EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published in December 2015.
Skip Cunningham had been with the Carolina Hurricanes since their World Hockey Association days, when they were called the New England Whalers and played at the Boston Garden. He was with them when they moved to Hartford, Connecticut, and he was with them when they joined the NHL in the 1979 merger. He was there when the roof of the Hartford Civic Center collapsed, and they had to play their games in Springfield, Massachusetts. And he was there in 1997, when he got the news that the team would head south, to Raleigh — a town that had never even sniffed a major professional sports franchise, much less a hockey team. But the Research Triangle was heaven if you were a college basketball fan, and the prevailing wisdom in the NHL at the time said that college towns could support an NHL franchise. They gave him a weekend to decide if he wanted to keep his job.
Cunningham had lived in New England his entire life. He grew up less than two miles from Fenway Park, and went to school at Northeastern University — or Nath-eastahn, in his strong Boston accent. He knew very little about North Carolina, but jobs in professional sports were scarce, and since his youngest daughter was about to start college and he was divorced from his wife, making the move was a no-brainer. He shelved his sadness and kept his job.
It was no easy transition. Because Raleigh’s new Entertainment & Sports Arena (now PNC Arena) was still under construction, the team played its first two seasons at the Greensboro Coliseum.
“I spent the night before games in Greensboro in a hotel,” Cunningham remembers. “And I lived in a co-op condo in Raleigh. It was like playing 82 road games.”
Cunningham found the people in North Carolina friendly, but he still felt like an outsider — “acceptance takes a little while,” he says, his voice straining with diplomacy. For seven years, he refused to buy a house in Raleigh. His friends teased him, saying he was in denial, and that he still expected the team to move back to Hartford.
Bates Battaglia’s rookie NHL season coincided with the Hurricanes’ first year in Greensboro. If Cunningham oozed Boston from his pores, Battaglia was pure Chicago — right down to his lineage. Sam Battaglia, his grandfather, was an infamous mobster and the son of Italian immigrants who joined Al Capone’s outfit at age 16. By the ’50s, he was a suspect in at least seven murders, and he went to prison in 1967 while on the cusp of becoming Chicago’s top boss. He was released in 1973, and he died that fall, two years before his grandson Bates was born.
Battaglia and his brothers fell hard for hockey. After a successful junior career, Battaglia was drafted in 1994 by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, and traded in ’97 to the Hartford Whalers. By the time he made his NHL debut, the team had moved to North Carolina.
“Chicago’s massive,” he says, “and coming down to Carolina, it’s a lot of trees. It was hard for me to find my bearings in Greensboro, as far as where the downtown was or any sort of restaurant. When my mom first came down to visit, the first thing she said was, ‘Wow, it’s really green down here.’ ”
It was Battaglia’s first trip to the state, and that season, the Hurricanes averaged fewer than 10,000 fans per games — the worst turnout in the NHL. It didn’t bother Battaglia because he was thrilled to be playing professional hockey at all, but some of his older teammates couldn’t believe the atmosphere — or lack thereof.
“I remember we had a game on Halloween,” Bates says, “and when we got to the rink, one of the guys looked up and said, ‘Hey, the fans are dressed up as seats tonight.’ ”
The team finished with the worst record in the Northeast Division; the next season, attendance dropped even more, to about 8,000 fans per game — the worst in the league by more than 3,000.
“Early on, the in-arena experience was very … let’s call it educational,” says Michael Flanagan, who’s been a season-ticket holder since the Canes came to Raleigh.
Flanagan was born in the hills of West Virginia, but moved to North Carolina when he was 12. He went to Johns Hopkins University for two years, and while he was there, a friend took him to a Washington Capitals play-off game. The electric atmosphere of hockey seduced him. Flanagan started going to semiprofessional games when he moved back to Raleigh to attend NC State, and he played the video game NHL ’94. When he heard that the Whalers franchise would be moving to North Carolina, he was working as a retail cell phone agent in north Raleigh — back when a 60-minute plan cost $49.95 and nobody knew what to do with text messaging. He was ecstatic when he heard about the Hurricanes coming to the state.
