched the championship, I went to visit my family in western North Carolina for the Fourth of July. I hadn't found time to buy myself a Hurricanes Stanley Cup T-shirt yet, so I thought I would go shopping for one in the mountains. To my dismay, I found that not one single retail establishment in western NC had any Hurricanes commemorative merchandise for sale. Here I was in a state that had just won its first ever professional sports championship, and it was as if I had journeyed to a faraway land where hockey had never existed. Just recently, I saw a couple of new hockey season preview magazines on the newsstand, and neither one had photos of Carolina Hurricanes players on the cover, or even so much a copy blurb about the Stanley Cup champions. Even now, the Hurricanes remain an underdog team in an underdog sport. Hockey fans elsewhere will continue to call us Caniacs a bunch of undeserving, ignorant rednecks, and Letterman and Conan will continue to make jokes about how hockey is a boring game that no one watches.

And you know what? I kinda like it that way. With my tastes for the offbeat, the obscure and the underappreciated, it only makes sense that the one professional sport that means anything to me is the one consigned to the bottom of the TV ratings and the back of the sports page. That's me all over. Redneck hockey is the greatest game on Earth.


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