“That was a big day for me,” Flanagan says. “I bought tickets here and there while they were in Greensboro, and I bought my tickets for section 328 the first day they went on sale.”
His original ticket rep was a man named Brian Tatum, who’s now the team’s assistant GM. Tatum showed Flanagan a slab of concrete at the ESA in Raleigh, told him they would install seats, and pointed out where the bench would be. Flanagan stared out at the concrete-filled hole and tried to envision a hockey game taking place below. All he knew for sure was that in section 328, he’d be sitting on the end where the Hurricanes shot in two of the three periods.
In the meantime, he suffered through the Greensboro experience, picking up $10 tickets outside the arena when he felt like making the 90-minute trip west on I-40. The second year, though, the Hurricanes actually won their division, and though the Boston Bruins quickly ushered them out of the play-offs, the unexpected success gave the team its first hint of real momentum. The next year, they’d finally move to Raleigh.
• • •
Michael Flanagan and his friend Jack Spencer sat together in section 328 that first season in Raleigh, and they’ve been in the same spot ever since. They became friendly with a group of fans who performed improvised comedy at a Raleigh theater called ComedyWorx — with whom they shared a boisterous outlook — and section 328 became the loudest, most raucous part of the arena.
Attendance in the first season was still dismal, but it rose above 12,000 per game, and for the first time, the Hurricanes’ attendance wasn’t the worst in the league — that honor belonged to the Atlanta Thrashers. In those days, Flanagan and his cohorts tried to teach the greenhorn hockey fans how to support the club. They printed up sheets for the new people in their section, and their natural brashness both attracted and repelled — die-hards began to covet section 328 tickets, while some families and those with more delicate dispositions fled, calling them “obnoxious” and “way too loud” — among other, less kind terms.
Section 328 made itself known almost from the start. The first time a penalty was called on an opponent in Raleigh, Flanagan stood up and yelled, “Cheaters never win!” The cry was picked up by his friends, and it became a staple — today, the words go up on the Jumbotron whenever a visiting player heads for the penalty box.
Still, the real passion took time to develop. The first time Flanagan ever felt a true bond between the community and the team was during the 2001 play-offs, when the Hurricanes were bounced in the first round by the New Jersey Devils. At the end of game 6, the fans gave the players a five-minute standing ovation — just like real hockey fans. It still gives Flanagan chills when he remembers, because it was the start of what became one of the best seasons in team history.
In 2002, the Hurricanes racked up the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, and fans actually began coming to the games. More than 15,000 showed up, on average, and Carolina managed to surpass the Boston Bruins — one of the NHL’s storied franchises — in attendance. In the first round, the Hurricanes met the Devils again, but this time, they were ready.
In game 2, in Raleigh, the teams were tied at the end of regulation. Bates Battaglia deflected a shot past Martin Brodeur in sudden death, and gave the Canes a two-game lead.
“It was the best moment of my career,” Battaglia says. “People always talk about how loud the Chicago stadium was, but as far as I could tell, Carolina was as loud as any stadium I’ve ever been in. It was the most fun I ever had playing hockey — there’s no better way to play than when the building’s just complete pandemonium. A big part of that whole thing was the fans being there for us.”
The Canes weren’t done. They went on to beat the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, where they were finally stopped in five games by the Detroit Red Wings. These were dizzying heights for a franchise that had been little more than a joke just three years earlier.
A labor lockout kept the team off the ice until the fall of 2005, but when the 2006 play-offs came around, the Hurricanes secured the No. 2 seed and were ready to make another run. They skated past Montreal and New Jersey again, and topped the Buffalo Sabres to reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in team history.
“It’s so hard to win 16 games in the play-offs. Home has got to be a miserable place for the other team to play, and it was.”
“The fans would actually come to the airport to meet the team when they came back from the road,” Cunningham says. “It’s so hard to win 16 games in the playoffs. Home has got to be a miserable place for the other team to play, and it was.”
Flanagan and his friends saw the tailgates grow in size as May turned to June, and it reminded him of the atmosphere surrounding the area’s biggest college basketball games. The Hurricanes drew the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup Finals that season, and they had home-ice advantage — a big deal, because the series went to a deciding seventh game.
“My best memory is June 19, 2006,” Flanagan says. “I stand and cheer for every goal that’s ever been scored in that arena, and when Justin Williams scored the goal that basically secured the Stanley Cup for the Hurricanes, I just sat there. I couldn’t stand. All I could think was that there were Boston Red Sox fans and Chicago Cubs fans who had been waiting for a championship for 100 years, and I’m sitting here, and my team is about to lift the Stanley Cup on my home ice, and I get to watch.
“The building’s shaking, and everything is happening around me. I knew it might never happen again. I will go to my grave remembering June 19, 2006, because I got to experience the top of the mountain as a fan. Afterward, I went outside, opened a bottle of champagne, and cried.”
• • •
That summer, Cunningham got to keep the Stanley Cup for a day, and he took it to Hartford, and Springfield, and Boston, to honor the fans who had seen their franchise move away. The next season, the Hurricanes averaged more than 17,000 fans per game, and found themselves in the top half of NHL attendance for the first and only time in club history.
Since then, it’s been a slow decline back to the bad old days. The Canes have only made the play-offs once in the nine years since. In 2015, they finished with the worst record in their division as attendance plummeted to the lowest levels since the team’s first year in Raleigh.
“You have to create a buzz in this market,” Flanagan says. “You’ve got to have a play-off run, and there just hasn’t been that the last few years.”
The frustration mounted. At one point during Paul Maurice’s tenure as the team’s head coach, Flanagan and his friends hung a banner reading “Mo Must Go.” The team made him take it down, but he held it in the concourse and refused to throw it away, so they kicked Flanagan out of the building.
Even that couldn’t dissuade him from his hockey obsession. Flanagan proposed to his wife at the Hockey Hall of Fame. He commuted to games from Charlotte when he had to move away from the Triangle for a few years. And he remains a fan to this day. He even sent team GM Jim Rutherford an invitation to his wedding, mostly as a joke. To his surprise, Rutherford showed up, and was one of the last guests on the dance floor as the party raged into the night. Today, Flanagan writes a blog, runs the Section 328 Twitter page, and has his own Hurricanes podcast called “Cheaters Never Win.”
Cunningham finally bought a house in North Carolina, and now feels like a part of the community. He’s actively involved in a local church, and he takes pride in getting his friends and family to participate in his faith.
After being traded, Battaglia came back to North Carolina, bought a house, and started a bar called Lucky B’s just off of Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh. He has a 2-year-old son, also named Bates, who takes up most of his free hours. But he still found time to win the $1 million prize on CBS’s The Amazing Race in 2013 with his brother Anthony, who is now a firefighter in Raleigh. Battaglia still does alumni events and community outreach with the Canes, and a friend convinced him to play in a local men’s hockey league, where he weighs himself down with a heavy vest and rarely shoots — in order to make things slightly more fair.
Today, more than a decade after Battaglia’s last game with the Hurricanes, he finds that strangers recognize him equally for his playing career and his time on a reality show.
“If anyone’s wondering,” he says, “I’d much prefer somebody remembering me from playing hockey than a TV show. Although I didn’t hate the outcome of the show.”
As for the future of the Canes, there are rumblings that the team’s time in North Carolina may be coming to an end.
“I think it’s a huge thing for this town, and it’s brought a lot of people together,” Battaglia says. “It would be a tragedy to see these guys leave.”
Flanagan would probably take it even worse. He knows the team’s owner is looking to sell the team, and he’s afraid that the new buyer may not have local ties to North Carolina.
“They’ve seen what Raleigh can be in hockey when the club was successful,” Flanagan says.
For now, he and the rest of the Canes’ die-hard fans remain firm in their loyalty, and in their belief that the current lull is just that — a brief slump before more glory days and a chance to play for another Stanley Cup.